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The Problems Inherent In Marriage Itself

The Problems Inherent In Marriage Itself
Sarah Schulman

Gay people are fitting themselves into a dysfunctional box in order to win approval

President Obama’s endorsement of marriage rights for same-sex couples gives us a moment to reflect on what lesbian, gay and bisexual people have had to do to win this recognition. We’re all sophisticated enough to know that oppressed minorities don’t just achieve basic rights because the dominant group has an epiphany. On the contrary, LGB people, like others who came before them have to go through (or seem to go through) assimilative transformations in order to become acceptable enough to the heterosexual majority to be considered for equal legal rights.

In its origins, the Gay Liberation movement arose to change society, to expand rigid gender roles, to break down confining social mores of privatized families and to defy the consumerism that accompanies monogamy and nuclear family lifestyle in the United States. It stood for sexual expression based on consensual desires, and community based relationships in tandem with monogamous and non-monogamous couples.

However, the AIDS crisis changed all this. At the same that AIDS made it impossible for America to continue to pretend that homosexuality did not exist, LGB Americans internalized the traumatizing messages of the AIDS crisis. We watched 500,000 Americans die of government indifference and neglect. In a transformation similar to that of post-Holocaust Jews in the United States, LGB people began to assimilate in large numbers. The continued distorted representation of our lives in mainstream arts and entertainment coupled with pervasive familial homophobia, pressured many LGB people into abandoning or perhaps forgetting about the goal of an expanded society. In a sense we were “bullied” into letting the society change us. The bait was that the more we appeared to mirror heterosexual family structure, sexual mores and consumer patterns, the more they would accept us. In this way, instead of changing society, society changed us – and – on the surface- we now have lost a great deal of our specificity and are so recognizable to straight people that even the most powerful heterosexual in the world, Barack Obama is confidently unthreatened enough to endorse equal marriage rights.

What this does not address, however, are the problems inherent in marriage itself. we all know that 50% of heterosexual marriages end in divorce. So, clearly marriage is not working as an institution. Now that gay people are fitting themselves into a dysfunctional box in order to win approval, our futures will surely be as strewn with disappointment, legal battles and failure to conform that heterosexuals endure, even with their constant advocacy by film and television, and the profound privileges given to them by their families. In this way we are living in the gay version of the 1950’s. But the 1960’s are just around the corner. Inevitably these conservatizing trends will again explode into a new sexual revolution, collective living, and a desire for liberatory feminism. I just hope I live long enough to see it.


  1. Our BiNation

    We agree absolutely.

  2. diz

    “we all know that 50% of heterosexual marriages end in divorce. So, clearly marriage is not working as an institution”

    You mean heterosexual (and binary) marriage is not working as an institution. I’ve never heard of there being much evidence to indicate how other forms of marriage are or aren’t working as institutions.

    Admittedly, that’s not really the point of the article, and I agree with the rest of it – I’d be in favour of abolishing the concept of “legal marriage” entirely, if there are too many unwilling to accept it for all combinations of willing partners.

  3. Diane D'Angelo

    “In its origins, the Gay Liberation movement arose to change society, to expand rigid gender roles, to break down confining social mores of privatized families and to defy the consumerism that accompanies monogamy and nuclear family lifestyle in the United States.”

    Oh really? I don’t remembering signing up for that.

    • Colleen

      Thank you.

      The sense of righteousness and I might add complete disconnection from the vast hordes of non”radical” queers that populate the country is astounding. The vast majority of glbt people are really into gay marriage.

      • l

        That might be true, but does that mean that others who have a differing opinion should stop voicing them? This was written respectfully. Amazing how you call upon the legitimacy of the majority when “you” are the majority, but that sure as hell doesn’t fly when it comes to states voting for the rights of the gay minority. What is popular isn’t always right. I think all of us gays and queers on both sides, know that.

        • Colleen

          It’s not a differing opinion, it’s a claim that those who are into things like marriage or monogomy are patsy sellouts. Connecting people limiting rights of GLBT people through the legal system to calling out a self-selected vangaurd for claiming moral supierority doesn’t make sense. This vanguard approach is insulting as it cloaks itself as carrying the spirit of the queer movement, while ignoring the thoughts of the majority of queer people.

    • c

      Well maybe you weren’t part of the “gay liberation movement.” But is what the “gay liberation movement” was.

    • Beth

      Well, maybe you’re too young or not educated about movement history to know this, but that was indeed the platform of the early gay movement. The shift to marriage and military rights is fairly recent.

