Alex Blaze

Relationship legitimacy questions of the day

Filed By Alex Blaze | May 29, 2008 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: marriage, Mattilda Berbstein Sycamore, open thread

I've been gone for about a week now because the ol' Acer died somewhere between Paris and St. Etienne last Wednesday (more about my computer problems for the nerds in the audience later today), and there was a great comment discussion going on while I was gone on Mattilda's post about relationship legitimacy.

It got into a lot of the ins and outs of marriage, but I wanted to go back to the original question of what makes a relationship legitimate. I have some responses to some of the comments on that thread since it's dead now (that's after the jump), but here are the three questions of the day:

  1. What makes a relationship legitimate? A sheet of paper? A certain length of time? A promise to remain together? The people involved deciding that it is? Does it have to be sexual?
  2. What's the importance of being "legitimate"? Why does that word matter? What does it mean?
  3. If the rights associated with marriage were opened up to unmarried couples or if the government were no longer involved with marriage, would the concept of legitimacy be important to you, personally?

Mattilda wrote:

It's when there's some couple that's been together for 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years and they're constantly saying, I mean over and over again in the press -- whatever press it is, it's over and over again: finally... it's... legitimate! I mean, really, that kills me, just pulls my heart out and stomps on it with a two-by-four and throws the remnants into the compost; that really really kills me. Finally... it's... legitimate. I mean these people have been together for 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years or I don't care if it's six months or three days or negative seven years, still, this is what they need to feel legitimate?

I can't say I disagree - the implication when I hear that sort of thing is that relationships that don't have the marriage seal-of-approval on them aren't legitimate. Or are less important.

To me, a relationship is "legitimate" when the people involved think that it is, when they feel that there's something there worth protecting. It doesn't matter the legal status of the relationship, how long they've been together, the sex or gender of the participants, the race or ethnicity of the participants, the religions of the participants and those religions' approval or disapproval of the relationship, the amount of money the participants have, or any of the other standards that have been historically used to label certain relationships less important than others.

Eric Georgantes commented:

I'm afraid I don't see a problem. The desire to have your relationship viewed as legitimate by your social peers is a negative now?

Indeed, the issue here lies in exactly what "legitimacy" is. To me (I'm not speaking for Mattilda here, she's perfectly capable of leaving a comment), if that word means legal rights (like being a medical proxy) and economic benefits (like health care), then there's nothing wrong with that.

There also isn't anything wrong with wanting the approval of your peers, but there's no need to claim that married relationships are more legitimate than others to get to that end.

Commenter yoav wrote:

My marriage is not about aping straight people, or assimilating, or needing anybody's approval. It is foremost about the relationship between me and my husband, and secondarily about communicating the depth and commitment of that relationship to our parents, siblings, and friends, and to our son. Wanting my government to recognize my marriage is simply about fairness and honesty.

I agree - whatever the government gives out should be given out with the idea of fairness and honesty, as well as equality, in mind.

But, and here's the big "but," what does it mean when we're asking for "fairness"? Is that "fairness" just wanting what everyone else has access to without considering whether it's desirable, or whether or not there something better out there?

I can see how some might think that same-sex marriage is the easiest way to get access to those rights associated with marriage, even though there are many other solutions (I think our collective creativity could use a jump-start). But it's a mix, really, and we all aren't looking for the same things. Some queer people are just hoping for the material benefits, I'm sure. And I'm just as sure that some people have no real use for those benefits but just want that sheet of paper and to feel normal. Most people who want same-sex marriage are probably somewhere in the middle.

There's a quaint old Argentine saying: "Mierda veo, mierda quiero." Roughly translated, it means, "I see shit, so I want shit." It's what my mother used to tell me when I whined about my brother or sister having something but not me.

That's what I'm hoping this movement is not about.

There's nothing wrong with wanting same-sex marriage in my book, as long as we know why it is we want it and are sure that it's the best means to get to that end.

Serena Freewomyn wrote:

I don't believe in marriage, but I do believe in choice. I think that families are created by choice and have nothing to do with marriage. I have no way to say what the universe will send my way. I could be wholly committed to someone and love them unconditionally. But does that mean that it is impossible for me to love someone else at the same time? Does it mean that I own my partner and they shouldn't be free to love whomever they choose? I want to love someone in their freedom, not in a state of confinement. And if I am so lucky to have more love in my life, then I'm am grateful for whatever the universe has in store for me.

I also think that chosen families need to be recognized as being just as "legitimate" as birth families, or families that are arranged via the institution of marriage. I love my chosen mothers and they love me. I also love my petit ami with my entire soul. But if one of them were to get sick, my right to stay with them in the hospital isn't going to be recognized because we aren't "family."

Absolutely. There are always going to be important relationships that don't get the benefits associated with marriage that should. Like with hospital visitation - close friends, unmarried boyfriends and girlfriends, godparents and godchildren, distant relations, same-sex partners in states that don't recognize those relationships, and children who haven't been formally adopted are all in the realm of people a patient might want to have around her when she's in the hospital. These relationships may or may not be sexual, formal, or biological, but that doesn't make them any less legitimate to the participants.

yoav, in a later comment, provided useful definitions:

Per the American Heritage dictionary, one definition is "authentic; genuine." Obviously, many relationships not recognized by any government meet this definition, and many legally-recognized relationships do not meet this definition. Changes in the law will have no effect on the legitimacy of my marriage by this definition.

Another definition is "being in compliance with law." By this definition the legitimacy of my marriage is connected to what the law says.

