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Fighting for Same-Sex Marriage, Divorcing State-Sanctioned Marriage

Fighting for Same-Sex Marriage, Divorcing State-Sanctioned Marriage

While we await the results of the US Supreme Court’s consideration of “same-sex marriage,” I find myself wondering why, in order for a marriage to be considered legitimate, it has to be sanctioned by a government. Why should a private relationship between people be subject to a political thumbs up or down?

Since the US is a basically a culturally Christian society, it’s worth looking back at how it all happened. Christian European societies did not require marriage to be sanctioned by or registered with the state until the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Before this, marriage was a more private matter not requiring formal recognition by anyone but the newly married and their community. It is significant that in England the state began tracking marriages at the same time it was upending its own society, harnessing it to the Industrial Revolution and nascent global capitalism—fencing and privatizing the commons, reducing people to their raw, individual labor power and the resources they personally own.

Knowing who each person is, what resources they have, and who they’re married to (the combination of resources) allows for easier calculation of how to most efficiently use labor and raw materials in a given society. This is when the science of statistics emerges. State-sanctioned marriage formalizes some gender roles and relations and criminalizes all others, which the state later exports and imposes on the indigenous inhabitants of its new colonies. It formalizes patrilineal inheritance. It endows privileges to a certain kind of marriage. It presents an ideal against which all are measured, and allows the state and ruling classes to wag a moral finger at the undisciplined masses. The state develops institutions and mechanisms with which to keep the masses in line with the new normal, or to belittle those who don’t fall in line.

Many scholars have contributed to this type of critical analysis of marriage, ranging from feminists and marxists to post-structural, post-colonial, and queer thinkers.

As far as I know, Buddhism does not explicitly insist on any particular form of marriage, though the suttas describe unethical situations to be avoided that are likely to cause harm. Many different forms of marriage have existed within Buddhist cultures. I don’t know enough to say if there exist forms of marriage institutionalized and justified by state interpretations of Buddhism. I do know legalization of marriage for Zen monks was used by Imperial Japan to weaken their status and power. States can wield great power and control through monopolization and manipulation of marriage.

None of this is to say that getting married is wrong. I love the idea of commitment, being witnessed by friends and family, and having a big party to celebrate. But why should the state have anything to do with it? In present times we are accustomed to asking the state to recognize our human and civil rights, which despite being a very important struggle to undertake, is a bit like asking the wolf to safeguard the hen house. It’s understandable though—recognition of our rights is important so that we will be treated equally, or at least have a legal basis for being treated equally. We also want our love to be recognized as legitimate.

But being given the right to marry by the state, though an important right, too easily becomes about being included in the status quo club. It’s about being recognized as part of the definition of normal, through which the outsiders get to join the insiders, leaving others still out. It’s about being able to access the privileges unique to marriage, the economic, political, medical, and propertied privileges attached to it by the state, which will continue to leave others out. We should not have to be married to access these privileges. In fact, they should not be privileges at all, but available to everyone.

Otherwise, we are getting into a serious, committed relationship with the mercurial state, whose enduring love for minority groups is certainly never guaranteed. We can support many different arrangements of families and relationships without preference or penalty—not through state recognition, but by divorcing human relationships from the state, and its troubling in-law, capitalism.

For other perspectives on same-sex marriage, consider the following:

More about why some communities are against one of the leading organizations advocating for same-sex marriage:

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Comments (4)

  • Dawn Haney

    I think this contradiction I’m facing – to hold BOTH solidarity for struggles for marriage equality with a critique of the institution of marriage – is supported by my Buddhist practice. For me, practice has given me more space to be comfortable with contradictions, to not have to fix myself to one view or another.

    Said more smartly by one of my favorite Twitter activists (and possibly secret Buddhist?!), Feminist Hulk (@feministhulk): “HULK SUPPORT QUEER AND FEMINIST CHALLENGES TO MARRIAGE AS INSTITUTION. HULK ALSO CHAMPION SAME-SEX MARRIAGE. HULK VAST, CONTAIN MULTITUDES.”

    h/t to Rachel Buddeberg, who re-posted the tweet on facebook (despite her radical critique of the institution of facebook. Containing multitudes!):

  • Katie Loncke

    First, I just have to share this beautiful reflection from writer, artist, healer, and anti-assimilationist queer activist Mahfam Malek, who I had the good fortune of meeting at a Vipassana meditation retreat.

    All this marriage talk has got me thinking about how love is the most miraculous thing ever. It is the thing that gets us through the oppressive stuff, the stressful stuff, the how-the-hell-am-I-going-to-make-it-out-alive? stuff. It is the people with whom we celebrate the easy moments in which we magically forget all that is wrong in the world & focus on what’s right, & laugh out loud with our heads thrown back. I want to celebrate all the love in my life – my blood family, who has always had my back in their own complicated way; my wider community, those of you whom I may not know well but with whom I stand in solidarity & struggle & joy & a common desire to do better; my friends, the tried & true, ride-or-die, pick me up from some strange location at 3 am or be around to listen to me cry about the same stupid heartbreak over & over again; & the myriad relationships that may not fall into any of these categories, but that we humans weave & create & make work for us & for each other. And for those of you who have that romantic stuff, too, on top of all that? I hope you enjoy the hell out of it – for yourself & also for all of us who don’t have it, and who dare to believe that we, too, broken/whole, deserve to love & be loved.

