Marriage is in the forefront of media coverage right now as same-sex marriage is being legalized in more and more states. In New York, like lambs to the slaughter, many same-sex couples were so eager to publicly surrender their self-sovereignty and independence that they entered a lottery to be among the first to be allowed to marry. While there is a lot of debate about whether expanding the “right” to marry is a good or bad thing, however, no one seems to be asking whether marriage itself, in whatever form it takes, is a good thing or not. Both sides of the gay marriage debate take it on faith that marriage is a worthwhile institution—that is, after all, why same-sex couples want in on it. And that is also why the bigots, who think that allowing queers to marry would lead to matrimony’s eventual demise, believe it so important to defend it from the homos.
But both the advocates and opponents of gay marriage are wrong. Marriage is a pernicious institution. At its worst it is a means whereby religion and government coerce people into forming personal relationships that replicate the authoritarian patterns of society. At its best, it is a ritual in which individuals unwilling to think and live for themselves seek out the approval of the community for their private sexual arrangements. In any of its manifestations, though, it is a tradition that has no place among free-thinking and free-living people.
Seven Brides for Seven Sisters?
Marriage has a long history and has taken many forms. Although the one man/one woman state-sanctioned partnership prevalent in the United States is taken to be “traditional,” there are, and continue to be, many different types of marriage. Partnerships including multiple spouses, although outlawed in America, continue to exist here and elsewhere and there are numerous instances of same-sex marriages in the historical record. Homosexual marriage really poses no threat to the institution, as has been demonstrated in Massachusetts, as well as in other countries where homosexual marriage is now legal.
Despite its obvious flaws, marriage is a remarkably resilient and attractive social institution that has managed to survive all sorts of challenges. Even as the institutional pressures to marry have lessened in western countries, most people believe the hype and marry at some point in their lives. The fact that people daily see the marriages of their parents, their friends, and even themselves, dissolve around them, does not dissuade them from flocking to the chapels and justices of the peace, in many cases time after time. People divorce and remarry, often changing their names again and again, in the hope that their next spouse will be “the one.” People promise the church, the state, and each other that they will stay together forever, for better or for worse, but later change their minds. And then they do it all over again with someone new.
There is no rational reason for the continuing appeal of marriage. There are benefits to marriage, of course, primarily the economic benefits that it entails. Married people gain access to their partners’ insurance and pension benefits and can extort payment from the partner when their relationship breaks downs and ends in divorce. But this does not explain why most people marry. Gay marriage advocates, for instance, specifically reject civil partnerships that would essentially be marriage in everything but name and involve the same legal and financial entanglements, simply because they are not “real” marriage. Those who marry, or desire to do so, apparently believe that the marriage ceremony itself somehow does something special to a relationship, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary.
By the Authority Vested in Me…
At bottom, most people need the approval of others, whether the state-approved authorities or simply their circle of friends and acquaintances, for their relationships. And marriage is the most obvious outward sign of this approval. Even if one’s family or friends don’t approve of one’s choice of spouse, the church and/or government can bestow their blessing on the partnership and it is therefore legitimate in the minds of the participants. That is the real appeal to most of those who marry.
Such approval-seeking behavior is encouraged by the power-that-be in this world. The state, church, and most institutions desire conformity. They don’t want people to question authority, they don’t want individuals to think and act for themselves. They encourage people to see their community, their group, their religion, their government as the basic units of society. They discourage self-reliance and critical thinking.
Anarchists want to see a different world—one without authority, without a state, without coercion, and without marriage. That is why most anarchists oppose marriage. One need only read Emma Goldman or Voltairine de Cleyre (whose essay “They Who Marry Do Ill” follows this rant) to see that libertarians have long rejected the various arguments in favor of marriage. Anarchists support free thought, free sex, free love, free everything.
Unfortunately, we all live in an unfree world at present. A world that drives some people, hetero or homo, who would prefer to stay unencumbered by authoritarian rules into marriage, simply because that is the only way they can gain health insurance they can afford. Or have the ability to visit their loved ones in hospitals or prisons. Or share in parenting a partner’s children. Preventing queers from marrying thus denies them opportunities available to straights and is unjust.
Pushing for an expansion of marriage is not, however, the only—or best—approach to getting people access to things they want or need but are denied at present because they don’t want to or can’t get married. Instead of increasing the state’s involvement in folks’ personal lives by extending marriage rights to queers, the libertarian approach would be to oppose the government’s rules and regulations that put up the very barriers that drive people into the marriage trap. Many employers now offer insurance benefits to unmarried partners or family members, but these benefits are taxed, unlike those for spouses and children, making them unaffordable for many. Abolishing income taxes, in addition to all its other obvious plusses, would therefore allow more unmarried people to purchase insurance for their loved ones. Schools and prisons that prohibit people who are not “related” from visiting or participating in the affairs of family members are creatures of the state. While I yearn for the day when both prisons and schools are eliminated, until then, the rules and regulations of these statist institutions that discriminate against unmarried partners should be eliminated.
Going a step beyond this, we should challenge the existence of the legal institution of marriage itself. Not only is it absurd that people who marry so readily promise to love someone else forever, marriage entails all sorts of legal traps most people do not think about when they enter into it. Unlike a conventional contract, simply saying “I do” involves the parties in a web of legal commitments to each other and puts them at significant financial liability, without these conditions appearing in any of the documents people sign when getting married. The rules are contained in the various state laws that regulate marriage, and thus the sexual behavior of individuals. The state holds people to the terms of a lifelong contract, the provisions of which they never see and seldom understand until they are explained during divorce proceedings. Marriage supporters need to remember that gay marriage has already created gay divorce, which is no less ugly than straight divorce.
Ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do (or Don’t)
While I believe an anti-statist, anti-marriage approach would lead to more individual freedom than the gay marriage strategy, I recognize that it will be much easier to get gay marriage legalized everywhere in the United States, since it poses no threat to the basic structure or functions of authoritarian society. What I have suggested, instead, fundamentally challenges the state’s right to control our behavior and steal and use our money as it chooses. Abolishing legal marriage would allow people to couple and uncouple as they see fit and set the terms of their relationships between and among themselves. Whether opposite-sex, same-sex, couples, triads, or entire gangs of partners, people’s sexual relationships and practices should be their business and that of no one else. People would be free to call their arrangement marriage if they like, and could even have a religious or secular “authority” figure mumble some nonsense over them to sanctify it. But without the state to enforce its unilaterally imposed terms on the participants, it would be an entirely different creature. If people feel the need to agree to a formal contract before they fuck, suck and/or breed, let them. But it should be left to them and them alone to draw up such an agreement.
The prospects for a free, anarchist society are not very bright at present, so marriage, for better or for worse, will clearly be around for a long time to come. While I hold matrimony, holy or otherwise, in complete contempt, allowing same-sex couples to marry is only fair. After all, why should they be denied the same opportunity to allow the government into their bedroom in exchange for cheaper health insurance and the right to alimony that is available to heteros? Until folks wise up and realize that the supposed benefits of marriage and other government institutions are not worth the price of surrendering one’s freedom and self-respect, that is the best we can expect.