Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Politics of Marriage

Last week, June 17th, 2008, marked a long awaited, long overdue, moment in Californian history. San Diego, in particular, witnessed the exchanging of vows by a 100 same-sex couples.

Of course, there are many among us - most of whom are horribly blinkered, some downright hateful - that continued to pursue their crusade (and I use that word quite intentionally to include its religious connotations) against "gay marriage" way before the California Supreme Court even handed down its decision terminating a state ban on same-sex marriage. Oppositional groups have already collected the requisite signatures to introduce a proposition for the Nov. 4 elections (re-)banning same-sex marriage. Of course, I hope that the proposition fails miserably, although it's still going to require a lot of education and activism to make sure it does. (If you vote in CA, go here to VOW TO VOTE NO. If you're on Facebook, go here to learn more.) And while I undoubtedly support marriage equality, the issue of marriage itself is complicated for me, as it for so many, and therefore I am somewhat ambivalent about today's significance.

Now, when forced to identify, I self-identify as "straight," although, given the reprehensible history and baggage of that word, I wish there were some other word I could use; and although I profess a queer politics, I am a little apprehensive about identifying as "queer" lest I be buying into "queer chic;" so overall, I'd rather not identify at all (the same is true of identifying racially, but that is a story for another day). So, as a so-called "straight woman" I guess I am supposed to have "dreamt" of my wedding day - and although I have no real recollection of doing so, I do know that I often did wish I were "christian" so that I could relinquish the traditional white sari in favor a fairy-tale-ish white wedding dress - images of which I was inundated with thanks to my exposure to Hollywood and, later, STAR TV. In any case, the idea of marriage has really never been too enticing for me, never given me goosebumps or anything of the sort. For a long while, when I was single, I pretty much looked down upon marriage - but back then I was probably just being spiteful. And now, although I've been in a pretty serious relationship for a while, I really haven't changed my tune much.

As I see it, the question really isn't about being pro-marriage or anti-marriage, it is about choice - and I am pro-choice. At this historio-political juncture, I choose (and I hope that when the time comes I will continue to choose) not to be get married. The choice is, as far as I am concerned, very simply, a political one. So long as the institution of marriage is appropriated by the state in order to regulate bodies and minds, marriage equality can never truly exist.

Now, I am not super-familiar with the history of marriage, but here's my take on it. First, sociological/anthropological thought suggests that marriage is a system of exchange. This system of exchange is embedded, of course, within notions of a market (capitalist) economy (based on commodity value), but, more importantly, is complexly intertwined with the economy of kinship (constructed through notions of the sexual). Georges Bataille brilliantly brings together these two dimensions of marriage by writing of it as an integral part of gift-giving economies, wherein the value of the gift is defined not merely by the intrinsic value of the exchange commodity (in this case, the sexuality of the woman) but rather by the sacrificial act executed by the gift-giver (here, the father or brother) in renouncing unfettered access to, and control of, the gift. This idea of marriage, then, constitutes the social dimension of the institution.

There is, however, also the religious aspect of it. In addressing religion, I refer specifically to ideas of the sacred and profane that, as Emile Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life suggests, is the common thread running through religious thought across the board. In any case, Bataille writes that marriage is also a means of neutralizing the erotic and sanitizing, or legitimizing, the sensual. That is, it the sacredness of marriage, as channeled from the Divine through the priest, that delivers the consummating act from the profane to the sacred. Furthermore, according to Bataille, the reproductive function of the sex act, as practiced within the bo(u)nds of matrimony, is what allows the act to preserve its sacredness, despite its sensuality. The profane-ness of the erotic, on the other hand, bars it from having any space within marriage. (All of this is discussed by Bataille in the context of his critique of the fear of the erotic, but I won't go into that here. Those interested can read The Accursed Share Volume II - The History of Eroticism. It's a pretty interesting read... I myself have to finish reading it soon...)

In any case, what I am trying to highlight here is that, per the history of marriage, it has two somewhat distinct dimensions - the social and the religious. Now I know that some may object that these two dimensions are not distinct but instead mutually constitutive. But I think that if one is to consider marriage in its contemporary context, we must consider these two dimensions of marriage separately. Let me begin with the religious aspect of it first since that is the easiest to dispense with.

The most audible argument against "homosexuality" and same-sex marriage is that "homosexuality is a sin." If one were to follow Bataille's argument then we could argue that such arguments stem from the idea that since a homo-sexual act is, per definition, erotic and hence, profane, it should not be sanctified by marriage. Like I said, I don't really want to engage in a discussion on the de-merits of such an argument. The important thing here is that such arguments are fundamentally religious in nature and hence, if one upholds the separation of church and state, must not be within the purview of the state. However, I do think that this is a very weak argument and somewhat of a cop-out in taking a stand on marriage.

The far more complex part of this argument is that dealing with the social. Recently, John McCain was a guest on Ellen DeGeneres' show and she asked him to comment on her upcoming nuptials to actress Portia de Rossi. McCain's response was relatively simple, "I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman, but I also believe two consenting adults can enter into a contract." McCain's answer articulates the oft-spoken distinction between marriage and civil unions - i.e. same-sex couples are sinners and not good enough for marriage, but we have to respect them as adults and thus grant them a modicum of "rights." Civil unions are the newest version of the illusionary possibility of "separate but equal."

But that is not the only problem with civil unions. While it may be perfectly appropriate for the state to enter into contracts with its subjects, the problem with the state according benefits through the institutions of marriage, civil unions, or the like, is not only that it normalizes heteronormative structures of kinship, but more importantly, in undertaking the coercive function of regulating private lives, it deligitamizes certain persons and certain relationships. Thus, whether it be marriage or civil union or whatever else, in their contemporary form, these are essentially political institutions designed to maintain structures of domination and subordination. And, as Carol Pateman suggests in the Sexual Contract, a mere expansion of the rights accorded by such political institutions does not make the institution itself more equitable or less problematic.

The political gesture, then, to be undertaken here is to "de-politicize" marriage, civil union, etc. - i.e. to destabilize and delegitimize the political powers of these institutions. And, if one were to agree with the definition of politics as that which defines "friends" and "enemies," then, the way I see it, we need to position ourselves as enemies of the institutions for that is the only way to dismantle them. Being enemies means refusing to participate.

The logical outcome of such a strategy is somewhat awkward though because the real threat is not marriage but civil unions. For it is civil unions that consolidate the juridico-political power of the state. Marriage, on the other hand, if treated merely within the realm of religion, actually seems to allow for the possibility of uncoerced choice (this of course is debatable, but I won't get into that here).

So, for now, if we're truly interested in achieving social justice for the ideas and persons that constitute various intimate relationships, we must refuse to partake in the so-called "benefits" (or carrots) that the state lures us with for practicing compliance. Of course, that is much easier said than done - for both practical and sentimental reasons. Thus, even while I oppose the idea of marriage, civil unions, and the like, I do recognize the lifting of the ban on same-sex marriage as a crucial step towards equality. Indeed, this June also marked the 51st anniversary of Loving v Virginia, the civil rights case wherein the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Virginia's anti-miscegenation as unconstitutional. The fact that this anniversary went relatively unnoticed points not only to the willful amnesia of the U.S. nation-/state but it may also suggest something positive about the ways in which "marriage equality" has been expanded and, in some ways, come to be taken for granted. In a similar way, I hope that a few decades from now the anniversary of the CA decision (and hopefully, soon, a national decision) will go by relatively unnoticed. But, more importantly, I hope what each of these legal decisions ultimately enable is a complete dismantling of state control over the intimacies that constitute our lives.

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