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United for Marriage? Or for Equality?

Nancy D. Polikoff is the author of Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. She is professor of law at American University. This post originally appeared on her Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage blog.

MainersformarriageBy now everyone knows there are four same-sex marriage ballot initiatives coming up next month. Minnesota’s is the old-fashioned kind—a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Maryland and Washington will vote on whether to keep from going into effect legislation passed last term allowing same-sex couples to marry. In Maine, voters will decide whether to enact marriage equality by popular vote; if it passes, it will be the first state to grant marriage equality this way. Three years ago, Maine voters rejected a marriage equality law passed by the legislature.

Of course I hope the Maine initiative is successful (and that the other measures fail). But I am deeply troubled by an apparent switch in focus by the campaign for marriage equality. According to Thursday’s Los Angeles Times, the campaign manager of Mainers United for Marriage, Matt McTighe, reports that campaign volunteers going door-to-door talking to voters “talk less about gay rights and more about marriage as a stabilizing force in society.” In other words, this fight for marriage equality is less about equality and more about marriage.

But what does it mean to sell same-sex marriage because marriage is a stabilizing force? If we denominate those who marry the virtuous ones, then those who don’t marry must be de-stabilizing. I have never understood how this can be a pro-gay message, when up until recently there have been no same-sex marriages but there have been a whole lot of long-term same-sex relationships, with and without children, contributing to civic life and their communities. The gay rights message can’t be that we think those families were a de-stabilizing force on society because they weren’t married. So the message must be a dig at heterosexuals who don’t marry, and that’s the same message right wing organizations use when they blame single mothers for all our social problems, thereby displacing responsibility from the income inequality, inadequate education system, race and sex discrimination, and lack of public support for childrearing that really cause our nation’s problems. (For more on this, read one of my early blog posts here.)

4433 Long-time marriage equality opponent David Blankenhorn got a lot of attention this past summer for his conversion to marriage equality supporter. In a recent video opposing Minnesota’s constitutional amendment, Blankenhorn explains that he dropped his opposition because opposing gay marriage was not helping achieve his goals of having “society renew its commitment to the marital institution” and having more children grow up in stable two parent homes. In his New York Times piece explaining his conversion, he called for a coalition of gay and straight people who want to “strengthen marriage.” And he tells us what that means. His agenda is: people should marry before having children and should marry rather than “cohabit.” He also hopes this coalition will agree that children born from assisted reproduction should have a “right to know and be known by” those who donated the semen or eggs that resulted in their birth. (He calls those people “their biological parents,” but I am more critical of using the word “parent” in this context.) So by his account, same-sex couples should not live together until they marry; should not have children unless and until they marry; and should not use anonymous sperm or egg donors to procreate. With friends like that....

I’m not saying that Mainers United for Marriage believes those things. But consider its name. Not Mainers United for Marriage Equality, or even Mainers United for the Freedom to Marry. Mainers United for Marriage. If you didn’t know otherwise, that could be the name of a group opposing marriage for same-sex couples, because, after all, those groups say they are for marriage. I, on the other hand, am for equality. And proud of it.