A Progressive Agenda for Married Queers

Can marriage be queered from the inside? 

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Since the Supreme Court constitutionalized a right to marriage for same-sex couples last Friday, most social critics have cautioned that there remain many more items on the gay rights to-do list: enacting antidiscrimination laws, addressing transphobia and the high incidence of homelessness among LGBTQ teens, allaying the disproportionate number of LGBTQ people in immigrant detention, ending homophobic bullying and violence in the schools, and remedying the over-criminalization of people of color in the LGBTQ community. The list, as you can see, is long.

But as we redirect our energies and resources to those causes, it’s also important to recognize that marriage itself remains a space worthy of ongoing critical attention. Once the gay pride dust has settled, we should expect to see “nose-holding” pragmatists marry to protect their legal and economic interests even as they remain ambivalent about the institution—and in that, we have an opportunity to put progressive politics to work from the inside of marriage.

Most of my friends and colleagues find themselves in this situation. It’s not that they’ve given up their critiques of marriage and support of non-marital forms of family; it’s just that their lawyers or financial advisers convinced them that it was foolish not to avail themselves of the material advantages of marriage now that they are available. Or maybe their employers told them they had to marry or else their partners would be kicked off the health plan.

Without minimizing the importance of these reasons to marry, I find that too often the promises these folks make are just empty words that soothe a guilty conscience. To them and all the progressive-minded couples out there, I issue a challenge: Even more than those of us who aren’t marrying, you need to make real your promise of progressive engagement with marriage from its inside. It will not only assuage your guilt; it will also make those who aren’t marrying less resentful, and most important, you will make a real difference.

To that end, here are eight fundamentally important things you can do, a Progressive Call to Action for Married Queers:

1. Resist the repeal of domestic partner benefits programs (for both same and different-sex couples) at the same time that you support marriage rights.

2. Refuse to give your support to marriage equality when it entails the surrender of other rights in the name of religion. Many statutes granting marriage rights to same-sex couples include gaping religious exemption clauses that create a new kind of license to discriminate against same-sex couples. Some advocates lobbying for marriage equality have seen this bargain as worth making. New York’s 2011 Marriage Equality Act and Utah’s 2015 Antidiscrimination and Religious Freedom law prohibiting sexual orientation–based discrimination in employment and housing contained truck-size religious exemptions. Resist the seductions of this bargain. The more we accede to the legitimacy of religion-based exemptions to civil rights laws, the more acceptable and common they will be—not only as a tactic to undermine the right of same-sex couples to marry, but as a means to attack reproductive rights and racial equality laws as well.

3. So many same-sex couples who have been together for many years stop at their lawyer’s office to sign a pre-nup before heading to City Hall for a marriage license.  When you ask your lawyer to draft a prenuptial agreement that exempts your relationship from all of the default rules of marriage, you may be undermining a set of rules that feminists worked long and hard to build into the law of marriage to protect the less privileged member of the couple—in straight relationships, the wife. Consider first why those rules exist and how the enforcement of your marriage contract may have negative spillover effects for others—particularly women—who may not enjoy equal bargaining power when entering a marriage. 

4. Cease making arguments in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples that (i) turn on the dignity that marriage confers to qualifying couples, (ii) turn on the benefits to children of having two parents who are married, and (iii) advertently or inadvertently make it easier to disparage non-marital and non-reproductive sexual activity. While it may be tempting to defend the cause of marriage equality this way, these positions accrue credibility for the cause largely by reinforcing the stigma suffered by other people whose identities and behaviors don’t look marital in form.

5. Pledge to think about how strategies to fight homophobia might be linked to other causes, such as anti-racist organizing or defending reproductive rights. That harder thinking ought to include a sensitivity to the same-sex marriage movement’s reputation as being “for white gay people” (whether or not this is true, white lesbian and gay people are usually the ones the media covers), and how some arguments made in furtherance of marriage equality may have amplified the ways in which marriage has not been a liberating experience for many people of color. Similarly, that hard thinking must include a sensitivity to the intersection of interests between the gay rights movement and the reproductive rights and racial justice movements.

6. Resist making arguments in support of marriage rights that rest on a negative judgment toward paying taxes. While it is unfair for same-sex couples to be taxed differently and more highly than different-sex couples (particularly when it comes to estate taxes), a progressive agenda should embrace the payment of taxes and estate taxes in particular. Too often the arguments made in favor of marriage equality echo a kind of Tea Party cynicism toward paying taxes. Commit to a progressive queer critique of the state and of the private accumulation of property and wealth by abandoning and repudiating any anti-tax ethos haunting some corners of the same-sex marriage movement.

7. Calculate the tax benefits you receive from being married, including estate taxes, and rather than pocketing it, give the money away to a worthy cause.

8. Think about what it means to gain an economic advantage through marriage, passing money tax-free to “preferred relatives” such as spouses rather than to the broader kin networks so prevalent in the lesbian and gay community. Find other, creative ways to support the needs of our extended kin/family even if the state does not recognize them as “family,” and there is no tax benefit for doing so.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of same-sex marriage at the Supreme Court

Want to hang out with Outward? If you’ll be in or near New York City on Monday, July 13, join June Thomas, J. Bryan Lowder, and Mark Joseph Stern—and special guests Ted Allen, of Queer Eye and Chopped fame, and marriage-equality campaigner extraordinaire Evan Wolfsonfor a queer kiki at an Outward LIVE show, hosted by City Winery. Details and tickets can be found here.