This week, the Supreme Court took up the debate over same-sex unions. As Justice Roberts remarked on Wednesday, political leaders have been “falling all over themselves” to endorse marriage equality. Fine. But why do so many gays and lesbians want their romantic relationships recognized by the state in the first place? There are, of course, bureaucratic matters: tax breaks, hospital visitations, and other federal benefits many same-sex couples are currently denied. But why marriage? Back in 2010, Kristin Perry (of Hollingsworth v. Perry, one of the cases now before the Supreme Court) testified that she wanted to get married because when you are married, “everyone can, in a sense, join in supporting your relationship.” People “know what your relationship means.” For many marriage equality advocates, marriage is about more than tax breaks and hospital visits; it’s about making gay relationships visible to the world and legitimate under the law.
Until recently, I’d been a real crank when it came to marriage equality. I knew plenty of queer folks who weren’t the marrying sort, and counted myself among them. And in so many instances, queers in non-monogamous, non-romantic relationships had raised children, comforted the dying, and sustained a culture. The marriage equality lobby seemed determined to rewrite gay history as a series of traditional love stories and to forget about other kinds of love, and other kinds of community. Last winter, though, I was talking to two friends who had gotten hitched the year before. They told me about their reasons for getting married, and about the elements of Jewish tradition they’d decided to include in their wedding. For them, marriage hadn’t been about erasing the other relationships in their lives; it had been about bringing all those other relationships to bear on the central romance.
It sounded like a beautiful wedding. Friends did a lot of the work: one designed invitations; another did most of the catering. A third carved wooden poles for the chuppah, the canopy under which the (in this case) bride and groom said their vows and symbolically established a home. For this couple, marriage was a way of recognizing that their longstanding romantic relationship didn’t exist in a vacuum. It existed, at least in part, because of the other people in their lives. The wedding enacted this interrelationship. An artist and an academic, my friends had gotten used to moving from city to city, from apartment to apartment, at least once a year; the fragile, temporary shelter of the chuppah approximated their constant pack-up-and-go. During the ceremony, four female family members held up the four chuppah poles. The poles were too short to rest on the ground, so this meant real exertion. Four strong women literally held the roof over the couple’s heads.
Consider this web of symbols, though, against Perry’s reasons for wanting legal recognition for her romantic partnership. She wants “everyone” holding up her chuppah, as it were. She wants “people” in general to know what her relationship means. Is legal recognition really necessary for that? Since when do we turn to the law to strengthen our communities? It’s a perilous tendency, to invest in legal status as a source of spiritual or emotional meaning. May we instead fly under the state’s radar, and find our own ways of strengthening relationships, of preserving tradition, and of celebrating community. Whether we’re able to get legally married or not, let’s formalize and celebrate our relationships in ritual and public sharing—amen and hallelujah! But let’s do that on our own terms. We can do better than the U.S. Legal Code for our sacred text.
If we get emotionally over-invested in legal recognition, we risk giving the law more sway over our lives, not less. And we risk undervaluing the relationships we might not have names for. Think about it this way: modern law recognizes certain kinds of work (highway construction, investment banking) more than it does others (parenting, cultural transmission). And the more we invest in legal categories as a source of meaning, the more we forget about the parts of our lives that don’t exist within legal categories. Just as queers have long formed relationships that the legal system didn’t recognize, women historically performed work that the culture at large didn’t (or, increasingly, doesn’t) recognize as work.
Of course we should have female construction workers and female investment bankers, just as we should have queer husbands and queer wives. But let’s not forget that just as parenting and cultural transmission are important work, so the relationships we have aren’t any less real for lack of a federal statute.