  4. I certainly understand the argument some have made that marriage is a religious institution in the first place in which the state should play no role. Hence, the state institution we call ‘marriage’ should simply be removed and replaced with civil partnership, which of course should be open to whichever individuals want to enter into that.

    Personally, what bugs me more than anything though is how transparent it is in this moment that Obama has nothing of substance to offer to people who are struggling to get by, to people who invested their hope in him. Of course we all know this announcement, especially with this timing, represents little more than a re-election gimmick. And because Obama has the “courage” to say something he could have been saying all along (setting aside for the moment concerns about the institution of marriage itself) many so-called progressives will cheer him along, even as he launches his re-election campaign from Bank of America stadium.

    More than anything, this “evolution” represents a failure to adequately deal with the gradually worsening health care problems the nation faces, a failure to evolve the nation’s foreign policy in a significantly different direction that his predecessor, a failure to reign in the military-industrial complex money hole, and a failure to reform the tax code so that the wealthiest Americans actually have to pay their share.

    If Obama had succeeded on even one of those issues, this gimmick of an evolution would be unnecessary for his campaign.

  5. Great articulation of what’s wrong with marriage, but that oft-used statistic is misunderstood, and unfortunately, it’s used incorrectly here (as it frequently is by many others). The “divorce rate” is the number of marriages in a given year (as the numerator) over the number of divorces in that same year (as the denominator). These numbers are inherently biased, because the pool of individuals from which the denominator draws (anyone who got married in the given or any preceding year) is much, much larger than the number of people who got married in just that year. With more than 200,000,000 adults in the United States, 51 percent of whom are married, that is a significantly larger denominator to draw from with regard to how many divorces will occur in a single year. But according to the Pew Center, if an adult gets married in the United States, the likelihood that they will stay married to that person is greater than 90 percent.

    Perhaps of interest to Ms. Schulman’s discussion here is the evidence that states with same-sex marriage don’t show any difference in the likelihood of divorce than states which have banned it.

    All of this is to say that while marriage as an institution has grave flaws and the shift in the LGB community’s focus toward assimilation is very problematic, we can’t point at a divorce rate as evidence to make our case about either of those things.

    • skeptical in general

      “But according to the Pew Center, if an adult gets married in the United States, the likelihood that they will stay married to that person is greater than 90 percent.” This cannot be right, unless by “stay married’ they mean something like “stay married for less than 10 years”. Is there a link where they analyze the statistics that way?

      • Skeptical is good! Okay, so maybe I came across this critique of the divorce rate and the corresponding divorce probability in 1991, when I was in college. I can’t find the same Pew reference that I read in my course book, but I did find a couple of references to a “1 in 8″ statistic—any newlywed faces a 1 in 8 probability of a future divorce from their spouse, and this probability can shift due to a whole host of other factors, like age of individual at time of marriage, whether they’ve been divorced before, whether they lived with their spouse before marriage, whether they had children together, and even the number of children and sex of children. Socioeconomic factors are also determinants of the probability for future divorce, but many other things we’d assume would be factors, like political party, are not.

      • So here’s the thing with that link you presented: it’s a very small sample. Ten thousand people sounds like a lot, but there are 305,000,000 people in the United States today, officially (there are roughly 17-20 million more who are undocumented). The age range of those in the population is only 18-44, which does not represent the entirety of who gets married in the country, so I would say there is too much measurement error in the sample at hand. It’s not a helpful data set from which to make assertions about divorce rates.

        Yes, I really like statistics.

  6. jess

    I’m not so sure I agree with your assessment that change is only now starting to happen because the gay community has “assimilated” and been bullied into mirroring heterosexual families…….

    Personally I believe families with two moms or two dads or a transgender mother or father have always been the same as heterosexual families (minus a higher rate of in vitro and adoption perhaps)

    It was not a matter of trying to fit into a mold or a box, it was a matter of working to convince the world that we– as we are no changes necessary– fit into the same mold, that our families shouldn’t be viewed differently

