In honor of Blogging for GLBT Families Day, Shannon at Peter’s Cross Station wrote a provocative post in which she argues against marriage, for anyone:
"The government should not be in the business of deciding whether or not we or anyone else can have what should be universal human rights based on whether or how or if they have made similar vows to someone else.
"Gay marriage would get Cole and I on equal footing with her heterosexual colleagues. How nice for us. How nice that we too could have an upper-middle-class income, a stay-at-home parent, a child for whom we may choose a high quality private school, a well located, well funded public school or homeschooling by a PhD with teacher’s certification without paying an extra few thousand dollars a year penalty for being lesbians.
"Gay marriage would do nothing for the majority of people we know who either aren’t partnered with someone with good employment benefits or aren’t partnered at all—gay, straight or otherwise."
Moxie made a similar point, writing "And, FWIW, I’m in favor of civil marriage for none; civil rights, benefits, and protections for all; and religious marriage for anyone who wants it." She later clarified that she meant that anyone should be able to have a private ceremony of whatever sort they choose, but that it should not have legal significance.
I have a lot of sympathy for this point of view. I agree that everyone should have access to health care, regardless of whether they choose to make a lifetime commitment to another adult. I also think that it would make a lot of sense to have everyone explicitly designate the people who you want to be able to visit you in the hospital and decisions on your behalf.
I also think that there’s a logical elegance to the argument. It neatly sidesteps the discussion about whether it’s possible to draw a line that supports same-sex marriage but opposes polygamy. (I know this has been debated on Alas, a blog, but can’t find the links right now.) Instead, it says, the government shouldn’t be in the business of deciding whose relationships "count" and whose don’t.
But (you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?), I do think there are some privileges that are both appropriately within the governmental sphere, and should take relationships into consideration. The prime example that comes to mind is immigration. Unless we’re going to have a full open door policy, which I think would be disastrous, the government is going to be in the business of deciding who gets to immigrate (legally) and who doesn’t. And I think it would be deeply wrong to say that only blood relations of citizens should get priority in immigrating, that no families of choice rather than birth should be taken into consideration. There has to be some legally binding way of saying "this is my partner."
I also think that there’s a benefit to building on what’s already (more or less) working, rather than trying to "invent a language of new grunts." I’ve been reading The White Man’s Burden, by William Easterly. It’s about the failures of Western aid to less developed countries. Easterly argues that aid has largely been a failure because planners have tried to impose top-down reform schemes that don’t pay enough attention to the cultural realities on the ground. He quotes Popper (Karl?) as saying "It is not reasonable to assume that a complete reconstruction of our social system would lead at once to a workable system."
That’s a roundabout way of saying that I’m somewhat skeptical of grand plans that require knocking down everything that’s already place in order to rebuild. In practice, I think that if civil marriage were eliminated, children would be the ones hurt the most, followed by anyone who is economically dependent on their spouse. Yes, in theory we could build a system that provided protections for children and caregivers whether or not they had a relationship with another adult. So far, the closest thing to that we have is welfare, and it hasn’t worked so well.