Marriage or Bust? A Conversation on Marriage Equality

Photo by Amber James


Love, the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful molder of human destiny; how can such an all-compelling force be synonymous with that poor little State- and Church-begotten weed, marriage?

-Emma Goldman

The answer, I believe, is to defend marriage (het or gay) as one viable option among many for a person, not attack it as an inherently heterosexist and patriarchal institution. Context is all. Typically marriage and the traditional family has been patriarchal and heterosexist—but not necessarily in the Black community, and not necessarily for GLBT relationships, either. Thus, marriage and the traditional family can be subversive in the right context. Radicals should encourage this subversion by defending the right of people to freely engage in unions of their choice, including marriage.

-Joel Olson


Marriage equality was literally put on trial a few days ago as the U.S. Supreme Court looked over two complimentary cases.  First was Hollingsworth v. Perry challenging constitutionality of the 2008 California bill known as Proposition 8.  The main purpose of the bill was clearly stated in its less-than-subtle title” Eliminates Rights of Same-Sex Couples to Marry.  This would essentially reverse the previous decisions to recognize same-sex relationships in the same way that conventional ones are through the state’s marriage process.

The very next day the court convened with Massachusetts v. United States Department of Health and Human Services, which challenges a piece of the Defense of Marriage Act.  Together these cases became one of the largest rallying cries in favor of marriage equality, leaving few detractors and a swell of supporters using the Human Rights Campaign’s equal sign as a show of solidarity.  Marriage equality seems inevitable at this point, which is being claimed as a major victory in much of the liberal LGBT community.

But just as the cheers are being heard around the country, many people who take a more radical stance on LGTBQ issues question whether or not marriage is the institution worth fighting for and if this is really the victory it seems to be.

The opinions about this are rarely uniform, and so we have decided to spark an informal discussion and compile a few different opinions that can hopefully challenge some of the conventional narratives.  Here they are arguments in support of marriage, against marriage, and the many shades in between.




The institution of marriage needs to be destroyed. The idea of privileging one kind of relationship over another by granting married couples extra rights, be they legal or social, is the creation of a hierarchy, which is against anarchist principles. At its inception marriage was the institution that legitimized the position of women as chattel. It was an economic contract between two men, involving the transferring of responsibility and ownership of a woman and whatever material wealth she came with. While women are no longer directly treated as property, marriage has remained an economic arrangement.

In the modern day, the dominant view of marriage is a guarantee of a number of social and financial obligations. Things like financial support and emotional support, a caretaker in sickness and old age, and sexual satisfaction, are all key elements of this arrangement. We know that, in reality, many marriages do not actually provide all these things. There are many single (and married) people who find these things in different and varying places. These are relationships that may very well be healthier and longer lasting than half the marriages officiated in the U.S. but they receive no special treatment in the eyes of the law, and instead may even need to defend their choices in the face of public scrutiny.


One example of this, which stands out, is that of single mothers. Single mothers frequently live and rely on family members and friends as their main support structure. They support themselves, and may have one or multiple sexual partners, or none at all. They then face scrutiny over not providing a father for their children, cannot access their relative’s health care plans (because they are not a spouse or a child), and are not receiving the same tax benefits given to any Tom, Dick or Sally who wants to get a marriage license.

Far too often marriage isolates people with their partners. Making it a state-sanctified institution only furthers this by adding an economic burden. The dominant focus on partnered romantic relationships is a remnant from a time when capitalism caused the family structure to be a profitable arrangement. If we are separated into categories, and given license to abandon our communities for the sake of one partnership, how can we ever expect to organize a revolution out of this mess? Marriage has been an issue that divides and disenfranchises those on the periphery of the hetero-monogamous culture. It is time to take this issue out of the public eye. Marriage is a partnership between two consenting adults. Coercion by state and market forces poisons relationships, and should be kept out at all costs regardless of the sex or gender of the people involved.




My position on Marriage Equality (to the extent that I have one) is that if I’d been in the room when the decision to foreground marriage as the main goal of the LGBT movement was made, I’d have argued hard against it for all the reasons usually mentioned: it’s a narrow demand benefiting mostly middle-class LGBT folks, it’s exclusionary toward non-monogamous relationships, it tends to overlook trans struggles and it’s not nearly so urgent as other issues like queer youth homelessness, etc.  However the political reality is that the decision to foreground Marriage Equality has long since been made. There’s no way to get the LGBT organizations to switch now. Plus this issue seems like it’ll inevitably be won in the next decade or two, and possibly much sooner. So let’s just win it as quickly as possible so we can move on to bigger and better things (and separate the queer prole wheat from the bourgeois chaff).




