Saturday, April 4, 2009

What about those who choose NOT to marry?

American University law professor, Nancy Polikoff, dramatically changed my views on the marriage equality fight with her book Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law. In this book she criticizes both the right-wing "traditional marriage movement" and the progressive marriage-equality movement with one common wrong: both of them want to enhance the legal status of marriage, thus denying legal protections to the numerous other family forms that don't involve married couples, or don't involve couples at all.

Such families include grandparents raising kids, single parents (gay or straight) with kids, unmarried couples (gay or straight) with or without kids, adults caring for aging parents, families of choice made of friends and lovers who gave the support your parents didn't, adults caring for sick friends, unmarried couples who don't live together, roomates, extended families living together or in the same town, etc, etc, etc.

Anyone living in the real world knows that THIS is picture that represents human families, rather than the "nuclear family" that the right-wing refuses to stop imagining and trying to subjugate all our laws to force the above families to conform to this "ideal". Polikoff recognizes that the marriage-equality movement has done positive work to show the broader picture of human families, but they still fall into the trap of endorsing the notion that the legally married couple deserves a special advantage over other families in receiving legal protection and benefit. This is in spite of the fact that the marriage-equality movement has never overtly condemned single people or diverse families, while the right-wing has.

Polikoff and I both share a desire to celebrate marriage-equality victories, like that in Iowa, as civil rights victories. But she is worried that the single issue focus on marriage will leave organizations with no incentive to fight for rights once marriage is achieved. She notes this in her report on the gay-parent group Love Makes a Family's decision to disband upon achieving a marriage equality victory.


So how should legal benefits be given? The easy answer is to buy the book Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage (as low as $6.86 or $2.93), but you can also check her more recent thoughts on her blog by the same name.

Some of Nancy's ideas:

  • "...advocate a law like that in the District of Columbia that gives unmarried/unregistered domestic partners priority decision-making authority and that lets someone farther down the list of priority decisionmakers trump someone higher up the list if that person can demonstrate that he or she knows the patient and the patient's wishes better." (copy paste from here)
  • "Lesbians and gay men often move away from homophobic relatives and gay-unfriendly cities and towns to more supportive areas of the country, like Connecticut [who won marriage before Iowa]. All of them, not just those who marry, need laws that make it as likely as possible that the person they would pick will be able to visit them in the hospital and make their emergency health care decisions." (copy paste from here)
  • replace the legal word "marriage" with another, less emotionally-laden, term (ie "civil union" or "civil partnership"). This way couples can have benefits without having to get married, which is too personal a decision to be forced for economic benefits

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