  7. William Peters

    I don’t understand. Why are using LGB? Sarah Schulman loves victimhood. Her positions are incredibly two dimensional. “Fitting themselves into a box to win approval…” That’s absurd. I’m sorry but me and my friends don’t give a fuck about winning approval from anyone. We’ve done nothing – nothing – to distort our true selves. We’ve stood up to our families, and live as wholly and as out (beyond out) as one can. We have plenty of straight friends who adore us and who are enlightened, genuinely supportive people. They don’t support us because we’ve fitted ourselves into a box. What an insult. This is dismissive academic elitism and snobbery. Shit, is there no room for growth? Is there no space to allow someone to move and change? Honestly, to swat away any victory and keep people in a box rather than building and emphasizing their strengths? What shitty leadership. “Assimiliative transformations” to become acceptable? How about hard won victories stemming from gay people and their allies kicking ass to gain visibility and demanding their rights?
    Calling Barack Obama the most powerful heterosexual in the world is just pathetic. He has a history of supporting progessive issues but in the end is a run of the mill tool who sold out to become president. He believes in civil rights for gay people. I mean, what’s so hard to grasp?
    Gay people face real discrimination and true danger, to be sure. No one is denying that. But to refuse to acknowledge that there is ANY genuine sincere acceptance is oppressive. You keep everyone down by flushing away any victory and negating successes as assimilitave transformations. It is a meaningless dogma that leads nowhere.
    The Gay Liberation movement “stood for sexual expression based on consensual desires, and community based relationships in tandem with monogamous and non-monogamous couples.” I’m not being facetious when I say I genuinely don’t even know what this means.
    And to invoke the Holocaust. I mean, honestly. You should be ashamed. The willful ignorance around AIDS was obscene. Comparing it to the planned, systematic execution, torture, rape and brutalization of an entire group. The holocaust was designed to starve, gas and murder all Jews, gays and others. The AIDS crisis was in no way shape or form the same.
    Finally, if you might climb off your Ivory tower for a moment, I would love it if you could please give us concrete examples of the way we’ve been “bullied” into assimilating? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

    • Z

      I was going to write a response, but William Peters said pretty much what I was going to say. I’m sick to death of the victim mentality embodied by people like Sarah Schulman. They seem addicted to failure, enjoying nay-saying and criticizing others’ good efforts far more than doing constructive things to achieve incremental progress. It must be exhausting to live like this. I feel for Sarah, but I have no patience for this type of attitude.

  8. Colleen

    Ok all of the radical queers – listen up. Quiet down , I have an announcement. All “Radical Queers” who do not beleive in the intuition of marriage and who beleive priorities lie elsewhere – yes you – line up over here. Now, stop fucking with other queers who have different priorities then you and don’t get gay married and don’t advocate for gay marriage. But do stop acting like you have divine knowledge of what other queers should or should not want.

    Everyone else, move along.

    • Turtle

      please elaborate on how your preoccupation with marriage is being “fucked with,” so that I might more effectively listen up, quiet down, and/or move along.

      • Colleen

        When people take it into themselves to self-righteously condemn all those who support gay marriage as that is not the true path, it’s pretty upsetting! When people like Mattilda and numerous people I consider allies in other contexts make self righteous arguments that any money ever spent on gay marriage campaigns is being literally stolen from the backs of homeless queer youth. Like 1) homeless queer youth also don’t care about the concept of gay marriage 2) that people can support both concepts 3 ) like whoever is putting forth those self righteous critiques is the arbitrator on what everyone else should or should not prioritize.

        I would love to see an itemized expense list for any body making these arguments, and show how hypocritical they are when they spend money OB things other then assisting homeless queer youth.

        • Turtle

          so, the main problem is “self-righteous condemnation.” this is coming from the person who [double] posted maybe the most condescending and least substantive comment possible on this issue.

          if internal discussion within queer communities about differing priorities and goals is really that threatening to you, this might not be the best website to hang out on.

          • Colleen

            Condescending I’ll own up to, but it’s not self-righteous. I’ll leave that to those in the queer vangaurd who are going to educate all the homo’s who are into monogomy that they are making the wrong choice.

  9. Colleen

    Ok all of the radical queers – listen up. Quiet down , I have an announcement. All “Radical Queers” who do not beleive in the intuition of marriage and who beleive priorities lie elsewhere – yes you – line up over here. Now, stop messing with other queers who have different priorities then you and don’t get gay married and don’t advocate for gay marriage. But do stop acting like you have divine knowledge of what other queers should or should not want.

    Everyone else, move along.

    • Wait, should I listen up or quiet down? I’m getting motion sickness.

  10. Regardless of the actual divorce rate, I don’t think whatever one might consider a “high” number of divorces should be held against the insitution of marriage, since the ability to divorce easily is one of its most important reforms.

