Nancy Polikoff

What about the freedom NOT to marry?

Filed By Nancy Polikoff | February 15, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: domestic partner benefits, Freedom to Marry

Freedom to Marry week garnered more attention than usual this year, no doubt a result of all the attention to California's Prop 8 and the litigation challenging it.

Most Freedom to Marry activists say they want same-sex couples to have the choice to marry. When questioned by marriage skeptics, they assure that they don't believe everyone needs to marry; they just want gay people to have the choice, like straight people do.

I have been saying for years that this idea of a choice to marry is illusory. As long as marriage is the only way to garner economic security and emotional peace of mind -- not because it's natural but because our laws and policies make it that way -- marriage isn't a choice, for straight or gay couples.

Take my partner and me, for example. I've got a good job with health insurance, and it covers Cheryl as my domestic partner. Only same-sex couples can cover their domestic partners at my work, a policy that has irked many of my straight colleagues over the years. (Two I know of have married because of the health insurance). But the theory for providing the benefits was this: gay couples can't marry, so the way to be fair to them is to provide benefits for their domestic partners. Since straight couples can marry, they must marry, or no health care for their partners.

The District of Columbia may well allow same-sex couples to marry in the foreseeable future. Maybe my employer won't change its policy, out of deference to Virginia and Maryland employees who won't have the same option. But maybe they will. Or maybe they'll change it for DC residents. Once we can marry, their reason for extending benefits to our domestic partners will disappear.

If that happens, will anyone really believe that I have a choice whether to marry my partner? Let's see. Stand on principle and let her flounder, with her multiple health issues, without any health insurance. Or marry so that she has access to decent health care. We celebrate our 20th anniversary this month. No one can doubt our commitment. I want the freedom not to marry, and I want it for my straight colleagues as well.

But until marriage stops being the dividing line between relationships that count and those that don't, there's no freedom and there's no choice. So don't be fooled by Freedom to Marry supporters who say they are fighting for our choice. it just ain't so

Crossposted from Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage


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Oy, ay, yes. Thank you. I've been suffocating under the "freedom to marry" discourse. I once had a conversation with someone about the fact that the push for marriage as the guarantor of benefits will mean fewer "choices" for others who don't want to marry. And, really, his response was that it didn't matter. After all, went his rationale, people needed to understand the benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

In other words: screw anyone (and not in a good way) who doesn't want to get married; they're just worthless trash anyway. This logic is shockingly cruel, of course, which makes it all the more interesting that it's disguised as the "freedom to love."

Thank you for opening the window and airing out the place a bit. Excellent post.

I don't think we understand the forces that give privilege to marriage nearly well enough. I'm pretty sure that we haven't considered it rationonally for a long time if ever.

I also suspect that the current privileged status of marriage is another extension of the privilege accorded to ancient, probably obsolete and dysfunctional norms.

Thanks for opening that window.

I remember reading when Connecticut passed its laws allowing for Gay Marriage, that LGB state employees who had domestic partners on their medical insurance & benefits were given advance warning that their coverage would be severed in x amount of time, because since now they can marry, they can get benefits the same way everyone else does.

I might have actually read that on *this* site, I can never keep track.

I know that I was pushed into the position of marrying the father of my son at age 20, in order to provide insurance coverage for both of us. It was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. In my present relationship, we're both divorcees who have no intention of remarrying (not even to each other), but we're left in the bind of not gaining any financial or insurance benefits because of it. It's a pretty neanderthal mindset if you ask me - if we can't conform to the nuclear ideal, then we should just piss off.

Everyone should have the right to marry - or not to marry - as they see fit, regardless of their orientation.

Thanks for stating this so clearly. It's frustrating how difficult it is to get people to consider this argument. The only thing I can attribute it to is the power of sentimentality. People seem almost hypnotized by the idea of marriage.

James Donovan | February 16, 2009 9:53 AM

The problem with arguments such as this is that the poster is hungry for the *benefits* of marriage, but wishes to avoid the *responsibilities*. She wants something for nothing. If you want the freedom to be able to ditch your current partner, cost free, in order to pursue new interests -- and that is basically the freedom she hopes to preserve -- that is fine, but don't expect society to have an interest in underwriting that lack of commitment.

