Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Maps of relationship non-recognition laws often obscure non-recognition of different-sex unmarried couples.

In the process of planning one of my law school classes, I was perusing the websites with maps of the United States showing the status of relationship recognition or non-recognition across the country. There are so many different types of laws that it's a challenge to accurately portray each state with all its nuances. HRC and NGLTF each have useful, easy-to-print one-page non-recognition maps. The Movement Advancement Project has interactive maps more suitable to getting a quick online snapshot of each state's LGBT-related laws.

Differences among these maps are not readily apparent, but I found one that troubles me. One category of state laws prohibits not only recognition of same-sex marriage but also recognition of unmarried couples. All the maps refer to these laws, but only the Task Force says some of the laws that ban partner recognition beyond marriage also ban that recognition for unmarried heterosexual couples. (I actually thought all of them did that, but I'll have to recheck state-by-state before I say that for sure.) From reading the maps on the HRC and MAP websites, you would think that the laws that bans partner recognition beyond marriage were specifically targeted at same-sex couples.

So why obscure the extent of nonrecognition in these statutes? One possibility is the assumption that viewers only care about lesbians and gay men and same-sex relationships and so are no more interested in unmarried straight couples than they would be in, say, laws that require vaccinations or prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sunday. Or perhaps those groups themselves don't care about straight couples. If it's not about a sane-sex relationship, then perhaps the groups see it as outside their mandate.

This bothers me. First, MAP says it is telling viewers about bans that affect "LGBT people." HRC says its mission is "working for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equal rights." If they are serious about the "bi" part of that, then they should realize that a bisexual might be in an unmarried relationship with a person of a different sex and would find it helpful to know the status of that relationship. And for transgender people, a ban on recognition of both same-sex and different-sex unmarried couples means that the state's view of the trans person's "real" gender would be irrelevant to its treatment of his or her unmarried relationship.

But it bothers me for another reason. The broad non-recognition laws are a visible consequence of not only anti-gay politics but of politics that insist the failure of heterosexuals to marry is the source of all our social problens. Those laws were intentionally written to channel straight people into marriage by denigrating their unmarried relationships. Right-wing marriage movement advocates let rampant capitalism with its outrageous income inequality and its relentless curtailing of public services and support for families off the hook. If the decline of life-long heterosexual marriage is the culprit, then individuals who don't marry can be blamed for all the crime, poverty, unemployment, violence, etc in the country. That's very convenient for those in power and those with lots of money.

I fear that the failure of maps to note this aspect of state laws and amendments may also reflect an unwillingness to criticize laws barring those who could marry but don't from such things as domestic partner employee benefits. If that's true, then LGBT groups won't complain about a constitutional amendment banning recognition of unmarried couples as long as same-sex couples can marry. In my opinion, that would be a tragedy. Any part of our movement that thinks it need not complain about laws that channel all people into marriage as long as gay people can marry is not a movement that represents me.

Of course it may be that HRC and MAP thought there was enough nuance to provide on their maps that they just did not want to add one more nuance to the mass of information. But I know which map I'm giving my students; it's the Task Force map. That's the only one that gives the full picture of what marriage means in each state.

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