It is no secret that many within libertarian, anarchist, radical socialist, feminist, and queer liberationist circles are critical of the institution of marriage at best. It’s roots as a patriarchal ceremony based on, among other things, a warped view of property rights, its historical ties with the authoritarianism of the church and state in deciding whom is fit to marry including historic “racial purity” laws here in America, and its unsavory track record of trapping some in long term abusive relationships, all leave plenty to criticize so this is no surprise that such radicals would serve up such analyses. But what we’re going to discuss today are the numerous benefits and privileges tied to marriage as an institution and what that means when navigating and trying to survive in our current political reality.
What is marriage and why is it so important to so many? Is it merely a religious and/or cultural ceremony celebrating a lifelong commitment between loving partners before God, each other, and/or loved ones? If that is the case then why is the state involved at all? Well because they, like the church, wanted a say in whom exactly was fit to marry, and by implication, start families. But does marriage have to involve the state? No. In many parts of the world, common law marriages, private religious ceremonies, and even just a stated personal commitment, can constitute a legally binding marriage all without a state license granting permission, with the state merely acting as a record keeper in keeping documentation if anything. But does the state even need to know. To follow the thoughts of Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre, and others, does the state institution of marriage even equal love?
Well marriage seems to have two completely different definitions that sometimes get intertwined. First there’s marriage for fun, love, romance, and commitment. Then there’s marriage for profit, a state institution that uses its monopolistic power to grant legal permission to marry and passes out benefits and privileges to those who follow suit.
Marriage for Fun
While many feminist and queer theorists propose other options to marriage and seek to altogether redefine the dominantly heternormative and cisnormative relationship structures present today, few would argue against loving partners, in whatever number and formation they see fitting to them, joining together in a lifelong commitment or even having a ceremony to celebrate such voluntary commitments. As long as the state or church does not stand in the way of allowing dissatisfied parties to exit if the commitment no longer meets their needs, then it becomes a mostly voluntary arrangement prone to the problems faced in most human interactions as imperfect human beings.
Marriage can be fun. If you and your partners wish to hold a ritual expressing your love for one another in front of witnesses or not, go for it. Get creative. Have mass weddings, create new ceremonies based on new, old, or no religion at all, or do it to keep alive your culture and traditions in the face of colonialism. But whatever your reason, the state should have no reason to be involved. That’s the funny thing, marriage for fun has always been valid for those who did not bother to ask permission from the church or state.
So then why, with so many valid criticisms against it, did marriage become the face of the mainstream gay rights movement for so long? Why were so many radical queers focusing their efforts on more practical and useful community organizing campaigns while simultaneously redefining traditional definitions of family and relationships in general, romantic, sexual, and platonic, and getting married to their partner(s) without state recognition in their own ceremonies, while others were so steadfastly championing state recognized gay marriage as one of the biggest goals in the movement for “civil rights”? Well other than assimilation and respectability politics (a topic for a whole other essay), it really comes down to one thing: benefits.
Marriage for Profit
To quote Emma Goldman:
“Marriage is primarily an economic arrangement, an insurance pact. It differs from the ordinary life insurance agreement only in that it is more binding, more exacting.”
With over 1000 different benefits tied to the institution of marriage, varying state by state, in America, including healthcare access, survivor’s benefits, inheritance rights, hospital visitation rights, tax cuts, child custody rights and citizenship status, it’s no wonder some see marriage as a saving grace in many critical circumstances. In fact, green card marriages and marriages for healthcare and other such things are rather well known. Even queer folks have been known to enter into consensual sham marriages with their straight friends for their healthcare. With so many barriers of access to such benefits in our current political landscape, such benefit marriages are advantageous for survival in individual circumstances.
But that’s the big thing we have to remember: it’s not about state recognition, it’s about the benefits. And the thing is, they’re benefits we all deserve regardless of our marital status, our personal sexual choices or relationship structures (or lack thereof). We should not be punished for being polyamorous, single, or unmarried. Gay marriage only won access to such privileges for a very small segment of the queer community, those who wished to be just like every other heteronormative monogamous couple. But all those who do not marry for whatever reason, queer or not, still deserve healthcare, citizenship, and most every other of the 1000+ benefits. Let’s fight to make those rights available to all who are affected, not just those who follow the preordained, and many times unrealistic, path set forth by tradition.
So let’s marry for fun and forget to notify the state while we’re at it. But let’s also understand that exploiting state licensing is a tactic for survival in a world where most of the profits and benefits are rigged to stay in the hands of the few. Until we get the state out of our lives, it’s all about survival. And that’s why we should fight to end the institution of marriage while not shaming those who utilize it for survival.