A third definition is "being in accordance with established or accepted patterns and standards." The desire for this type of legitimacy seems to be what Mattilda is railing against. Legalizing marriage for everyone will not automatically make my relationship meet this definition in the eyes of most people. Over time, however, and despite the efforts of many, committed relationships will be considered legitimate by this definition as well.

Point well taken. When a same-sex couple that's been together forever and ever says, "It's finally legitimate!" after getting married in Canada or South Africa or Massachusetts, which one do they mean?

Tobi responded:

As for the definitions, I think that's part of what makes this so painful -- each of those meanings are being communicated simultaneously and conflated. Suddenly, being "authentic; genuine" is reliant upon "being in compliance with the law."

Think about it, the proclamation of "legitimacy" is not just about being in compliance with the law -- who would care? It's about the sense of authenticity that comes with legal recognition. I really want to expand marriage rights, but it's important to me to base that expansion within the claim that the government ought not have the authority to dictate who's family is deserving of rights and who's isn't.

I can't add anything to that.

Kevin Erickson wrote:

The rhetoric of unlimited options being preferable to what Mattilda describes as the limited options of marriage mirrors free-market rhetoric about the superiority of a free market capitalist economic order because of the "options" and "choices" such a system makes available to consumers. Indeed, this is one reason why marriage, as a public declaration of fidelity, is so radical: it is at its core anti-capitalist.

I don't know if I would say that marriage is anti-capitalist, or capitalist for that matter. It's a contract that different people associate with different things.

After watching Bridezillas, after seeing the way politicians parade their "perfect" marriages around to advance their careers, after seeing people still, in 2008, using their marriages to access someone else's wealth or connections, and after considering how many tax laws associated with marriage are often used as tools to keep wealth in certain dynasties, it's obvious that many people use marriage to participate in capitalism.

And marriage also predates capitalism, and capitalism predates the sexual revolution, so this logic seems counter-intuitive.

Where I do agree with Kevin is that associating relationship legitimacy with a state contract reduces options and choice. I also agree that options and choice should not just be assumed to be good (e.g. should paper mills have the "freedom of choice" to dump chemicals in rivers?).

Even so, Serena sums up my thoughts on the whole topic pretty well:

But If you're old enough to vote, die in the military, or buy a lotto ticket, you should be able to make the decision about who you want in your life for yourself. Fuck this state-sanctioned bullshit.

Adults shouldn't have to marry someone to have the option of having them by their side in the hospital. There's nothing wrong with creatively opening that choice up by reconsidering which relationships the state will recognize as legitimate. And that means questioning the idea of legitimacy in the first place.

OK, I'm done for a little while here. What do you all think?


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I've been in the same boat, hisberi, as your husband. But, jeez, I never jacked off when the other person was right there in the bed without asking. That's just disrespect.

But sometimes you've just got to release a little pressure and you don't want to have sex. It's no big deal.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 29, 2008 10:15 PM

My mother's quaint expression was: "If it's free you can have it!"

I have friends who have been married everywhere they could marry and I feel really happy for them. They have even mailed us pictures, but they have not registered at Macy's. Next October I round out 32 years living day by day. It works for me and it would never occur to me to seek a church's or state's endorsement of my life.

The original point of view, post stonewall, of many gays was that marriage was a sham we should not seek to emulate. Most of us did not have to look far to find a parent or order person who complained about their wife or husband. That is just not living.

But in those days Gay men were not coupling and adopting children. Lesbian moms were there from the beginning (at the bottom of the financial scale)and they were happy to consider their children being a part of a larger family.

This worked fine until the former husband or boyfriend sued for custody of the child on the grounds that it was being raised by queers. As we, (all of us, trans inclusive!) obtain more "mierda" to take care of we gravitate toward more formalities. As we develop the ability to buy property as a couple, raise kids if we choose to, etc. I am not suggesting marriage is the complete answer. Love is, and maybe a joint incorporation with as many members as you wish to include in your "legal" family. If you don't want marriage, but you want the advantages see a queer lawyer. Thanks for your posting Alex.

According to a 2003 U.S. Census Bureau report on families and living arrangements, 4.6 million U.S. households were occupied by unmarried couples of the opposite sex. That's up from 2.9 million in 1996.
http://www.cnn.com/2007/LIVING/personal/09/19/unmarried.couples/index.html

As Alex suggested, perhaps the legal rights which have traditionally come with marriage can be extended to unmarried couples. If so, maybe we could expect support from the growing number of straight couples which aren't marrying.

After reading through this and skimming the rest of the comments at Mattilda's post, no one seems to have hit on one very basic aspect of the whole legitimacy question: "married" is a status that helps define your relationship to the group. That's really what the legitimacy question is about, I think: marriage marks a change in status, and no other condition -- civil unions or domestic partnerships -- has that immediate recognition factor. In our society, that is tied up with legal aspects -- it is a contract, after all -- that seem to obscure that essential element of social context.

That, I think, is what the "it's finally legitimate" thing is about: social validation, the immediate recognition of a particular status in relation to the group. Now, stalwarts such as Mattilda may not need that, or may even willingly reject it, but most of us are social animals and are happy to have our status in our group automatically defined without having to make explanations. And I have a feeling that aspect of it far predates any contractual, legal, or religious aspects.

I also suspect it's not carved in stone. If I'm reading the situation in Europe correctly, marriage no longer has all of that particular cachet, and that may come to be the case here as well.