Sunday's New York Times article on same-sex couples who aren't marrying adds a dimension usually lost in all the news of marriage equality, especially because it includes -- indeed focuses on -- couples who really don't want to marry. Especial hats off to historian John D'Emilio, who features in the article and who has been a long-time outspoken critic of marriage. The theme that most dominates the article, however, is that these couples choose not to marry but are not unhappy that other same-sex couples have made a different choice.
The article really deemphasizes the legal consequences of the choice these couples are making and never asks whether those legal consequences are appropriate. If two people own a home together, when the first one dies should the other have to pay taxes to retitle the home? No. It shouldn't matter if the two people are married. What matters is that the survivor is remaining in her home and should get to do so without economic penalty. In many places only a surviving spouse can do that. The article does point out that some couples will pay higher income taxes if they marry. And why should that be? Many countries tax individual earners; it doesn't matter if they are married. Not us. We've got a tax scheme adopted to benefit single earner marriages, and we haven't changed it to deal more fairly with today's families.
I could go on. I did in fact, in my book, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage. I agree that perhaps the biggest problem with the emphasis on same-sex marriage is that it invalidates the many other ways that people organize their lives to raise children and meet their needs for emotional support and economic security. But the bright line the law makes between married couples and everyone else reinforces this point.
I also don't think the gay rights advocacy groups have sufficiently considered the needs of same-sex couples who don't marry, and there will be lots of them. A Pew study from last spring showed that 30% of gay men and 33% of lesbians had not told their mother that they were gay; 47% of gay men and 55% of lesbians had not told their father. About 1/5 of each group said they did not do so because the parent would not be accepting. So what does this mean for marriage? Few people marry in secret, and it is the very public nature of the act of marrying that seems to matter so much to same-sex couples who want to marry. My hypothesis is that people who are not out to the parents are going to be less likely to marry. Also there is significant research about same-sex couples who live within their larger African-American communities. Their lives are often an "open secret," not discussed with family members. Marriage may well be too "in your face" for such couples.
Now no couple like those above is going to show up in a New York Times article about same-sex couples who don't marry. By definition, they don't want to be public. But they are at risk of falling off the agenda of the gay rights movement because the emphasis on marriage has turned the legal consequences of their relationships into problems that can -- and should -- be solved by marriage.