    I just divorced on Monday, and I certainly don’t consider my marriage a failure, though admittedly I’m a special case, as an openly gay man who legally married an openly straight woman last November on the stage of a gay strip club. It was a social sculpture that gave us rights and privileges denied to same-sex couples and unmarried people, which we, in keeping with our vows, we forfeited by divorcing:

    One of the things I got out of the performance was the idea that even for people like me who aren’t the marrying kind there can be value in going through the process and its associated rituals, which participants are free to design themselves. Another is that making art is as good a reason to get married — and divorced — as any.

  11. c.w.

    I think the point that people are missing (because this is a very brief essay) is the fundamental elitism and assimilation implicit in the institution of marriage itself. It began as a patriarchal institution of property ownership of women. Then it became(in most parts of the world) a primarily consensual contract between men and women. Then its obvious problem was that it was exclusive to heterosexuals. Now it is being opened up, but it still places coupledom over individuals or non-monogamous partnerships. It was always and always will be an institutional foundation of a hierarchical society. She is saying that the more powerful political movement around LGB issues was originally gay liberation, which is fundamentally different than gay rights, in that is sought to change society, and move it away from historically oppressive institutions and patterns like marriage, war, consumerism, Darwinist and nuclear economic structures, etc. And she is noting the historical context which caused the shift from ‘gay liberation,” toward assimilation, “gay rights.” You may very well be for marriage, still, this is assimilation. You may very well be for assimilation, but there is a history to assimilation becoming what the gay community is primarily fighting for. In other words, the perceived left has become the center and the center, “the right.” Thank you, Sarah, for voicing the history and making visible a leftist perspective, which does still exist within gay and queer communities, although it is less often heard and when it is, more often misunderstood. Just because one disagrees with ideals of liberation, does not mean they never existed at the forefront.

    • William Peters

      Thanks. This is a helpful response. I didn’t understand the distinction between Gay Liberation and gay rights. Though I’m still not clear what Shulman (apologies if my previous post was harsh and insulting) means by gay people having to go through “assimilative transformations in order to become acceptable enough to the heterosexual majority to be considered for equal legal rights.” What about the prospect that gay people have altered the majority through their political work?

  12. James

    This would be an interesting and even provocative article, except that there are basic logical fallacies which destroy the argument and credibility. This is the sort of thing I expect from introductory level composition students; not from published authors and supposed academics. Ah well.

    • Beth

      And what, pray, ARE these logical fallacies? It’s easy enough to say that they are there, but if you can’t bring evidence to bear upon your clam, you’re the one in need of intro. comp.

      • Beth

        Claim, I mean claim. Though the idea of bringing evidence to bear upon a clam is kind of charming.

  13. Jennifer

    I support equal rights for all, but have deep skepticism re. marriage, in part because of the patriarchal history and my skepticism of any institution. But I want to be able to get married if I want to and to be able to get divorced too. I’d also like to hear more thoughtful ideas for alternatives. I got married, to a person of the opposite sex, when I was in my early twenties for many reasons that were unrelated to the capacity to make an adult and self-aware decision about life partnership. A few months later I came out and began my life long process of continuing to learn startling new things about myself. I have been in a committed same sex partnership for over 20 years and have an otherwise conventional family with children. I worry about my partner not being able to collect my social security one day. I felt heart broken when my 7 year old asked one day, astonished, “what do you mean you and Mom aren’t married?!” At the same time, I wonder sometimes (furtively) really? are we supposed to be with one person till death do us part?? Marriage, it’s complicated. Relationships, confusing. Laws, should be equal. But can we talk about the possibilities some more?

  14. joyce fishman

    I believe that changes, however small, end up in producing, as a collective,
    bigger changes. At 77, I can only imagine society in another 2 generations.

  15. Jim Drain

    Marriage makes me horny.

  16. Isn't it obvious

    On Canada we’ve had gay marriage for around ten years. In that time I’ve been proposed-to twice and in both cases said no. Saying yea would indeed have shut me into a dysfunctional box not because marriage is a bad thing but because my relationships were pretty awful. Not abusive awful, just the regular kind of awful.

    Having gay marriage as an option woke me up to the fact that there is no bloody way I’m gonna share half my stuff with Whatshisface NOR was I prepared to sign on for more bad sex. So while I’m all for equal rights, you sure as shit don’t have to exercise the right if you don’t want to.

  17. andrea lepcio

    Most excellent, Sarah. You make me wonder if the LGBT community would have pushed for gay marriage if we hadn’t experienced AIDS. I know that for me I never wanted to be more like straight people, I wanted to be more myself, more free, more able to realize life on my own terms. I happen to be in a happy 20-year relationship with my partner and we like the feeling that we are choosing each other every day. Thank you for speaking up for choice and freedom.