Please expand. What are the responsibilities of marriage, other than a long divorce process? I don't see how that responsibility benefits anyone.

Yes, exactly, this is why marriage should not be an economically beneficial state run institution like it is.

I get kind of disturbed whenever I see marriage-equality campaigns cash everything out in terms of love and dedication. Its really disingenuous to say that the only legitimate form of love is marriage. Really what we should be pushing is all the economic benefits and the injustices created by that, while at the same time campaigning to de-institutionalize marriage all together.

Civil Unions for all, Marriage for the religious.

Freedom to Marry is about civil rights as is DADT and ENDA not about "what entitlements can my country do for me?" Since the IRS has attached everything I own due to our tax discrimination protest material safety is no longer of concern to me and seems shallow, as does "Freedom to Marry" websites. Non-profit manipulation for donations. Replace "Freedom to Marry" with the words "civil rights". Think of Loving vs Virginia and President Obama's parents and their right to marry.

To James Donovan: You don't know my work at all. I believe that division of property and other financial consequences of a couple splitting up should not depend on whether they were married. This is the law in Washington state, and I recommend it to all other states. I do not seek rights without responsibilities for anyone. I seek laws that meet their purpose without carving out "special rights" for marriage. There are too many forms of relationships that matter to people's lives.

James Donovan | February 16, 2009 11:49 AM

Setting aside your ad hominem, I have read your work. My comments, however, are directed to this op-ed. If you want to be credited for things you've said elsewhere, you should include those ideas in the piece at hand. My response is a reasonable reaction to what you actually said here, now. The question at issue is not what relationships matter to people, but which society has an interest to support and encourage. Those that allow the economically more powerful member to "walk" while leaving the other without a fair portion, serve no socially useful purpose.

The question at issue is not what relationships matter to people, but which society has an interest to support and encourage

Which happens to be the exact argument used against same-sex marriage.

Well played, James.

James Donovan
Well said. You bring up a good point. My feminist step daughter is wealthy and she doesn't believe in marriage. I suspect it is because of not wanting to share with her boyfriend of 25 years. It's fairly common. Melissa Etheridge isn't legally married. She had the commitment domestic partner ceremony in Malibu several years ago and called it "marriage" but never got the California license that makes it legal under the law. It must be financial and advice from her feminist accountants. If you really love someone why not share ?

DanaRSullivan | February 16, 2009 1:45 PM

I think this brings up some important points about how our legal system is messed up in this regard, but I also think that painting the same-sex marriage movement as the enemy here is misdirected. I'd bet that most people who want same-sex couples to have the marriage option would also support similar benefits for domestic partners, and might put time and energy into supporting that issue if it's not portrayed as being the "anti-marriage" side.

One more thing: I appreciate that you wrote this piece without implying that there's something intrinsically wrong with the actual desire to get married. I'm getting tired of hearing that the only reason to ever get married (besides legal benefits) is because you're a brainwashed elitist/assimilationist/yuppie. Sigh.

I wanted to add a couple of final points:

I too long for a day when there are no special rights afforded to married people. I fight for and dream of universal health care where a person can have the choice not to marry without risking their health.

I agree that calling it "freedom to marry" is disingenuous, although I never thought about it that way before reading your post.

Although I would personally prefer marriage to be left to religious realm where it belongs rather than having the state manage a religious sacrament and withholding rights from people who haven't partaken in that sacrament, I understand the push for LGBT marriage...

But NOT in the same sense as the HRC homotocracy does. The reality is that we live in a country where, as screwed up as it may be, marriage confers a lot of privileges (like the ability to be covered by a spouse's health insurance, inheritance "rights", etc). Queer people who are living in poverty could benefit from being covered by a spouse's health benefits, for example. So while I wholeheartedly agree that the obsessive focus on marriage as THE defining issue of the mainstream gay rights movement is misguided, as a queer person who is from a lower socioeconomic background I understand why queer people from similar backgrounds might think that activism geared towards achieving the so-called "freedom" to marry is the best place to focus their efforts.