I want to start off by saying that I am a queer, femme, anarcha-feminist. I am also a queer rights activist from New York. This informs a lot of my opinions on marriage equality, not just because it is a fight I engage in, but also because it has put me arm-in-arm with many older queer couples. Looking someone in the eyes and seeing their struggle first hand, as they and their wife talk about their arrest records, is powerful. Those human experiences rightfully shape my opinions. This life experience lends me to write from a perspective in defense of marriage equality as a means of furthering human liberty and justice.

My case is that marriage equality helps destabilize a means of capitalist rule. Capitalism necessitates marriage inequality because straight marriage is a means of labor production. It is clear that the 1,138 federal privileges that come with marriage are a “reward” for making love, not being in love. They are a bribe. By taking those rights from the heteronormative culture for ourselves, we as queers are helping to publicly expose a major capitalist bribery technique for promoting unlimited labor production by the working class. This is the first step to liberating the entire working class from the tyranny of marriage as an institution, and further from capitalism as a whole. Education on this topic is crucial and happening because of this fight.

You might say, “but these privileges given to married couples is unjust in itself and giving more people these privileges will just expand the problem!” And, for the most part, you’d be correct. Marriage having any benefits is unjust and should be smashed to help destroy capitalist bribery as a means of controlling labor. I would argue that this critique is relevant and true. As it stands, however, it is an easier fight to get the privileged class to expand others into their “club” that it is to get them to give up their privilege. There are couples whose livelihoods depend on marriage equality, and although I hate the idea of them getting some privilege to cover their costs, I also hate the idea of my friend’s spouse being deported.  It’s a complex issue for me that boils down to this, “Privileges are shit, but if they have them, we should take them too.” It’s not a perfect proposal, but it meets needs right now. You might say, “marriage equality takes up too much activist time, there are better things to fight for. And once we win marriage those activists will fight against us, not for us.” This is also relevant and important to remember. There is a large mass of non-radical, conformist people in the marriage equality fight who will not fight for other basic rights once marriage is won and will resist us when we try to smash capitalism. Those people would be actively fighting for capitalism if they were straight.

I have addressed two common critiques of marriage equality and made a counter for these arguments, as well as addressing my own point on the issue. These are logical points to be made. On a more personal level, marriage equality levels the playing field for all working class people to get benefits, which helps sustain them under the oppression of capitalism. In debates about marriage equality I have said things like, “if someone is starving and marriage equality can feed them, then it is justice to give it to them.” And others have responded, “if you only feed yourself with unjust marriage privileges then you should be ashamed and deserve to starve.” I fundamentally disagree with this response because those fighting for marriage equality are struggling under capitalism and are fighting against their own unique oppression. Instead of critiquing marriage equality, fight hunger. Feed this person and you will take away their need for marriage. Do not pick on the table scraps queers are fighting for, even if you don’t feel that this is as substantive as other social issues. Show them the feast and they will fight for it. But remember that they cannot fight while starved. In the words of a fellow anarchist, “First, marriage equality. Second, full liberation.”




What are the benefits of getting married? There are 1,138 federal benefits, rights and responsibilities associated with marriage. Sounds pretty good, right?  The social benefits of marriage are fewer incidents of poverty and mental health issues. Unless you are LGBT those benefits aren’t yours, thanks to DOMA.

So how does the repeal of DOMA improve and benefit class struggle? Marriage can pull one or both people out of poverty. Immigrants can get visas. Now not every marriage can save you from poverty but two incomes is better than one.   If a partner dies the bills don’t fall on ones lap with no help from any kind of insurance. A death or an illness isn’t going to cripple a couple or a person. It’s a partnership of a business called my choice less life, living with capitalism.

The state can use words like procreation. That’s pretty dirty. What I do with anyone’s procreation is my business. This is that crazy idea that the only reason why you get married to is to produce children. I think we are doing just fine producing children without marriage. I can go reproduce one right now if I wanted to.

I personally don’t understand why anyone would want to get married. I don’t understand why people don’t reach for more.  We hide behind our partners. We cling to them when we are scared instead of finding it with in ourselves to be strong. We become dependent on people who can crush our hearts in seconds and put us in financial ruin. It is too much pressure and power for one person to have over you. It is a special thing to have a partner who pushes you to be everything you can be, loves you for everything you are.

