Paige Schilt

Sociologist Judith Stacey: Get Rid of Marital Privilege

Filed By Paige Schilt | March 25, 2014 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: family values, Judith Stacey, marital status, Mark Regnerus, marriage equality, monogamy, polygamy, same-sex parents, sociology

Sociologist Judith Stacey is the author of Unhitched: Love, Marriage and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China and co-author (with Timothy Biblarz) of "(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?" She'll be delivering the keynote address at the Contemporary Couples conference in May, and she kindly agreed to talk with me about family diversity, social science research, and why more marriage won't solve social inequality.

Paige Schilt: Over the past few weeks, same-sex parenting has been in headlines because of the federal trial over Michigan's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Have you been involved in writing or signing briefs for this or other recent court cases?

judithstacey.pngJudith Stacey: I testified originally in the Halpern v. Canada case. I was drawn into that because the Ontario attorney general had hired an expert witness, Steven Nock, who drew on "(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?" in support of the province's opposition to same-sex marriage. He had quoted us, because that article was used on all sides of every issue related to same-sex marriage and parenting. You could cherry-pick sentences out of the article to support what you wanted. So Nock opened the door for us to respond, with an affidavit, and then I testified about the research on gay and lesbian parenting in relationship to the issues in the case. Our research and the affidavit were taken up by a whole bunch of other cases, so from time to time in subsequent marriage and parenting cases I was asked to submit something or sign onto briefs.

(Interview continues after the break.)

PS: I appreciate your work because it acknowledges that there are some differences between children raised in lesbigay parent families and hetero parent families--and that's not necessarily a bad thing. As a queer feminist parent, I certainly hope that my values will create different outcomes!

JS: One of the reasons that I undertook the original study and recruited Tim to work with me on "(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter," was that I was hearing endlessly no differences, no differences, no differences in children raised by gay and lesbian parents, and that just didn't seem plausible to me as a sociologist. Almost every significant social difference makes for some differences in social experience and behaviors. Difference doesn't imply disadvantage; it could be an advantage, or it could be a neutral difference, or whatever, but it didn't make sense to me that there would be no differences at all between children of gay parents compared with straight parents.

And not only did it not make sense, I worried that if the claim that there were no differences were the basis for making an argument for rights, what if you were wrong? It is like the reasoning in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision about interracial marriage. The court actually addressed the issue of difference and even disadvantages for children of such marriages. It was absolutely true in that period and probably still in most parts of the country, that children with different race parents are going to face a tougher time, but is that a reason to prevent people from marrying? The court said no. It argued that you don't want to give intolerance legitimacy by reinforcing it. In other words, if the reason the children will have a harder time is because of discrimination, you should not reinforce the discrimination. So that "no differences" should not be the basis for a claim for rights. The point is not that we are no different, and therefore we should have rights. An excluded group can argue that we are no less human, ok, but not that we are identical to the dominant group.

PS: Are you surprised that the Michigan state attorney created a public occasion to debate the merits of research by Mark Regnerus and other opponents of same-sex parent families?

JS: Actually, I have said many, many times that it is really ridiculous and illogical that the research on gay and lesbian parenting is considered to be relevant to the question of same-sex marriage rights. There is really no logical relationship between the two. I mean, if you deny the right to marry to same-sex couples, does that mean that more children are going to have heterosexual married couples as parents?

It's all about the symbolic and ideological investments in marriage, an investment in privilege and exclusion, and who can belong to the club. But the fact is, if anything, prohibiting same-sex marriage could have the opposite effect. In other words, to the extent that you try to suppress same-sex marriage, do you want to have gay men marrying heterosexual women and then divorcing or having sex on the side? I mean, what is the goal? How would that lead to more children living with their married heterosexual parents?

If it were up to me, I would get rid of marital privilege. People could marry, but I would provide social support for all kinds of families and provide citizenship rights rather than couple rights. I certainly wouldn't give better healthcare and benefits to couples over single people or anything of the sort.