    —Mahfam Malek


    On the political tip — and I say this as a never-married, currently single, open-relationship-practicing, no-dependents, US legal citizen who has benefited from heterosexual and cisgender privilege all my life…

    I agree that it’s important to make space for multitudes, but I would be curious to see a comparison of resources devoted to championing same-sex marriage in the US, versus resources devoted to challenging marriage as an institution. For a group like the Human Rights Campaign, I think that’s a no-brainer. The bulk of resources are going toward relatively conservative reforms that still exclude many people from privileges that ought to be rights for everyone. (And the HRC has a history of maintaining certain exclusions, like when they went ahead and supported the Employee Non-Discrimination Act even though it basically sold out transgender people, and much of the LGBT community was therefore against it.)

    This isn’t to say that some people won’t be helped if same-sex marriage is legalized, nor to minimize the impact of those benefits in their lives. But I feel like it’s also helpful to ask how the ‘multitude’ of approaches to justice actually break down in terms of power and funding, and also what are the long-term costs of short-term solutions that work for some people. As one article puts it (shared by engaged Buddhist par excellence Maia Duerr):

    “…current strategies ignore something about marriage rights that ought to be obvious to anyone excluded from them, especially when that group is arguing that being excluded has real, material consequences. That is, that we are arguing to be able to use marriage as a shield against wrongs that no one, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status, should suffer. No loved one should be excluded from survivors benefits and pensions, end of life decision-making, hospital visitation, and the many other family rights reserved for married couples. And when we argue that being able to wield this shield is a right we deserve because we conform with the values of good people, that shield can become a weapon against those who are still excluded.”

    If I end up someday in a long-term, committed, open relationship, and one of the people in that relationship needs immigration papers, or hospital visitation rights, or some other material benefit, will there be any options for us?

    Or, if I choose to remain unmarried, will I be stressing out about health care or financial stuff because I don’t have spousal benefits? (Note: probably not, in my case, thanks to the institution of inheritance — also a function of state-recognized marriage! And a way of keeping wealth in certain families and not in others.)

    Anyway, much to consider. Kenji, Dawn, Rachel, and others, I’d be curious to hear more about some of your up-close-and-personal encounters with the institution of marriage!

  • Kenji

    Hi Katie,

    By saying that we need to divorce “marriage” from the state, I definitely mean destroying the power of the state (through laws, policies, etc) to dangle carrots—health care if you get married… tax exemptions if… citizenship if… family rights if…. So many privileges hinge on our willingness to assimilate to the conventional understanding of marriage. In some places, I believe you can have some of these rights if you register a “domestic partnership,” but again this seems to be marriage by another name. It’s hard, because so many people I know who are critical of state-sanctioned marriage would get a much-needed boost from these privileges. And I’m definitely not suggesting that there are any major resources behind an effort to divorce marriage from the state.

    Monogamous, nuclear-family definitions of family are very much dominant, and I don’t think it will change much soon. However, I think it’s important to see how conventional marriage is hooked up to our economic system and secular Christian values (speaking of the US here). It is a symbol of legitimacy, morality, stability, normality, and so on.

    Very few people I am close with are actually married. I’m not sure if this is due to their own critique of the institution, and/or if it has just never been a priority because of all the negative cultural baggage that comes with it. Many of us have seen married parents or family who just make each other miserable. Many have seen traditional gender roles play out and have sworn never to repeat them. Getting married doesn’t seem to be that important, compared to all the other things to do in the world. Like Mahfam has said in the quote above, love manifests in a variety of ways in community that expand our own ideas about love beyond the conventional understanding. Most of us are taught that love is a limited resource, and it should be saved for that one person.

    Metta practice is an excellent way to expand that definition. There are so many flavors of love, and 99% of them don’t have anything to do with romantic or lustful feelings. Our society has found a way to capitalize on monogamous desire, making it something that we supposedly can’t live without, and there are dozens of products you can buy to try to make it happen.

    Yet underneath all of this political debate, love is bigger and more expansive than any of our definitions. And making the choice to encapsulate some of it in marriage is beautiful (though it is a privilege for a few at this point). When thinking about marriage, I always come back to this great quote from the 2002 movie Frida:

    I don’t believe in marriage. No, I really don’t. Let me be clear about that. I think at worst it’s a hostile political act, a way for small-minded [pronoun] to keep [pronoun] in the house and out of the way, wrapped up in the guise of tradition and conservative religious nonsense. At best, it’s a happy delusion—these two people who truly love each other and have no idea how truly miserable they’re about to make each other. But, but, when two people know that, and they decide with eyes wide open to face each other and get married anyway, then I don’t think it’s conservative or delusional. I think it’s radical and courageous and very romantic. To Diego and Frida.

    —Tina Modotti

    I think if the SCOTUS legalizes same-sex marriage, that’s wonderful. It won’t make having romantic relationships any easier, or the need for universal health care, destruction of empire, etc any less important. In fact, I hope the SCOTUS decides soon and quickly, because we need to keep moving. There are so many more steps we need to take.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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