Sadly, we live in a nation where center right politicians are derided as Marxists by the right-wing or, as the example of Obamania demonstrates, heralded by the "left" as progressive saviors. We thus have a long way to go before we get things like universal health care, etc.

Of course, we would get there faster if the gay and lesbian aristocrats at HRC et al put their considerable resources behind such issues, but they seem to represent the interests of a demographic for whom bread and butter economic concerns aren't even on the radar. Capitalism and classism certainly apprear to cross the lines of sexuality, race, gender etc with the same predictable results.

So I feel conflicted about the push for gay marriage inasmuch as the secular contract we call "marriage" currently (and unjustly) rewards certain relationships with benefits that should be available to all regardless of relationship status. I agree that fighting for things like universal health care, hate crimes laws (that include trans people for fuck's sake),ENDA (again, there is a "T" in LGBT), housing non-discrimination policies, etc should at the top of the priority list. Secular marriage should be near the bottom (and perhaps, not there at all). At the same time, I know what it is like to be poor, queer and uninsured, and I would literally jump at the chance to be able to get on my partner's health insurance plan. So I am torn. I mean, having the freedom not to marry would be wonderful, but what do we do in the meantime before the revolution some of us are working so hard to incite materializes (if ever)?

Mattilda Bernstein writes that the pursuit of gay marriage is the pursuit of cultural erasure, and I completely get that. I agree. I think she also used the expression "the holy trinity of marriage, adoption, and military service" to describe the classist, heteronormative and assimilationist agenda of the mainstream LG (no T or B there) rights movement. I loved that.

But what do impoverished queers do in the meantime? Clearly we should keep fighting for true equality for all people. But would it be wrong for those of us who are at the lower end of the SES food chain to hustle some health care coverage by marrying in the unlikely event that the HRC's push for the "freedom" to marry pays off at the federal level? Plus, if and when the HRC types eventually get that seat at the adults' table they've been begging for, they will soon thereafter dissolve into suburbia with their 2.5 kids, and the struggle for true equality and freedom will continue as it always has.

Also, I agree with the religious right on one thing: gay marriage may very well destroy the so-called sanctity (more aptly described as "exclusive club") of heterosexual marriage. It might actually lead to the devaluation and the eventual end of marriage as a state-administered religious sacrament by drawing more attention to the utter absurdity of granting rights to people based on how or whether or not they are partnered, and that could be a very good thing indeed. Of course, I've also been known to say things like "EVERYONE should vote Republican instead of Dem because the crumbling of the American empire will be expedited by the Repub's slightly more sociopathic greediness, and that could only be a positive development for indigenous people living in the 'third' world in the long term."

Stereotypical hot-headed Puerto-Rican/Cuban/mutt? Check.


I will admit to being of two minds on this issue and more than a tad comfused (as though such an admission is necessary after my rambling, meandering blabbering just now).

Thanks for giving me a fresh perspective on this issue, though.

I can give you a concrete example of an issue that affects low income people and lends itself to the "beyond marriage" approach. THere is a movement for paid sick leave. It is the lowest income workers who are least likely to have it. If passed, such laws would require employers to give a certain number of days of paid sick leave to all employees. Employees could also use that paid leave to take care of sick family members, and that's where it gets interesting. How will the laws define family members? The proposed FEDERAL legislation has the definition that applies right not to federal government employees. They can use their sick leave to care for anyone with whom they have an association that is the equivalent of a family relationship. In other words, whoever you consider your family in included.

As a movement we should support paid sick leave. AND we should support this broad definition in the law of any state considering this. When I think of who we consider family members in our community, it is a broad definition. I do not want only married couples or registered DPs to be able to use their sick leave in this way. It leaves out too many people. Plus in states with maxi-DOMAs, this is a law that can withstand court review because it is not giving rights to unmarried "couples" but rather is recognizing the range of caring relationships that all people have.

The federal government has had this standard for many years, so no one can say it's never been done or doesn't work.