A love affair with the state

Why last week’s marriage ‘wins’ might not be so progressive after all

The second most-commented-on outcome of the U.S. elections last week was probably the legalization of same-sex marriage in several U.S. states. Successful ballot initiatives added Maine, Maryland, and Washington to the roster of states that recognize marriages between people of the same legal gender. Meanwhile, the French cabinet was also approving a bill that would give same-gender couples rights currently reserved for hetero couples, including marriage and the right to adopt children. The bill now goes to the legislature, where it is likely to be highly contested. For Canadians, of course, this is old hat: same-sex marriages have been recognized by the Canadian state since 2005, a fact which is often trotted out to demonstrate how progressive Canada is.

State recognition of marriages between people of the same legal gender is almost always described by its proponents in terms of progressivism and equality. In fact, the branding has been so effective that in some circles the word “equality” has come to mean same-sex marriage legalization – to the exclusion of any other, more substantive, meaning.

Now, I absolutely think anyone should be able to solemnize their relationship(s) in whatever way they see fit. I was honoured this past weekend to celebrate the love shared by two of my good friends; I am equally proud to belong to a religious community that has on various occasions crafted ceremonies for the celebration of poly families, queer partnerships, and even newfound single-hood. And this is where the rhetoric of equality and inclusion used to justify same-sex marriage campaigns breaks down.

Fundamentally, marriage as an institution is not about equality. It serves, in its legal form, to confer rights on certain kinds of families that are not conferred on others. In this sense, those who advocate for including same-sex partners in the grand old club of legally-condoned serial monogamy are basically saying “sure, we may be gay, but for god’s sake we’re not perverts!” In demanding that sexual orientation be no obstacle to the enjoyment of the government benefits marriage provides, gay marriage activists are breaking from their more marginalized allies in the fight against oppressive gender and sexual norms.

There is no compelling reason for why society should reward monogamous sexual relationships over other relationships between consenting adults, such as other forms of sexual relationships, as well as friendships, mentorships, and the like. The modern institution of marriage has grown out of a system developed to distribute women as property and to legally establish heredity for the purpose of inheritance. It has, I should hope, long outlived its relevance.

Moreover, in order to benefit from marriage – beyond warm fuzzy feelings, at least – one must already hold certain privileges in society. Leaving aside the fact that serial monogamy is not for everyone, same-sex marriage leaves behind the undocumented and trans* folks for whom hospital visitation rights are not even an issue because they are unlikely to even be allowed to access hospital services, to name just one example. The immigration benefits of same-sex marriage only accrue to people who are lucky enough to have met and married someone with citizenship – while queer asylum seekers are turned away because their grievances are not considered threatening enough. If the goal is assimilation for some, same-sex marriage campaigns have been wildly successful. If the goal is, instead, ensuring that people aren’t denied rights they should have, then the strategy must be to break down the barriers that restrict those rights to a few people, not to demand inclusion within that enclosure.

Marriage will have become queer-friendly only when the state is no longer invested in regulating and judging who we’re sleeping with (which is to say, when it no longer exists). Queers and our allies who are truly committed to equality for all families would do better to band with others who are also hurt by exclusive definitions of ‘proper’ family structure: immigrant families, families affected by incarceration and detention, Native families living through colonialist violence, and families targeted for intervention by ‘child welfare’ systems. But I suppose that work won’t make the headlines.

In Through the Looking Glass, Mona Luxion reflects on activism, current events, and looking beyond identity politics. Email Mona at lookingglass@mcgilldaily.com.