Friday, February 12, 2010

Freedom to Marry Week 2010

I just learned that it's Freedom to Marry week. The Freedom to Marry organization is Evan Wolfson's brainchild. Wolfson wrote Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry. (Guess what that's about? Go on, guess!) I admit that I never got all the way through Wolfson's book, because Wendy Brown's States of Injury had an influence on me in graduate school. If I remember correctly (and my memory is always in question, plus I may not have finished that book either... I prefer a scattershot reading practice), Brown asks us to consider whether appealing to the state is the best way to change things--whether appealing for equal rights will truly effect equality? She criticizes the liberal emphasis on granting rights through laws: when rights are granted, the state is empowered to protect rights and citizens are disempowered through a greater dependency on the state. Wolfson and his organization approach the same-sex marriage issue from the "equal rights" perspective, arguing that the way marriage is currently legislated, it excludes "gays" from full citizenship. (For the record, I take umbrage with Wolfson's insistent use of the term "gay." Same-sex is both alliterative and less exclusive sounding.) Like Brown, and unlike Wolfson, then, I'm not so sure arguing in favor of granting same-sex couples equal rights in marriage is going to make the institution any more just or accessible.

I am sympathetic to Wolfson et al.'s work toward achieving the "right to marry," but I am concerned about those individuals who do not or cannot marry (this is not a question of choosing not to marry--if one believes as I do that individual choice is so already circumscribed as to have a mythic quality). Marriage remains a privileged status: when someone says "my husband" or "my wife," that someone receives different treatment, typically more respect, than if someone admits to being unmarried or divorced. That privilege--as much economic as social--is enshrined in law. Marriage law creates a caste system. I'm currently of pariah status (if anyone was wondering).

I have been reading and re-reading (OK, memorizing) Mary Shanley's Just Marriage, a thrilling example of how difficult dialogues transform people. I'm not sure why Shanley gets the main byline; the book is co-authored by some of the coolest minds re-imagining (or dismantling) marriage today: Nancy Cott, Amitai Etzioni, Martha Fineman, Wendy Brown, Drucilla Cornell, and I could go on. Shanley starts off with an essay in which she argues that civil marriage should be re-fashioned to be a more just and accessible institution. Marriage, she claims, should be retained because it has civic value. Marriage is a "special bond deserving of public status"; a married couple is "something more than its separate members" (6). She initially rejects the contractualist position (which favors abolishing marriage as a legal status in favor of an alternative like civil unions-for-all, or state-sanctioned care-giver relationships--c.f. Martha Fineman's position in The Autonomy Myth). Shanley writes:
Despite [its] dismal history, the notion that marriage creates an entity that is not reducible to the individual spouses captures a truth about significant human relationships and could be used to reshape social and economic institutions in desirable ways. This understanding of the marriage relationship could be used in the future not to subordinate women but to press for marriage partners' rights to social and economic supports that sustain family relationships and enable spouses to provide care for one another...
Marriage as a status suggests, as the contract model does not, the role of committed relationships in shaping the self. The promise to love someone else, in a marriage or in a friendship or in a community, binds a person to act in ways that will fulfill that obligation. A contract also does not express the notion of unconditional commitment, either to the other person or to the relationship. Contract in lieu of marriage rests upon a notion of quid pro quo, in which each party offers something and agrees on the terms of an exchange as a rational bargainer. But the marriage commitment is unpredictable and open ended, and the obligations it gives rise to cannot be fully stated in advance. What love attuned to the well-being of another may require is by its nature unpredictable. (27-28)

What makes this little book thrilling is that fourteen folks contribute their critical response to Shanley's position. At the end one finds a short and heartening rejoinder by Shanley, in which she states that she has changed her thinking on the matter: civil unions win! You'll have to read the book to find out why. Go on, let yourself be transformed.