† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
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Bride Of The Freedom-To-Marry Frankenstein: Marriage, Economic Justice, and the Triage of Worthiness
by Kay Whitlock
“The monster demands a mate.” Tagline, “The Bride of Frankenstein,” 1935
Let’s be clear: what I have to say here about being queer and married is about me. It’s not about you. If you’re LGBT or queer, and you wanted and are happy to be married, and if I have not already told you so personally, I extend cheers, congratulations, and blessings to you. It gives me joy to wish you long and beautiful lives together filled with lovely adventure and meaning.
I’m also queer, and happy to be so. But, even though I fought anti-gay marriage initiatives with fervor and believe everyone who wants to marry has the right to do so, I am not happy about being married. And that has to do with the politics of same-sex marriage in particular, and marriage politics generally. So I’m hoping you’ll return the empathic favor and carry a little smoldering anger on my behalf – and some ironclad determination to move discussions of social justice, economic security, and liberation beyond marriage and “legal equality.”
I’ve been on simmer for quite a while because the severe economic consequences of the freedom not to marry, always intense, are solidifying in new ways. But what most recently pushed me over into high Elsa Lanchester “Bride of Frankenstein” dudgeon is the increasing number of stories about the actual or potential demise of government and private employer domestic partner policies in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court decisions affirming the right of same-sex couples to marry. It’s not that domestic partner policies provide “the” solution to economic security for gay or straight couples outside of marriage, but they are enormously important to many people, and they should exist throughout the country as one of a number of options for relationship recognition. The policy terminations are not universal, but they are mounting. And they are aided in some instances by conservative gay marriage advocates who argue that legal recognition of households on the basis of anything other than marital (conjugal) relationship relegates people to inferior, “second-class status.”
How extraordinarily ironic.
It’s Elsa’s “Bride of Frankenstein” attitude more than the costumery, really, that volcanic fumarole of amassing perturbation that speaks to me. And the metaphoric resonance of that explosive plume of hair, accented by white lightning bolts along the sides. But it’s the story, too: Dr. Frankenstein’s flawed and tragic “new Prometheus” wants a mate, and the good doctor, egged on by an even more fanatical colleague, finally makes him one. But upon awakening and seeing the creature for whom she was created, the Bride rejects her intended.
That’s how I feel – and have felt for a long time – about the strategic vision put forward by rich, white, gay men who helmed that collectivity of respectability politics informally known as “The Cabinet,” and the well-heeled same-sex marriage organizations/campaigns. That was the vision: Marriage. Period. Promoted by massive public relations campaigns and funding incentives, it became the holy grail of mainstream gay equality and household security, dominating policy agendas and channeling an enormous flow of money to gay marriage campaigns while ignoring the lives and needs of impoverished and homeless queers and gender nonconforming people and sucking organizations like Queers for Economic Justice dry.
My anger is certainly not directed toward lesbians, gays, or queers who want and opt to marry. Although I do not share that desire, I honor it. I know many married queers who do not support marriage as the (illusory) path to economic security, and of course, I am among them. Rather, my fury is entirely directed toward a strategic vision that, under the rubric of equality, actually guarantees and reinforces the continuation of structural inequality for people whose partnerships, households, kinship relationships, and families do not conform to the conjugal/nuclear family template.
Among them are single parent households, committed and loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner, blended families, extended families living under one roof whose members care for one another, and close friends and relatives living together in long-term, non-marital relationships while providing for mutual support and care – especially for children, elders, people with disabilities, and people with HIV/AIDS and other chronically limiting or life-threatening illnesses. The varieties of caring, commitment relationship that exist independently of marriage are almost limitless. Far from being an aberration, household and family diversity is the norm.
The “marriage only” strategy for gays has reinforced structural inequality by privileging marriage as the sole or primary state-recognized status for distribution of the kinds of legal recognition and economic benefits/entitlements that are, to everyone except the perpetually wealthy, essential for basic household security. It triages human worthiness by reinforcing the idea that other kinds of long-term, caring, and committed relationships are less worthy – socially, economically, and spiritually – of support and recognition.
That is not only unjust but inhumane.
And I feel just like The Bride looks because for me, getting married was not freeing; it was not desired; it was not, for my partner and me, a fulfillment of the slogan “Love Wins.” Like The Bride, I wanted to scream – and finally, in this essay, I am screaming. I utterly reject the idea that marriage is somehow the fulfillment of the queer struggle for liberation; indeed, I believe the politics of the same-sex marriage campaign and courtroom architects have been damaging.
