Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Don't Call It "Marriage Equality"

I already wrote about my personal opinions on the marriage movement last February.  It's still pretty much how I feel about the subject.  Sometimes I rant about it but otherwise I prefer to just relink that essay when I am feeling particularly foul about the marriage movement.  Today, though, I don't intend to pile more and more fire into the anti-marriage flame.  Instead, I'm going to talk about a semantic pet peeve of mine... something I touched in the February essay but didn't really elaborate on.

Don't call it "marriage equality."

The way this movement is framed has of course changed in the past several years, with "gay marriage" being changed to "same-sex marriage" to deal with the exclusivity of the word  "gay" (not everybody benefiting from same-sex marriage is gay).  Somewhere along the line somebody came up with the bright idea to change it to "marriage equality" instead.  Which, admittedly, also makes some surface sense: The word "equality" has this warm, fuzzy, non-threatening quality to it.  Personally I feel like that's one reason anti-anti-oppression movements (men's rights activists, racists who think they're not racist) love using the word "equality" as an alternative for any label describing what's really going on.  "Why feminism? Why not equalism?"

But that's not really the issue... not the main issue, anyway.  The main issue is that by deemphasizing the "same-sex" part of the issue people ignore that there are other things out there blocking marriage equality than just same-sex marriage.  In other words, you are using a label that doesn't accurately describe the movement.

You find instances of marriage inequality in multiple categories:
  1. Barriers preventing people from getting married, whether social or legal.
    Examples: Polygamous and polyamorous folk, people with disabilities (especially those that render them infertile or cause people to assume they can't think for themselves), social stigma attached to interracial marriages.  In some countries marriage is controlled by a central religious authority, meaning anybody outside that religion will have a difficult time getting married.
  2. Barriers preventing people from getting divorced, whether social or legal.
    Example: People being pressured by religious figures and "therapists" into staying in abusive relationships because God and Jesus, trans folk having their entire marriage declared illegal upon attempting to divorce (blocking them from child custody, alimony, etc.).
  3. Barriers preventing people from getting the benefits of marriage.
    Example: A trans woman's husband dies and her in-laws take her to court insisting her marriage wasn't legal when it occurred. Even in states where same-sex marriage is legal, if it wasn't legal at that time you can bet this excuse will be used.
  4. Social or legal structures obligating people to get married when they don't want to.
    Examples: Women being forced to marry their rapists, forced or arranged marriages, shotgun weddings, legalized post-rape child marriage, extra workplace obligations for unmarried people.
These are only some cursory examples of marriage inequality, some more drastic than others, that may not be automatically remedied by same-sex marriage.  In fact, legalizing same-sex marriage isn't even a guarantee of equality for people in same-sex marriages!  Interracial marriages for instance are still regarded with suspicion and discouraged; there are people who flat out won't officiate them.  And interracial marriage has been legal in the United States over four decades, so it's not like people just need to get used to the idea.

Go ahead and fight for same-sex marriage if that's what makes you  happy.  Same-sex marriage will undoubtedly help a lot of people.  But please don't act like achieving that goal is marriage equality.  It is only one facet of true marriage equality, which goes way beyond two men or two women being granted a legal contract.