Wednesday, December 31, 2008

End of the Year Thoughts on Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage

Well, this is my first year keeping a blog, and it's been a big one. My book came out in February, and now it's in paperback. I've traveled around the country and met so many people who have appreciated my point of view. Perhaps my favorite comment after one of my talks came last spring from a marriage equality activist in California who told me that my book articulated for her the things she had felt uneasy about in her work -- but that she had never had the words to explain why. So many gay rights advocates fall into marriage equality work without questioning it, without realizing there are other ways to think about families and relationships.

When people ask me why I wrote the book I tell them about my law students. For all of their politically aware lives, same-sex marriage has been in the news. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed Congress in 1996. States passed "mini-DOMAs." Vermont enacted civil unions in 2000. Marriage in Massachusetts in 2003; introduction of a Federal Marriage Amendment; passage of state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage in the majority of states; blaming (wrongly) the turnout for the ballot initiatives on those amendments for Bush's victory in 2004; marriage in California; Prop 8; and so much more. That's what they've heard.

So my students come to law school thinking that the only thing wrong with family law and marriage is that gay couples can't marry, and that the problems gay people face will be solved by marriage. Since they (overwhelmingly) support gay rights, they of course support marriage for same-sex couples.

I wrote the book to give them another lens. The early gay rights movement contributed to a critique of marriage and was part of a set of forces that changed the significance of marriage. Those forces included feminism and the sexual revolution that destigmatized nonmarital sex and brought increasing acceptance of women without husbands bearing children. The legal changes that accompanied those social forces made marriage matter less: the end of sex discrimination in marriage, the right to abortion, legal equality for children born to married and unmarried women, no fault divorce.

Today, it is the right-wing "marriage movement," of which I've written much this past year, and the gay rights marriage equality movement that make the most noise about how much marriage matters. Sure, they have different visions, but marriage is at the center of both of those visions. Forced to choose between the two, I will always pick marriage equality. But my vision is really altogether different. It is of a world where our laws support economic security and emotional peace of mind for the wide range of families and relationships that exist among LGBT -- and straight -- people; one where, as I often put it, marriage is not the dividing line between the relationships that count and those that don't.

When I get a chance to relate my vision -- to my students and to the audiences who come to hear me speak -- I get so much positive feedback. And if I can help move public policy in the direction of that vision, I will feel that I have really been of use.

Happy new year to all.


Rachel AB said...

Happy 2009, Nancy! Thank you for writing such a tremendously important book that is a valuable resource for those of us who try to move beyond marriage, both personally and societal. I would have trouble raising people's awareness about the short-comings of fighting for marriage equality without being able to tab into the many arguments and examples documented in your book.

Now that the book is out in paperback are you planing another book tour?

Nancy Polikoff said...

Thanks, Rachel. I won't be doing a book tour, but I'll be at Creating Change in Denver at the end of January ( and at a symposium at Stanford Law School on February 7. I've also got some speaking engagements lined up for April.

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