Phoebe and I love each other; that was never in question. We’d already been together, with plenty of love and laughter, for 18 years at the time we got married, years before the historic U.S. Supreme Court decisions affirming the right of same-sex couples to marry. Next spring, we’ll celebrate 25 years together, but marriage has nothing to do with our delighted longevity as partners. While we know and respect the fact that marriage holds profound symbolic and spiritual significance for many people, it does not hold such meaning for us. This is so even though spirituality is a significant component of our lives.
Our decision to get married was a product of the narrow terms and restrictive strategic imagination of the so-called “freedom to marry” movement, combined with its implicit legal and economic forms of coercion. We’re not proud of the choice we made; I find it painful to have done so in order to claim basic forms of household recognition. But we felt we had no better options. We’d already spent too much money we couldn’t really afford to try to cobble together a set of extra-marital legal protections that might or might not hold up in court. Yet marriage was the only way to secure equitable legal standing for me in her home state of Iowa where relevant family matters made this important. And though Montana, where we live, did not then recognize the marriage, the fact that we could prove legal marriage in a different state would probably help to shore up our wishes should any provisions in our wills be contested if one or both of us died.
Moreover, I turned 60 the year we got married. The challenges of aging in a society that resents, impoverishes, discards, and warehouses most of its elders are bracing; they fix the mind on the Need to Make Plans for One’s Nether Years. We needed to plan for the time that Phoebe, who is several years younger, could receive Social Security survivor benefits in the event of my death. While state laws were still in flux at the time, and federal and many state “Defense of Marriage” acts were on the books, President Obama was making it possible for couples legally married in the states to be recognized for federal tax purposes. That took us one step closer toward legal recognition for survivor benefits. And all of that mattered profoundly at a terribly shaky and vulnerable economic time for us.
We married because we knew damn well that marriage-only was going to trump a more expansive approach that would provide different kinds of partnerships, households, and families access to the same forms of recognition and economic benefit. And no, we aren’t just naysayers in retrospect. We had been part of efforts to change that focus for years. But in the end, the only “freedom” was the freedom to have to marry – or twist in the wind.
That, too, is extraordinarily ironic. It didn’t have to be this way.
Longtime LGBT and queer activists and scholars and many of our friends have offered cautionary warnings about and critiques of a “marriage only strategy” for many years.
In 2006, drawing on innovative and organizing strategies and policies in the U.S. and Canada that went far beyond a single issue focus on “gay rights,” a group of LGBT and allied activists, scholars, educators, writers, artists, lawyers, journalists, and community organizers offered a new and democratizing strategic vision in a statement called “Beyond Marriage.” Anticipating the charge that this expansive approach isn’t practical, the new vision drew from innovative policies and community organizing initiatives that already existed in the U.S. and Canada. Marriage would certainly stand as one of the relationship options, but only one, and it would not be privileged above others. This vision emphasized working across issues, constituencies and movements to secure governmental and private institutional recognition of diverse kinds of households, partnerships, and family configurations. [Disclosure: I was a member of the group that drafted this statement/vision.]
Not surprisingly, the big money and organizational muscle behind the drive for “marriage only” effectively silenced any serious consideration of a new strategic approach. The rise of aggressive anti-gay marriage campaigns in state after state and pro-gay marriage court cases solidified marriage as the sole terrain of struggle. And on that terrain, each side laid claim to the moral high ground, leaving questions of economic justice, and the varied forms of structural violence that attend them, in the dust.
For a justice strategy, that’s extraordinarily ironic. Yasmin Nair’s “The Secret History of Gay Marriage” sums up the process and effects on those who exist – by choice or force of circumstance – outside the framework of marriage.
Triaging Human Worthiness
An oft-repeated mantra of the gay marriage movement was that Federal law provides 1,138 benefits, rights and protections on the basis of marital status. The same-sex marriage campaigns never questioned whether those benefits, rights, and protections should be reserved only for married people. Instead, they promised that this menu of securing civic benefits would provide the pathway to economic safety for gays and lesbians. They did not address the compulsory nature of the strategy; those of us who raised concerns and objections were told, “Then just don’t get married.”
And these arguments were being made at a time when even the most basic benefits and entitlements had been under sustained and accelerating political attack since the 1980s. Those who don’t think Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and other essential economic supports can be decimated or eliminated altogether simply aren’t paying attention. In 2005, Richard Kim and Lisa Duggan put it plainly:
The net effect of the neoliberal economic policies imposed in recent decades has been to push economic and social responsibility away from employers and government and onto private households. The stress on households is intensifying, as people try to do more with less. Care for children and the elderly, for the ill and disabled, has been shifted toward unpaid women at home or to low-paid, privately employed female domestic workers. In this context, household stability becomes a life-and-death issue. On whom do we depend when we can’t take care of ourselves? If Social Security shrinks or disappears and your company sheds your pension fund, what happens to you when you can no longer work? In more and more cases, the sole remaining resource is the cooperative, mutually supporting household or kinship network. But if marriage is the symbolic and legal anchor for households and kinship networks, and marriage is increasingly unstable, how reliable will that source of support be? – Richard Kim and Lisa Duggan
Phoebe and I were depressingly aware of all of this when we decided to get married. And we still felt so vulnerable about our economic future that we went through with it. But we have no intention of stopping there.
