Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

November 21, 2005  



Gay activists questioning marriage as ultimate goal

by Thomas F. Coleman

When the push to legalize gay marriage was criticized during a national conference two weeks ago, half of those in the room jumped to their feet in applause while the other half sat there stunned.

No, this was not a meeting of Christian fundamentalists or a caucus of conservative Republicans.  It was the "Creating Change" Conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force held in Oakland, California.

The way the media has played up the gay marriage debate, most Americans have assumed that all gays and lesbians are marching in lock-step behind the banner promoting same-sex marriage.  As is usually the case with such broad political assumptions, the truth is much more complicated.

There has been an undercurrent of dissent within the gay rights movement for years over the prominence that same-sex marriage should play on the movement's agenda.  Some feel it is the defining civil rights issue of our time, while others believe that it is a distraction from the larger issues of individual rights and economic justice for everyone regardless of marital status. 

The Bay Area Reporter, a gay publication in the San Francisco Area, reported details of the rift which occurred at the Creating Change Conference. 

Joseph DeFilippis, executive director of New York's Queers for Economic Justice, witnessed the dissention and audience reaction first hand.  According to DeFilippis, the stark division of opinion about the priority of same-sex gay marriage on the gay rights agenda occurred on November 12 at an assembly of hundreds of political activists. 

John D'Emilio, former director of the Task Force's Policy Institute and current professor at the University of Illinois was said to have harshly criticized gay marriage proponents for what he characterized as misplaced priorities and a hijacking of the movement. Following D'Emilio's remarks, apparently half the room burst into uproarious applause. The other half of the crowd sat confused, not knowing how to react to such political blasphemy.

"There were all these major marriage activists, and all these people who were really sick of it," DeFilippis told the B.A.R. "Some people were sick of it because they felt it diverted energy and funds from other issues."

The gay marriage dissenters believe that making the legalization of same-sex marriage the ultimate goal of the gay and lesbian rights movement will leave too many people on the sidelines, without legal benefits and protections because they can not marry or do not want to marry.  They feel that health care and economic security should not be tied to marriage, and that doing so leaves behind a host of other relationships which are not romantic in nature, such as platonic friends or blood relatives.

Others besides DeFilippis and D'Emilio believe that legalizing same-sex marriage is not the cure-all to end inequality.  Consider, for example, the views of Nancy Polikoff, a professor at American University Washington College of Law.

Professor Polikoff argues that ending all marital status discrimination is a better goal than simply working to legalize same-sex marriage. 

In a column she wrote for the Washington Blade, another major gay publication, Polikoff observed that "a legal system that gives benefits to married couples but withholds those benefits from other types of relationships that help people flourish and fulfill critical social functions harms many people, both straight and gay."

Many same-sex couples who file lawsuits are seeking legal marriage recognition as a way to gain access to health insurance, health care decision-making, social security and tax consequences.

"But marriage is the wrong dividing line for these benefits," Polikoff argues.  "A young man caring for the woman who raised him should be able to cover her on his health insurance; two older sisters who pool their economic resources should not fear that the death of one will require the other to sell their home to pay estate taxes."

There are many important and valuable relationships in society that are not premised on a sexual relationship.  Shouldn't they deserve recognition, protection, and benefits too?

Polikoff cites recent developments in Canada as proof that the legalization of same-sex marriage does not and should not end the push for equality for those who don't fit the romantic and sexual dimensions of a marriage. 

A 2001 report from the Law Commission of Canada, “Beyond Conjugality: Recognizing & Supporting Close Personal Adult Relationships,” recommends major revisions in Canadian law to equally honor and support all caring and interdependent relationships. The fact that a government commission would proposal major changes in arenas as diverse as immigration, pensions, taxes, and government benefits demonstrates growing support to topple the legal pedestal upon which marriage sits.

The philosophy and recommendations of the Canadian Commission have implications for the United States as well.  Instead of gay rights versus family values, or couples rights versus individual rights, it's time to develop a rationale for public policy reform at the federal and state levels of government which recognizes and respects family diversity.

There are now 87 million unmarried Americans, including 27 million adults who live alone, and 60 million who live with roommates, partners, or unmarried relatives.  With half of American  households now headed by unmarried adults, and with average Americans spending half of our adult lives unmarried, it is no longer fair for society to force people to marry in order to gain equal rights.

Given this reality, political reformers would better serve the American public by adopting multiple and overlapping approaches to gain equal rights for individuals, couples, and families, regardless of their sexual orientation, marital status, or household structure. 

It's time that we all acknowledge what those who stood in applause at the Oakland conference seemed to instinctively know.  There are many paths to creating change.

© Unmarried America 2005

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.