In recent years, lots of progressive people have been celebrating marriage — when various states have passed laws recognizing same-sex marriage, when courts have made decisions affirming the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, when politicians have spoken in favor of it. At the same time, many queer activists and scholars have relentlessly critiqued same-sex marriage advocacy. Supporters of marriage sometimes acknowledge those critiques, and respond with something like: While marriage is not for everyone, and won’t solve everything, we still need it.
What’s the deal? Is same-sex marriage advocacy a progressive cause? Is it in line with Left political projects of racial and economic justice, decolonization, and feminist liberation?
Nope. Same-sex marriage advocacy has accomplished an amazing feat–it has made being anti-homophobic synonymous with being pro-marriage. It has drowned out centuries of critical thinking and activism against the racialized, colonial, and patriarchal processes of state regulation of family and gender through marriage. It is to such an understanding of marriage we first turn.
I. What is Marriage?
Civil marriage is a tool of social control used by governments to regulate sexuality and family formation by establishing a favored form and rewarding it (in the U.S., for example, with over one thousand benefits). While marriage is being rewarded, other ways of organizing family, relationships and sexual behavior do not receive these benefits and are stigmatized and criminalized. In short, people are punished or rewarded based on whether or not they marry. The idea that same-sex marriage advocacy is a fight for the “freedom to marry” or “equality” is absurd since the existence of legal marriage is a form of coercive regulation in which achieving or not achieving marital status is linked to accessing vital life resources like health care and paths to legalized immigration. There is nothing freeing nor equalizing about such a system.
In her famous 1984 essay, “Thinking Sex,” Gayle Rubin described how systems that hierarchically rank sexual practices change as part of maintaining their operations of control. Rubin described how sexuality is divided into those practices that are considered normal and natural–what she called the “charmed circle”– and those that are considered bad and abnormal–the “outer limits.”
Practices can and do cross from the outer limits to the charmed circle. Unmarried couples living together, or perhaps homosexuality when it is monogamous and married, can move from being highly stigmatized to being considered acceptable. These shifts, however, do not eliminate the ranking of sexual behaviors; in other words, these shifts do not challenge the existence of a charmed circle and outer limits in the first place. Freedom and equality are not achieved when a practice crosses over to being acceptable. Instead, such shifts strengthen the line between what is considered good, healthy, and normal and what remains bad, unhealthy, stigmatized, and criminalized. The line moves to accommodate a few more people, who society suddenly approves of, correcting the system and keeping it in place. The legal marriage system–along with its corollary criminal punishment system, with its laws against lewd behavior, solicitation, indecency and the like– enforces the line between which sexual practices and behaviors are acceptable and rewarded, and which are contemptible and even punishable.
Societal myths about marriage, which are replicated in same-sex marriage advocacy, tell us that marriage is about love, about care for elders and children, about sharing the good life together–even that it is the cornerstone of a happy personal life and a healthy civilization. Feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial social movements have contested this, identifying marriage as a system that violently enforces sexual and familial norms. From these social movements, we understand marriage as a technology of social control, exploitation, and dispossession wrapped in a satin ribbon of sexist and heteropatriarchal romance mythology.
Marriage is a tool of anti-Black racism.
Since the founding of the US, regulating family formation has been key to anti-Black racism and violence. Denying the family ties of slaves was essential to slavery—ensuring that children would be born enslaved and maintaining Black people as property rather than persons. After emancipation, the government scrambled to control Black people, coercing marriage among newly freed Black people and criminalizing them for adultery as one pathway of recapturing them into the convict lease system. After Brown v. Board of Education, which challenged formal, legal segregation, illegitimacy laws became a favored way to exclude Black children from programs and services. The idea that married families and their children are superior was and remains a key tool of anti-Black racism.
Black families have consistently been portrayed as pathological and criminal in academic research and social policy based on marriage rates, most famously in the Moynihan Report. Anti-poor and anti-Black discourse and policymaking frame poverty as a result of the lack of marriage in Black populations. Clinton’s 1996 dismantling of welfare programs, which disproportionately harmed Black families, was justified by an explicit discourse about poverty resulting from unmarried parenthood. Under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, “Health Marriage Promotion” initiatives have been used to encourage low-income women to marry, including at times through cash incentives. Demonizing, managing and controlling Black people by applying racist and sexist marital family norms to justify both brutal interventions and “benign neglect” has a long history in the US and remains standard fare.
Marriage is a tool of colonialism.