She and I are by no means poor, but neither are we affluent. Our incomes are very modest. In recent years, we’ve had to withdraw heavily from savings to cover basic expenses and medical bills not covered by insurance (we know we’re extremely fortunate to have accumulated any savings at all). Some months, the bills terrify us. Like so many people, we’re doing okay for now, but we’re not financially “secure” – if there is any such thing these days for anyone other than the fabled 1%. Economic catastrophe hasn’t arrived for us, but it feels like it is just around the corner. One serious illness, the loss of paid work and good employment health insurance benefits, or the slashing, gutting, or privatization of Medicare and Social Security could do it for us.
That’s true for many individuals and households. Deregulation of the financial services industry; the 2008 recession; the loss of good, full-time jobs with benefits; union busting; foreclosures; staggering amounts of student debt; mass incarceration and expansion of for-profit “community corrections”; highly selective and aggressive forms of debt collection; relentless political attacks on public spending for education, health care, food assistance, and other human needs – all of these are taking a terrible toll, not only on individuals and households, but society as a whole.
For millions of people – disproportionately people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous peoples – economic catastrophe has always been a constant, especially at the intersections of gender, gender nonconformity, and disability. The intimate relationships among structural racism, economic exploitation, and other systemic forms of violence see to that.
There’s growing recognition of this, but in a strangely abstract way. We’re all being encouraged to get as much as we can for ourselves and not worry about anyone else – or to believe that amid economic chaos and crisis, marriage can really protect us. The silence about this terrible reality is chilling; periodic data trotted out to prove that someone’s paying some sort of attention to structural economic injustice and poverty don’t help to break it. So many people are afraid to admit how vulnerable we really are. Perhaps we don’t want to be regarded as failures or “fired” in a Trump-esque reality show world, where everyone who matters is some combination of important, famous, rich, and contemptuous of – or indifferent to – those who aren’t. Or maybe many of us just cannot bear recognizing that the worst could also, so easily, happen to us.
Then there’s the other terrible truth about marriage politics and the same-sex marriage movement campaigns. By privileging marriage, they have left intact, and even fostered (sometimes unintentionally) the widespread, racially coded political, cultural, and economic processes by which nonconforming individuals and households are pathologized and criminalized. Consider, for example, Ann Cammett’s incisive analysis of the racially coded, politically useful rhetoric that drums up fear of “welfare queens” and “deadbeat dads.” And Tamara K. Nopper’s searing discussion of ways in which the rhetoric of marriage has historically been used to reinforce structural racism and is used today to advance conservative/right/neoliberal austerity campaigns that leave such racism intact.
The Bride Rejects (Compulsory/Coercive) Marriage Politics
By focusing so narrowly, what the LGBT movement has ended up with, says American Studies scholar/activist Lisa Duggan, is “an erratic and unevenly distributed patchwork of household statuses tied all too closely to the issue of gay marriage, with no major social movement –not labor, senior citizens, students or gays–committed to household diversity as a primary political goal.”
That’s a dangerous place to be, especially in an era of increasing privatization and dismantling of public benefits, services, resources, and spaces. It permits no substantial, sustained challenge to the intensified upward distribution of social, civic, and economic goods. And it stands at the intersections of many forms of structural violence and inequality with nothing to offer but empty lip service. It rends rather than builds communities.
Promising freedom and equality, the behemoths of same-sex marriage campaigns have ignored more complicated realities and effectively abandoned constituencies who existed outside their particular template – and they and their donors are also abandoning some of the organizations that helped carry their work forward.
Useful strategies for moving toward a transformed future won’t be found in piecing together old bits and pieces of inadequate policies, systems, single-issue frameworks, and an unjust status quo and trying to animate them with the rhetoric of equality that lacks the substance and heft of deeper, necessary structural change. That’s nothing more than trying to convince us that Frankenstein’s creature is actually the new Prometheus. Sooner or later, the truth will out.
Instead, we must reimagine what racial, gender, and economic justice could be if we didn’t limit our dreams, and the strategies to transform them into reality, to the existing terms of debate. Years ago, activists, scholars, educators, writers and artists lifted up a possible new strategic vision toward economic security for diverse households, kinship relationships, partners, and families. That vision, or something like it, has room for all of us.
Marriage politics don’t. And they never did. The Bride must free herself.