  18. Why attribute the mainstream lgbt movement’s assimilationist and normalizing tendencies to the AIDS crisis? Didn’t the AIDS crisis radicalize many folks as well? And expose gay folks with privilege to poor people/people of color they would not have come into contact with otherwise? Isn’t the normalization more about the professionalization, over time, of the movement and its politics? Wasn’t the respectability-oriented strain present within lgbt communities from the get-go, in tandem with the liberationist folks, and it just became more dominant over time? Or do I just not understand history at all??? …Not to mention that the gay liberation movement, like other queer radicalisms, undoubtedly had its own limitations regarding race and class. I have no doubt that there is much to be learned from the liberation movement and much more of that history that needs to be elevated and honored, but I also worry about romanticizing that era and ignoring the hard work that intersectionality-oriented LGBT/queer radicals have done in the decades since.

  19. Cortney

    Many points to consider here, but I wanted to address one underlying assumption: the idea that “clearly marriage is not working as an institution.” Is that really so clear? The claim seems to be based on the divorce rate, but the goal of legal marriage is not the prevention of divorce, but the protection of the involved parties (partners & children). Such legal protections (tax & insurance benefits, financial responsibility in the case of divorce, etc) form the heart of the marriage-equality debate. Divorce rates speak to the success of marriage as a cultural institution, not to whether or not the vulnerabilities induced by the construct (marriage) are being addressed adequately by law.

  20. Jacques Grove

    I agree with the article. The issue however, is that in thinking about the de-legislation of any kind of marriage, a problem arises in that many individual rights (inheritance, adoption, parental rights, pensions to name just a few) are legally wrapped up in or supported by the current legislation pertaining to marriage.

    What we are asking for in the de-legislation of marriage is an almost complete rewrite and re-invention of existing laws that do not necessarily or directly pertain to marriage alone.

    Even when we have gained enough impetus to gain a majority decision to de-legislate marriage, the actual process of re-writing supplementary and complementary law is going to be a multi-generational process.

    We have to fundamentally rethink the way we approach the individual in respect of legislation, and how much of partnership law can be jury-rigged to fill the gap that is going to be left in existing legislation, as legislation will simply not recognize any “union” beyond the legal partnership.

    This is going to take either generations or a complete creative rethink of individual law.

  21. To see a rational argument deteriorate in to a screaming session is rather pathetic, and none of us deserve it, or for that matter get much from it.
    Perhaps, many of you are too young to know it, but 40 years ago the Gay Liberation Movement (started at Stonewall by a bunch of black Transgenders, who got tired of giving free blow jobs to the police) took its inspiration from the more radical segments of the Civil Rights Movement, called the Black Power Movement, so we should all at least agree that Ms. Schulman is correct about the initial direction of the Gay Movement. It is also empirically true that HIV/AIDS had a very sobering and frightening effect on both gays and bisexuals. People were dying like flies. We were going to two, even three funerals a week. A whole generation of artists disappeared. People we never suspected were bisexual or queer slowly died in front of us. Using the Jewish reference to the Holocaust seems to be an appropriate metaphor. ACT UP was one of the few gay organizations that remained radical and loud protesting that silence=death. The rest of us got quite, kept our heads down, and went along to get along. We were scared. Everyone thought they were next to die – and our fear killed most of us. It’s no wonder many gays and lesbians today just want to buy into the romanticism of marriage. Almost all of the people, who want to get married are white, upper middle class gays and lesbians. With the average marriage costing about $25,641.00 very few other people can even entertain the idea of getting married. Everyone who is married already knows it can be a dull, boring, routine, sex killing institution that needs a lot of work. Those who have never been married are fighting to be heteronormative. Millions of bisexuals have already altered it to make it more fulfilling and satisfying. There are 10 million swingers in the US and 80 percent of them are married bisexual women. Of those about 25 to 30 percent have bisexual husbands. There are about 500,000 polyamorous triads in the US , and most of them are made up of bisexual women and men. About one-third of gay marriages are non monogamous. The notions of gender polarity are already beginning to fail. The millions of bisexuals, who never call or think of themselves as bi are supporting same-sex marriage, because they are liberals and libertarians. We are already creating queer marriages. The 60’s are already here.

  22. Really informative article post.Really thank you! Much obliged.

  23. Very neat article.Thanks Again. Awesome.

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