Colonization often casts invasion as rescuing colonized populations from their backward gender and family systems. We can see this from the land we’re writing this on (Washington, D.C. & Washington State) to Afghanistan. Forcing indigenous people to comply with European norms of gender, sexuality and family structure and punishing them for not doing so has been a key tool of US settler colonialism in North America. Marriage has been an important tool of land theft and ethnic cleansing aimed at disappearing indigenous people in many ways. The US encouraged westward settlement by promising male settlers 160 acres to move west, plus an extra 160 if they married and brought a wife. At the same time, the US criminalized traditional indigenous communal living styles, burning longhouses where indigenous people lived communally, eliminating communal landholding methods, and enforcing male individual ownership. Management of gender and family systems was and is essential to displacement and settlement processes. Enforcing gender norms in boarding schools as part of a “civilizing mission,” and removing children from native communities through a variety of programs that persist today are key tools of ethnic cleansing and settlement in the US.
Marriage is a tool of xenophobia and immigration enforcement.
From its origins, US immigration law has put in place mechanisms for regulating those migrants it does allow in, always under threat of deportation, and labeling other migrants “undesirable” to both make them more exploitable by their bosses and easier to purge. Keeping out poor people, people with stigmatized health issues, and people of color have been urgent national priorities. Marriage has been one of the key valves of that control. The Page Act of 1875, for example, sought to keep out Asian women, hoping to prevent Asian laborers in the US from reproducing, but allowed the immigration of Asian merchants’ wives. Marriage continues to be a deeply unjust tool of immigration control in the US, with marital family ties being one of the few pathways to immigration. One impact of this system is that it keeps people stuck in violent and harmful sexual and family relationships because their immigration status depends on it.
Marriage is a tool of gendered social control.
Feminists have long understood marriage as a tool of social control and labor exploitation. This is why feminists have worked to dismantle the mystique around romance, marriage, child rearing and care–exposing these as cultural fantasies that coerce women into unpaid labor and cultivate sexual violence. They have also worked to change laws to make it easier to get out of marriages, and to de-link marital status from essential things people need (like immigration and health care) because those links trap women and children in violent family relationships.
Marriage is about protecting private property and ensuring maldistribution.
Marriage has always been about who is whose property (women, slaves, children) and who gets what property. Inheritance, employee benefits, insurance claims, taxation, wrongful death claims–all of the benefits associated with marriage are benefits that keep wealth in the hands of the wealthy. Those with no property are less likely to marry, and have less to protect using marriage law. Movements for economic justice are about dismantling property systems that keep people poor—not tinkering with them so that people with wealth can use them more effectively to protect their wealth.
Today’s same-sex marriage advocates argue in courts and in the media that marriage is the bedrock of our society, that children need and deserve married parents, and that marriage is the most important relationship people can have. These arguments are the exact opposite of what feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonial movements have been saying for hundreds of years as they sought to dismantle state marriage because of its role in maldistributing life chances and controlling marginalized populations.
II. Common Contemporary Responses to Critiques of Same-Sex Marriage Advocacy:
You don’t have to get married if you don’t want to.
Same-sex marriage has been framed through a paradigm of “choice,” that some of us can do this if we want to, and those that don’t want to should back off and let us plan our weddings already. But such choices take place in a field of limited options already structured by legal and cultural systems. Coercive systems distribute rewards and punishments– marriage punishes those who do not participate in it. Saying that marriage is an individual choice hides this. Marriage is part of a system where the government chooses some relationships, family structures and sexual behaviors as the gold standard and rewards them, while others are stigmatized and/or criminalized. Many people are not and never will be in marriage-like relationships. When proponents counter-argue that those who want to get married should be allowed to do so, the damage that the existence of a marriage system does to everyone who is not deemed acceptable through it is either erased or justified. When we look at marriage only as something individuals can choose to do or not do, we abandon any possibility of meaningful resistance or change. Individualized, aesthetic “challenges” like asking wedding guests to donate to charity in lieu of a gift or having a female “best man” become the only political action imaginable. These types of challenges do not work toward dismantling marriage as a system of rewards and punishments. Ultimately, marriage is about control, not about individuals freely choosing from a menu of options.
But marriage is about love and love is revolutionary!
As described above, marriage is about controlling people and property for the benefit of white people, wealthy people and settlers. It does so under the cover of a consumer-driven mythology about love. US popular culture is permeated by a set of myths about sex and romance that feminists have long worked to analyze and dismantle. We are told that people, but especially women, have empty, useless lives unless they are married. Women are encouraged to feel scarcity about the ability to marry—to feel that they better find the right person and convince him to marry them quickly—or else face an empty life. In this equation, women are valued only for conforming to racist and sexist