Marriage can socially isolate you from the rest of your community. Why need anyone else when you have your partner? Do we know some married couples that are still committed to community? Yeah sure we do. But look at everyone else focused on their own benefits, their own houses, and their own families. Instead of being focused on the fact that we are all married to each other, we are all family, we all have housing, food, and heath care needs. I want more than one husband and I want more than one wife.   I don’t want to ask for permission to have that. I want to have sex with who ever I want and have children with strangers.




A couple quick thoughts on the recent marriage equality conversation…

The first thing I should say is that I have a moderate support for marriage equality as a strategic focus.  The criticisms about this choice tend to range between questions about whether or not the institution of marriage is something to associate with and the fact that it is much less substantive than things like healthcare, housing, etc.  While these criticisms are true, the choice to target marriage comes simply from the role that marriage still plays in society.  Today it stands as the arbitrating institution that grants acceptability to romantic relationships, even if it has evolved out of an ingrained patriarchy and maintains many of those qualities today.  The “opening up” of marriage begins to change not just the institution of marriage, but the barometer that is set for acceptability in our communities.  Its not just beneficial because it would allow for a new type of marriage, but because the restrictive institution that interferes and defines relationships has now been made to allow a wider grouping of possible relationships.  This is not a liberatory endgame, but a step-by-step for attempting to target institutionalized forms of homophobia and heterosexism and dismantle them.  From here the hope is that this will be a way to further undercut social institutions that maintain the legitimacy of homophobia, relegating same-sex relationships to the outskirts of the community.

One of the additional criticisms that has been leveled against the recent show of support was its branding through the Human Rights Campaign, which has created an incredibly narrow agenda that has maintained transphobia and has no long term goal for challenging the real institutions of inequality.  While this is true, the majority of the people who changed their social media avatars to equal signs knew nothing about the HRC.  More than that they do not know any other way to show their opposition to homophobia than to support same-sex marriage, and they are usually baffled by people’s opposition to marriage equality outside of a blatant homophobia.  In this way it was a chance to tap into a growing swell of support and to develop a movement that moves beyond marriage and into a force of change.  It is exciting to see a simple show of support on such a massive scale, and it should be a priority to stand with many of these people who have never spoke out politically before and may be inclined to start.  Many of the criticisms that have been spoken have been confusing to those uninitiated to the complexities of these issues, often times making them feel alienated.


A simple issue is at play in the case of marriage equality, and that is how it intimately affects people.  This is abstract as there are thousands of individuals who have a vested material interest in having a federally recognized marriage.  More than this, it has been fundamentally important to many people who are directly affected.  Though it may not be the issue that would be first on my list to target heterosexism, I think it is important to stand with people as they challenge forms of oppression that they feel affects them in an important way.  It is not my role to argue with a couple that has been restricted legal marriage recognition that instead they need to question the bourgeois institution of marriage.

With all this being said, there are a lot of issues that should be thought about here.  When the entire issue of queer rights is framed in terms of marriage equality it inevitably begins to neglect trans people, especially the frightening bigotry they face in the workplace and medical clinics.  It additionally acts as a conservatizing force that accepts non-traditional relationships to conform to the stands set by a society founded on conservative moral structures and property relations.  Marriage stands as a structuring force that lets limits on what kinds of relationships outside of the marriage are acceptable and requires that the state be intimately involved in a number of different ways.  It attempts to normalize same-sex relationships by remodeling them in the image of heterosexual ones, and that is not something we should necessarily be celebrating.


Marriage Equality Rally in Portland, Oregon.
Marriage Equality Rally in Portland, Oregon.



Tim Kiff

Gay marriage is important insofar as it secures people concrete rights. It is unconscionable that homosexual couples aren’t allowed visitation rights, access to their partners healthcare, and do not receive the same benefits that straight married couples do.

That said, the institution of state-sanctioned marriage, and the doling out of rights/benefits along the lines of married couples, is restrictive, outmoded and unnecessary. Marriage, and its associated benefits, is a tool the state uses to make life easier for those who chose to act in a way that is beneficial to its continued functionality.

The fight for the rights of LGBT people to marry is important because it is going to improve people’s lives, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the idea of state-sanctioned marriage is creepy and weird.

Harvey Milk Day of Action in Rochester, NY, 2010. People rally and marched into the County Clerk's office, demanding marriage licenses.  This is shortly before New York State began granting same-sex marriages.
Harvey Milk Day of Action in Rochester, NY, 2010.
People rally and marched into the County Clerk’s office, demanding marriage licenses. This is shortly before New York State began granting same-sex marriages.
Photo by Amber James


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Marriage equality has been important to activists in Rochester, NY, for years. Check out this video of a 2009 rally in response to Maine’s repeal of same-sex marriage rights.

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