Should Gays be Against Marriage?

First published at on September 10, 2010

In my marriage debates, I am often asked what I think about critics on the left who argue that marriage is a fundamentally flawed institution which gays and lesbians would be better off avoiding.

Answer: I think they’re ultimately wrong.

There are several such critics, though the ones that come quickly to mind are my fellow philosopher Claudia Card and the queer theorist Michael Warner. Their objections vary, but a common theme is that marriage necessarily involves the state discriminating between different types of relationships, privileging some (the married) at the expense of others (the unmarried).

Marriage pressures people in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, they argue, including economic incentives such as health-care, employment, and tax benefits. It grants status. Those who remain single are stigmatized or pitied, as are those who pursue alternative family forms. Card is also especially concerned about the legal access marriage gives spouses to each other, access which can make partners (especially women) vulnerable to abuse.

Such criticisms are not without merit. There was a time (thankfully past, but not by long) when married women could not defend themselves against rape by their husbands, because of a legal system which treated wives as essentially their husband’s property. Marriage does grant status, and married people sometimes flaunt it obnoxiously. And it’s unfortunate that single people have a harder time getting affordable health care than their married counterparts—though that is more because we attach health insurance to employment than a problem with marriage per se.

But I don’t see how solving these problems requires dismantling marriage, and I certainly don’t think we should delay the marriage-equality debate until we’ve addressed all other issues. Yes, marriage puts some pressure on people; that’s part of what makes it work as a social institution. Yes, sometimes that pressure goes too far. Yes, there are other valuable ways in which people organize their lives, and some of these deserve more attention than they get. But meanwhile, gays and lesbians are excluded from a fundamentally valuable institution—and that’s wrong.

Consider an analogy to another valuable social institution, college. One could make many of the same critiques of college that my fellow professors Card and Warner make of marriage. It privileges some life choices over others; it grants status; it unlocks a variety of economic and social benefits. We pressure young people to attend college and (unwittingly) stigmatize those who don’t. We claim to recognize that college isn’t right for everyone, and yet we do very little to support alternatives.

Now suppose that gays and lesbians were excluded from college. The correct response would not be to insist that college is imperfect and that we ought to forgo the “college-equality” debate until after we’ve fixed all of these other problems. The correct response would be to fix what we can, including the inequality.

Card has anticipated and responded to a similar argument. Imagine a society, she writes, which for sexist reasons allows men but not women to own slaves. Card argues that the way to repair such a society would be, not to extend slavery to women, but rather to abolish it altogether. She is surely correct about this. But the analogy only works on the assumption that marriage (like slavery and unlike college) is necessarily unjust, rather than only contingently so. I find that assumption absurd.

So while I agree that the marriage debate provides an opportunity to re-examine the weaknesses and strengths of marriage, as well as other life-choices, I remain convinced of the fundamental value of the institution. To this I would add a pragmatic point: Marriage is not going away—despite its radical critics’ hopes and its right-wing defenders’ fears. We would all be better off if it included gay and lesbian couples.