Let me begin with a disclaimer: I don’t put the fight for same-sex marriage at the top of my LGBT civil rights to do list. It’s not my priority, as much as I think the US is living in the Dark Ages with regard to marriage rights for all of its residents, not just some of them. I roll my eyes at President Obama’s unwillingness to fully support same-sex marriage, and I think it’s crystal clear at this point that the front lines against equal marriage rights are really about hatred and anger at gay people, and not anything else.
Perhaps it’s because fighting tends to polarize debate, especially in our modern reductivist climate, but it’s easy to chuck a principled stance by the wayside in favor of low blows, bumper sticker sloganizing, and arguments that don’t work, ultimately, in anyone’s favor.
Take, for example, Kim Kardashian’s ill-fated marriage to whatshisname. Out come trotting the jokes about how much money she made per second in her 72-day commitment. Her divorce even spawned a hashtag,
#thingslongerthankimsmarriage. Twitter was a-flurry with sarcasm:
@jimmyfallon A judge just sentenced Lindsay Lohan to 30 days in jail. Or as Kim Kardashian put it, “30 days?? That’s, like, four marriages!”
So in the midst of the joking, out trots same-sex marriage advocates. If memory serves, I remember similar jokes made when Britney Spears divorced, when the reality stars of The Bachelor called it quits, and when The Today Show held a contest for spouses-to-be to win an entire wedding and honeymoon. The scourge of the short-lived marriage is almost its own tool in the toolkit of the marriage equality activist.
But it shouldn’t be. Eventually the line of argument takes us away from civil rights and equality in the United States, and into the murky depths of moralism. We find ourselves debating which marriages are the best marriages instead of opening up marriage to accommodate a variety of family structures and legal needs. We are arguing, it would seem, on conservative terms.
Last month in Mexico City, a city run by a man with aspirations to be Mexico’s president, the mayor proposed a new way of authorizing marriage licenses—for 2-year terms. Couples could renew their licenses if they wanted to stay married, or let the licenses expire. No need for a divorce process? How could such a shift in licensure affect a shift in thinking about the institution? Maybe this pragmatic approach would shift the “holy matrimony” concept around marriage, which I would argue would give moderate people less of a reason to dig in their heels against same-sex marriages.
Of course this idea won’t pass in Mexico City, or anywhere in the US, but it’s a useful moment to explore as we look for ways to win over public sentiment with regard to letting non-heterosexuals tie the knot. Our nation’s history, meanwhile, is filled with people inventing alternatives to marriage—common law partners, couples presumed to be married, slaves who were forbade from marrying—and each time these responses to the limitations of traditional marriage pop up, there is a hard response in the form of backlash. While marginalized communities have sought recognition and authenticity for their relationships, people with a perverted view of morality have insisted marriage is being attacked, even as they hold closed access to the legal rights and privileges that marriage begets.
It’s this same wrong-headed moralism at play when conservatives seek to cover up their affairs, keep committed partners apart, as in the terrible Kowalski-Thompson case, and behind “covenant” marriages that make divorce very difficult, despite the circumstances that would motivate one or both partners to leave. Yes, it is easy to look at these moments as evidence of hypocrisy or contradiction, but attacking contradictions here is a roundabout way of fighting straights-only marriage. It’s an argument that actually reinforces the idea of traditional marriage as an institution because by saying “these people don’t live up the the ideal of marriage,” we’re asking people to re-visualize that ideal. It’s the ideal itself that is flawed.
Okay, so why not pick on Kim Kardashian? She had something akin to a sponsorship celebration with her wedding, and that it lasted less than three months ought to be evidence that . . . what? The gays would do it better? That’s an easy statement to make so long as same-sex marriage is limited, but once there is a generation of LGBT people getting divorced, what high ground do we have? Our emphasis better serves us when we talk about fairness and access, much the way I would argue that we need to require advances in health insurance coverage and health care for LGBT people. We don’t need to mock medicine to push for our cause.
Many people have tried to take this other—and I would claim, more rigorous—tack in thinking about marriage. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have for decades imparted validity to their long-term relationships without the benefit of a license. Given that we are moving into an era when more people support same-sex marriage, I think it’s time we begin to redefine why marriage is important to our society, even as we put pressure on equal access to marriage.
It would have the additional benefit of not making queer people look douchey when some celebrity gets a divorce soon after the wedding vows are over.