“We need to have a conversation.” How often have we heard these words when some controversial issue is broached? The Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal across the nation has launched countless conversations.
Many of the conversations are celebratory. To activists, the ruling is a huge step forward on a long path to social justice. I’m all for social justice and civil rights. But the ruling lets more people into marriage while all single people are still unjustly left out of all of the benefits and protections awarded only to those who are legally married. It is a broader conceptualization than we had before the ruling, but it is still a very narrow view of the people and relationships and life pursuits that matter.
What’s more, the ruling is filled with paeans to the presumed superiority of married people and it casts aspersions upon single people. For example, in a paragraph that has been widely extolled, the one that brought the ruling to a close, Justice Anthony Kennedy said of same sex couples who want to marry that their “hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness.” Here is the complete paragraph:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
The matrimania and singlism in this paragraph were totally unnecessary. I’ve had my say about that elsewhere. Here I want to praise some of the other voices expressing concern about the ruling and showing us the way to more expansive and inclusive ways of thinking about these issues.
From Timothy Stewart-Winter in the New York Times:
“The gay movement has stood for valuing all families — including those led by single parents, those with adopted children, and other configurations. It has stood for other ideas, too, that risk being lost in this moment’s pro-family turn: that intimacy, domesticity and caretaking do not always come packaged together; that marriage should not be the only way to protect one’s children, property and health; that having a family shouldn’t be a requirement for full citizenship; and that conventional respectability shouldn’t be the only route to social acceptance.”
At the Guardian, Hugh Ryan made a similar point:
“…connecting marriage to all kinds of fiscal and legal entanglements, like money or citizenship, …hurts – and discriminates against – people who don’t choose or can’t find a “traditional” spouse. …Why shouldn’t two elderly siblings, who care for one another in a long-term way, receive financial incentives to keep doing so? Or – as in my case – three men who love each other very much?”
At the New Republic, in an article titled, “Condemned to loneliness by the Supreme Court,” Esther Breger said that
“…reading Kennedy’s decision this morning made me a little bit worried that dignified single-hood might not survive unscathed.”
“I am not against marriage, just like I am not against birthday parties, but I am opposed to elevating marriage to the status of a foundational building block of social and political stability, and wrapping it in a cloak of sentimentality. Economic justice, for example, will go much further in creating social stability than will marriage.”
Richard Kim of the Nation, also referring to the closing paragraph of the ruling, tweeted,
“Right decision, but wish it didn’t come with this sentimental, barfy, single-shaming kicker”
At Bustle, Jessica Blankenship pointed to the ways in which the ruling shamed single parents and their children with its inaccurate, derogatory portrayals of them. Her article is worth reading in its entirety (as are all of the ones I quoted here); here’s just a brief excerpt:
“… the Supreme Court Justices managed to find a way to pointedly shame the families, parenting styles, and relationship choices of millions of Americans, and it’s as entirely unnecessary as it is entirely offensive.”
Rebecca Traister, writing in New York Magazine, thinks that the ruling “should be viewed as a major step toward busting up the institution’s monopoly on adult life.” That, she believes, will ultimately benefit of single people. I’m not sure I agree, but I sure hope she is right. In any case, she makes some great points along the way. For example:
“For those Americans who are not married – by choice or by circumstance – or for those who simply do not regard the institution as the apotheosis of adult existence, Kennedy’s flowery prose in this otherwise stirring context, which unlocked matrimony to millions who have been barred from it, was jarring and more than a little depressing.  …Kennedy’s vision of unmarried life is apparently absent friends, lovers, siblings, children; contra the experiences of millions, there is no satisfaction, relief, or fulfillment in independence.”
UPDATES: Here I’ll add some insightful critiques that appeared after I first published this post.
Here’s one from Lisa Bonos at the Washington Post, “Hey, Justice Kennedy: You don’t need to shame singles to uphold marriage.”
This one, from Jesse Dorris at Slate, is the best explanation of what’s wrong with what Justice Kennedy said
Laurie Essig, who always has something insightful to say, explains at Psychology Today that the ruling is all about ideology, not fact: “There is nothing historically or sociologically accurate about any of Justice Kennedy’s claims. It is merely propaganda.  So let’s pop the champagne, celebrate marriage equality, and then set our sights on something far more sacred and noble than marriage: our friends, our communities and our collective future.”
At Truthout, Kelly Hayes quoted a friend who said, “I hope it [marriage] eventually ceases to exist as a legal construct, and that we all have the rights it affords by virtue of our humanity…”
From Eric Schliesser’s “Digressions & Impressions”:
“…leaving aside the many ways in which the profundity of marriage can be the object of satire, he overlooks the fact that marriage itself is a place in which one can be condemned to live in loneliness (e.g., Mrs. Bovary, Anna Karenina, Edna Pontellier). More important, there are other unions that may be thought equal to if not higher than marriage:
- philosophical friendship;
- a fire-brigade;
- a platoon of soldiers;
- a dance-company;
- a surgical team.
This list is not exhaustive…”
At OMG Chronicles, the always-insightful Vicki Larson makes many great points, and ends with this: “What the unmarried don’t have, however, are the legal and financial perks and protections married couples, hetero and now same-sex, get — even if we are rising kids, too, or caring for elderly parents or a disabled sibling or lover…”
This one in the New York Times, “The Supreme Court’s Lonely Hearts Club,” by Michael Cobb, is totally brilliant. Maybe I’ll write more about it sometime.
[Note: (1) This is one of those days when I have been inundated with emails and Facebook posts and comments to blog posts, all relevant to the issue I’m discussing here. Many thanks to the many, many people – some of whom I’ve never heard from before – who have pointed the way to important articles or made wise observations. (2) Singled Out is now available in Spanish. It is also being translated, in several parts, into Japanese and Part 1 of the Japanese translation is also available. Check out my website for other books and other translations.]
Gay marriage photo available from Shutterstock