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A Less Perfect Union: Gay Marriage and the Subversion of the Republic
Posted on Oct 24, 2008
By Scott Tucker
After the California Supreme Court decision was announced in May, well-meaning people asked whether I would be marrying Larry Gross, my friend, lover and comrade of 33 years. We already considered ourselves married, and this marriage existed long before we tied the legal knot in a civil ceremony on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Los Angeles. Our real marriage belongs in the old-fashioned antinomian tradition. No bloody thanks to career politicians, to churches or synagogues, or to the corporate state. We consider legal marriage as an important but limited advance in a landscape still strewn with land mines. Certainly the far right will retrench in another part of the field.
Look, we’re glad some justices on the bench still have some sense of justice. But let’s not lose our heads while walking up the aisle and collecting enough crystal and cutlery to go into the catering business. We chose legal marriage with the aim of securing benefits which are by no means entirely secured by civil unions alone. Whether we like it or not, marriage in this country has not yet been disentangled from religious presumptions and from petty dictators. We feel genuine uncertainty and anxiety about democracy in this country, and we cannot rely upon many “progressives” and career politicians in the fight for civil equality. To count upon leading corporate Democrats in the fight for democratic socialism would be delusional. Under these circumstances, we cut a deal with the state, but we will never disavow solidarity with single people, with non-monogamous people and with communal households.
The outright refusal of marriage is a principled position that commands respect. Especially since we do not live in a society which bears any resemblance to a social democracy. But only a dogmatist would claim that such refusals are the only way to gain traction and resistance against the Straight State, or against a society Christopher Isherwood once called “the heterosexual dictatorship.” That dictatorship has been eroded and undermined over recent decades, but we cannot predict the trajectory of social change or social reaction.
Social democrats inside and outside the Green, Socialist and Democratic parties are engaged in a war of position across a broad front of struggles. No one is claiming that same-sex marriage is the path to utopia, only that this struggle is essential to the preservation of a secular republic.
Some “progressives” endorse the notion that civil unions should be a separate but equal institution for lesbians and gay men. That may sound fair at first, but consider: If civil unions are to be the gold standard in a secular republic, why not advance the campaign for civil unions by encouraging straight folks to lead by example?
Again, consider: Why not begin a widespread boycott of marriage among those who are presently the overwhelming majority of members within that club—namely, heterosexuals? To ask such questions is to answer them—because the overwhelming majority is not brave. Neither among heterosexuals nor among homosexuals. If civic courage and dissent were already the daily norm, then indeed we might be on the verge of a social revolution. Or at least a general strike. Instead, we choose our battles, but not often on the social terrain we would like to choose.
What is the moral and political difference between marriage as a human right and marriage as just another capitalist country club? Marriage has a social history and indeed human possibilities that long predate the modern state. There are secular libertarians who are willing to reinvent marriage as one more corporate contract, and some of them do indeed serve as judges in the public courts. This does not mean we, the people, must accept the bad bargain of capitalist social relations without friction or struggle.
The far right worries that same-sex couples will pollute and damage the sacred institution of marriage. Indeed, equal justice also means that marriages are valid without the sacred canopy of any faith or religion. We are already living witnesses of the simultaneous breakdown and revision of social and legal contracts which include marriage, but which also go well beyond marriage.
If marriage offers only the protection of a corporate contract, then we are all well advised: Buyer beware! Then the marital contract has all the romance of the health insurance racket, which functions by ensuring the health of the insurance industry, and which offers condolences to patients who did not decipher the fine print. But people who choose legal marriages are not mere products on an industrial assembly line. We, the people, are not of one mind. This pluralism of ideas and desires is the homeland of democracy.
A secular republic must guarantee the freedom of all persons to love and marry whomever we wish. A republic respecting human rights and civil liberties must therefore be founded upon limited government and a division of public power. In the realm of love and of kinship, each of us must defend the most perfect freedom of association. One of the earliest flags of resistance against the British empire was a banner bearing the image of a coiled snake ready to strike and the motto “Don’t Tread On Me.” That’s the spirit, if only we dared.
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