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Nancy Polikoff's Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law [23 April, 2008]

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By Nancy D.  Polikoff; Beacon Press; 259 pages

Vega, a lesbian, left her job to move with her partner, Mala, to Washington.  She remained uninsured for five months as she looked for employment; Mala’s job didn”t provide her any insurance because they weren’t married.

Proponents of gay marriage claim that such cases prove why gays should be allowed to marry—in order to access their partners” benefits.  In her new book, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law, Nancy Polikoff debunks that logic in the simplest terms: “Marriage is not the solution...The solution is universal health care.”

We have reached a point where the feminist-queer critique of marriage is barely a distant memory.  Polikoff points out that, “the shift is so pervasive that the generation of gay and straight young adults who have grown up during the culture war over same-sex marriage has no idea that the gay rights movement was once part of coalition efforts to make marriage matter less.”

Over the last few years, there has been wider resistance to gay marriage in the queer community.  Many among us have argued that marriage shouldn’t be the guarantor of something as basic as health care, and that queer commitment is no more special than the worlds that the uncoupled have created for themselves.  They can now resort to Nancy Polikoff’s detailed book for supporting counterarguments against the gay marriage crowd, as well as ways in which to craft a system that guarantees basics like health care to everybody, not just the coupled and married.

Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage is also a history of how marriage, in the United States, came to represent much more than a social or emotional bond.  Given her background (as a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law), Polikoff’s more comfortable with legal argument than cultural analysis, but the book is lively and accessible to a general reader.  Given the gay marriage movement’s constant use of emotion; panic; and charges of homophobia to bolster support for its cause, her legal depth is both timely and important.

Polikoff takes her microscope to every conceivable situation raised by the gay-marriage crowd, and shows what solutions (like domestic partnerships that don’t privilege straight or gay) might have worked already, and what others could be crafted.  She reminds us that the gay marriage movement frequently echoes the Right’s agenda about an institution which only grants more powers to the state and patriarchy.  So, for instance, gay marriage supporters insist that marriage would mean that their children could grow up in loving and stable homes.  How is that any different from the Right’s relentless argument that single mothers and unmarried people will bring about civilization’s end?

It would be one thing if marriage were simply part of the ordinary social relations through which people carry on their lives.  The problem begins when so much else of the state’s benefits only go to those who are married.  Canada, it turns out, isn’t just the Shangri-La to the north of us with universal health care.  Since 2002, Alberta residents have been able to avail of something called the Adult Interdependent Act, where two people in a close relationship (friends, for instance) may designate each other as decision-makers in the case of organ and tissue donation, or receive each other’s extended healthcare benefits.  And all that’s without a sexual relationship between them.  Through a myriad such examples, Polikoff shows why it’s necessary to separate marriage from the state’s responsibilities.

Ultimately, Polikoff tends to privilege institutions like the family and non-profits over and locates resistance only in their terms, as in her mantra that we need to respect all families.  While she’s occasionally critical of Lambda Legal and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in their support of gay marriage, she doesn’t extend that critique too far.  Yet, these two key queer organizing groups, which supposedly present a progressive alternative to Human Rights Commission, have greatly enabled the gay marriage agenda and that speaks to the role such organizations play in contemporary queer politics.

Meanwhile, queer independent groups like San Francisco’s Gay Shame or individuals like Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein, who go unmentioned in this book, have constantly resisted that agenda—most significantly in response to Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose politics around marriage disguised his conservative politics around gentrification.  Given its deep embededness in formal institutions (like the law!), this is a neoliberal book, but it’s also an important critique of the idea that marriage should organize our lives and our access to the basics.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 23 April, 2008


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