push to legalize gay marriage was criticized during a
national conference two weeks ago, half of those in the room
jumped to their feet in applause while the other half sat there stunned.
No, this was not a meeting of
Christian fundamentalists or a caucus of conservative
Republicans. It was the "Creating
Change" Conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
held in Oakland, California.
The way the
media has played up the gay marriage debate, most Americans have
assumed that all gays and lesbians are marching in lock-step
behind the banner promoting same-sex marriage. As is
usually the case with such broad political assumptions, the
truth is much more complicated.
been an undercurrent of dissent within the gay rights movement
for years over the prominence that same-sex marriage should play on
the movement's agenda. Some feel it is the defining civil
rights issue of our time, while others believe that it is a
distraction from the larger issues of individual rights and
economic justice for everyone regardless of marital status.
The Bay Area
Reporter, a gay publication in the San Francisco Area,
reported details of the rift which occurred at the Creating Change
DeFilippis, executive director of New York's Queers for Economic
Justice, witnessed the dissention and audience reaction first
to DeFilippis, the stark division of opinion about the priority
gay marriage on the gay rights agenda occurred on November 12 at an assembly of hundreds of political activists.
John D'Emilio, former director of
the Task Force's Policy Institute and current professor at the
University of Illinois was said to have harshly
criticized gay marriage proponents for what he characterized as
misplaced priorities and a hijacking of the movement. Following D'Emilio's remarks, apparently half the room burst into
uproarious applause. The other half of the crowd sat confused,
not knowing how to react to such political blasphemy.
"There were all these major
marriage activists, and all these people who were really sick of
it," DeFilippis told the B.A.R. "Some people were sick of it
because they felt it diverted energy and funds from other
The gay marriage dissenters
believe that making the legalization of same-sex marriage the
ultimate goal of the gay and lesbian rights movement will leave
too many people on the sidelines, without legal benefits and
protections because they can not marry or do not want to marry.
They feel that health care and economic security should not be
tied to marriage, and that doing so leaves behind a host of
other relationships which are not romantic in nature, such as
platonic friends or blood relatives.
Others besides DeFilippis and D'Emilio
believe that legalizing same-sex marriage is not the cure-all to
inequality. Consider, for example, the views of Nancy Polikoff, a professor at American University Washington College
Professor Polikoff argues that
ending all marital status discrimination is a better goal than
simply working to legalize same-sex marriage.
In a column she wrote for the
Washington Blade, another major gay publication, Polikoff observed that "a
legal system that gives benefits to married couples but
withholds those benefits from other types of relationships that
help people flourish and fulfill critical social functions harms
many people, both straight and gay."
Many same-sex couples who file lawsuits are seeking legal
marriage recognition as a way to gain access to health
insurance, health care decision-making, social security and tax
"But marriage is the wrong dividing line for these benefits,"
Polikoff argues. "A young man caring for the woman who
raised him should be able to cover her on his health insurance;
two older sisters who pool their economic resources should not
fear that the death of one will require the other to sell their
home to pay estate taxes."
There are many important and
valuable relationships in society that are not premised on a
sexual relationship. Shouldn't they deserve recognition,
protection, and benefits too?
Polikoff cites recent
developments in Canada as proof that the legalization of
same-sex marriage does not and should not end the push for
equality for those who don't fit the romantic and sexual
dimensions of a marriage.
2001 report from the Law Commission of Canada, “Beyond
Conjugality: Recognizing & Supporting Close Personal Adult
Relationships,” recommends major revisions in Canadian law to
equally honor and support all caring and interdependent
relationships. The fact that a government commission would proposal
major changes in arenas as diverse as
immigration, pensions, taxes, and government benefits
demonstrates growing support to topple the legal
pedestal upon which marriage sits.
The philosophy and
recommendations of the Canadian Commission have implications for
the United States as well. Instead of gay rights versus
family values, or couples rights versus individual rights, it's
time to develop a rationale for public policy reform at the
federal and state levels of government which recognizes and
respects family diversity.
There are now 87 million unmarried Americans,
including 27 million adults who live alone, and 60 million who
live with roommates, partners, or unmarried relatives.
With half of American households now headed by unmarried adults, and
with average Americans spending half of our adult lives
unmarried, it is no longer fair for society to force people to
marry in order to gain equal rights.
Given this reality, political
better serve the American public by adopting multiple and overlapping
approaches to gain equal rights for individuals, couples, and
families, regardless of
their sexual orientation, marital status, or household
It's time that we all acknowledge
what those who stood in applause at
the Oakland conference seemed to instinctively know. There are
many paths to creating change.
Unmarried America 2005
Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an
attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family
diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.
Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried
firstname.lastname@example.org. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and