Why ‘marriage for all’ may not be the antidote to inequality for GLBTQ people

Rybaczuk_image1I was recently interviewed for a New York Times article that featured numerous people explaining why, as partners in same-sex couples, they aren’t interested in getting married. The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) gives same-sex couples the federal rights that provide material benefits to straight couples.  While I support equal protections for people regardless of sexual orientation, I don’t think ‘marriage for all’ is the antidote to inequality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) people.

In the last few years, as a movement for legalized gay marriage grew, I noticed disproportionately higher visibility for the cause, and fewer voices demanding an end to discrimination toward all GLBTQ people on individual, cultural, and institutional levels.  The focus shifted toward promoting gays and lesbians as “normal” people who just want to be married like heterosexual couples, ignoring the necessity for guaranteed rights to all people regardless of relationship status or the role of monogamy or commitment in their relationships.  I was unconvinced that marital benefits for some was the most important goal while many people are not guaranteed access to food, shelter, clean water, freedom of expression, or safety.  Research shows gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people continue to experience high rates of violence, discrimination in the workplace, housing, and medical care; and are at increased risk of abuse in immigration detention facilities.  A report from the Williams Institute documents the persistence of increased levels of poverty for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans relative to heterosexual people – even higher rates occur for specific subgroups, such as people of color, young and old people, children, and transgender people in the queer community.

While marital benefits may improve the economic circumstances for some same-sex couples, rights to economic stability, citizenship, and social acceptance should not be tied to marriage.  People should be able to choose who visits them in the hospital, co-raises their children, or inherits their money without marriage as the protective measure for sharing love, family, and property.  Prioritizing a human rights agenda for all – focused on economic and racial justice – regardless of gender, sexuality, or relationship status offers an opportunity for more people to prosper.  I hope the same money, attention, and energy that goes to legalizing gay marriage can go toward the activism that has long-sought to support all gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex people in experiencing equality, justice, and freedom (whether single, coupled, co-habiting, polyamorous, asexual, monogamish, or married).


Numerous groups are committed to GLBTQ people’s liberation in various contexts, some examples include:

Queers for Economic Justice

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project

National Immigrant Justice Center

Against Equality: Queer Challenges to the Politics of Inclusion

By Rachel Rybaczuk, Department of Sociology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst



One thought on “Why ‘marriage for all’ may not be the antidote to inequality for GLBTQ people

  1. On a blue collar level marriage is still used to justify inequality. I just left a very well-paid job operating one of the big hydroelectric generating plants that supply power to Seattle, because I wanted to move on to other things. But my first week on the job (in March, 1999) I had one of my fellow Operators tell me that I shouldn’t have the job, that it should be filled by a man with a family to support. I told him he was welcome to his opinion but I had the job and was going to do the work whether he approved or not. They hire white guys for jobs whether they’re married or not, whether they’re supporting a family or not, it’s just more excuses. But you do still hear it.

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