PS: Does that feel kind of schizophrenic to be asked to write briefs in support of same-sex marriage while at the same time being very critical of marital privilege?

JS: Absolutely! In fact I wrote a bit about that some years ago in an article titled "Marital Suitors Court Social Science Spin-sters: The Unwittingly Conservative Effects of Public Sociology." I wrote about exactly that irony and paradox of how I was being drawn into these cases on the side of marriage when that was a politics that I really didn't like and didn't want to support in that way. However, you have to weigh in on the issues as they are framed, but whenever I testified or wrote about same-sex marriage or parenting, I never celebrated marriage. I only would weigh in on the issues related to parenting and equality and things like that. I did take exception to some of the really romanticized, sometimes Hallmark things that some of the same-sex marriage advocates were writing about why marriage was better for children and all of that.

Yes it's true, any time you assign privilege to a group of people, they have an advantage. I mean that's a tautology, right? But there is a lack of thought there about what the effects of marital privilege are. In a society in which more than half of kids are not being raised in married-couple families, then what are you saying? In the "Marital Suitors" article I wrote also about the kind of stances you are forced to take when you operate in the realm of public sociology given the way the questions are framed, whether in court or by the media or whatever. It is all about the representation or the "spinning" of the social sciences, not about social science itself, and that is clearly what the Regnerus story is all about.

PS: You're the keynote speaker for the upcoming Contemporary Couples conference, yet your most recent book, Unhitched, resists the conclusion that the monogamous couple is a natural or superior way of organizing intimacy. You studied all kinds of family constellations--from single gay dads in L.A. to traditional polygamy in South Africa. You even study one community, the Mosuo of Western China, where sex and domesticity are completely separate. What do you think people who attend the conference can learn from the families you studied? Is there a lesson to be learned even for those who are (or hope to be) coupled?

JS: Among the things we can learn or that I think I learned is that there is no one best way for everyone to create intimacy, families, or parenting. People really are different, cultures are different and economic circumstances are different so that there is no one family structure or way of organizing sexuality and domesticity that's better for every single person, or is remotely available to every single person. That's why we should get rid of the idea of the ideal family structure and do what we can to make all of the ways in which people live more viable and better for as many more people as we can. That means a lot of different things, but one of the things it would mean is not distributing resources or rights based on marriage.

I am not a policy wonk, but I certainly believe in a single-payer health system. I think everyone should have the right to healthcare, and it should have absolutely nothing to do with your relationship status. I think all children should have access to not just healthcare but all kinds of benefits, and that again, it shouldn't be based on their parents' marital status.

I don't think it is an accident that the same-sex marriage campaign has been overwhelmingly a white middle-class campaign. I think it has been until relatively recently extraordinarily insensitive to the historic inequalities of marriage by race and class. You know, it's not going to give poor kids of gay and lesbian parents a great deal of advantage to win legal same-sex marriage. Sure, in a few cases it will be an advantage, but the fact is that much more important is access to food and safe schools and decent jobs for parents and workplace protection and all of those things. In other words, there has been a kind of class blindness on the part of the same-sex marriage movement.

PS: You said "until recently." Are you feeling hopeful?

JS: Well, no, not really. I do feel there has been an attempt to show images that are multicultural, but I don't think that addresses the issue very well. A single issue movement has a hard time dealing with class inequality. Although I understand it, I really do think it is unfortunate that same-sex marriage became the kind of signature issue of the LGBT movement that it did, because it really is not an issue that can possibly address class inequality. One of the things that I wrote in Unhitched that I do think is worth thinking about a lot is a paradox of the same-sex marriage goal. Achieving it will not increase social equality. In fact, it probably will contribute to slightly more social inequality because of marital privilege. Disproportionately the same-sex couples who will enter and achieve stable marriages are going to be white, middle-class people. Sadly, this will add to class and race inequality.

PS: Thanks for taking time to speak with me. I'm really looking forward to hearing your talk and the discussion it will generate.


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