How to promote marriage equality? Reassessing the debate

The U.S. Supreme Court fueled the flames of the same-sex marriage debate in its ruling on June 26, 2013, directing the federal government to provide equal treatment to same-sex spouses and allowing the resumption of gay marriages in California. These decisions marked an important milestone for lesbian and gay rights. Still, same-sex marriage is illegal in most states, and much must be accomplished before there is true equality for lesbians and gay men. In discussions of marriage equality, however, there is more at stake than is generally acknowledged. In fact, a number of recent laws and policies pose an additional challenge to end the types of discrimination based on legal marriage. These laws specify terms for a new direction in public policy to promote heterosexual marriage as a route out of poverty and off welfare.

In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA, also known as welfare reform) set the stage for this new policy direction by including provisions to promote heterosexual marriage. Policies under the rubric of “marriage promotion” claim the superiority of marriage with an assumption of its fundamental heterosexuality. For example, according to PRWORA:

(1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society. (2) Marriage is an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children. (3) Promotion of responsible fatherhood and motherhood is integral to successful child rearing and the well-being of children.

The argument favoring heterosexual marriage and parenting as key elements of a successful society suggests the need to prioritize the institution in public policies by offering financial and social benefits to those who are married and to discourage parenting outside marriage. The philosophy suggests that marriage can help lift poor women out of poverty.

My book, “One Marriage Under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage In America,” takes a close look at the social consequences of these policies, using the marriage initiative in Oklahoma as an extended case study. Launched in 1999, the marriage initiative allocated a significant amount of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (welfare) funds to create the largest and longest-standing state-level healthy marriage program in the nation. The initiative offers free marriage workshops that help couples improve their relationship by learning communication skills, how to fight fair, and how to keep the fun in a relationship.

What could be wrong with free workshops to help couples improve their relationships? In my book, I point to some troubling social consequences of these federal and state policies, specifically in the kinds of discrimination that take place in efforts to promote heterosexual marriage. For example, my ethnographic research uncovers how the marriage initiative spends welfare money to offer free marriage education workshops to the general public populated by couples who are not poor. These workshops thus redistribute welfare money away from poor women with children who are struggling to make ends meet. Furthermore, such workshops mirror the PRWORA law in teaching about marriage as fundamentally and only heterosexual.

My book challenges Americans to think about the broader issues concerning marriage equality in America.  I argue that it is important to consider equality and fairness for unmarried people, whether heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer. It is fundamentally unjust to bar lesbians and gay men from marrying, and it is also fundamentally unjust to use public funds for initiatives motivated by the premise that marriage can be a solution to poverty for poor women who are judged as having made “bad” sexual choices. Marriage is only one of many acceptable family forms, and federal and state policies should recognize and support healthy relationships in all their diversity. While poor and non-poor couples alike, as well as lesbian and gay couples, can benefit from voluntary workshops that teach skills for better communication and ways to de-escalate arguments, I hope that my book will contribute to discussions of the problems with policies that discriminate against heterosexual and non-heterosexual couples based on the assumed superiority of heterosexual marriage.

Melanie Heath is associate professor of sociology at McMaster University. She is author of One Marriage Under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America (New York University Press 2012). She has published in Gender & Society, Qualitative Sociology, and has a forthcoming article in The Sociological Quarterly.

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