I want to begin by saying that the Supreme Court decisions today in favor of gay marriage are an unambiguously positive thing, a step forward for justice and equality. While I am skeptical for various reasons of the gay rights movement’s strategic focus on “inclusion” issues (such as gay marriage and gays in the military), it is my duty as an ally to defer to those directly affected when it comes to setting priorities, and I am very glad to see that the movement has had such a string of successes in recent years.
What I want to talk about in this post is not meant to reflect negatively on the movement and its priorities. Instead, it is an effort to think through the conditions of possibility of this victory. Conservatives are correct that the legalization of gay marriage changes the meaning of marriage — it really does, and in a good way. What is perhaps less noted is that this success presupposes a prior change in the meaning of marriage, or rather a series of changes over the course of the 20th century. Despite the claims of the traditionalists, marriage has actually been a very dynamic and fluid institution in modernity, serving a wide variety of functions and providing a momentary solution to a range of social, political, and economic conflicts. I don’t intend to account for the entire complex process here, but suffice it to say that marriage is constantly evolving — and in fact, much more momentous changes than the acceptance of gay marriage have happened in the last 100 years (most notably, the routinization of divorce).
In recent decades, marriage has taken up a new role with the emergence of a self-confident meritocratic elite under neoliberalism. Instead of serving as one’s entry point into adult life, it acts instead as a kind of capstone, a signal that one has “arrived” in one’s career and achievements and can now afford the time commitments and costs associated with marriage and particularly childrearing. Indeed, the latter costs are increasingly significant given that the children are presumably going to be raised with an eye toward their own meritocratic rise. This cost is recoded as a privilege by the perception that family (which is essentially synonymous with children, since most upwardly-mobile young people tend to settle into monogamous cohabitation long before marriage) is a potent source of meaning and self-expression, a reward for all that hard work of building a career.
If in the Mad Men era the mark of success was the ability to essentially ignore one’s family while enjoying access to a wide range of sexual experiences, now the situation has reversed: monogamy and devotion are the symbol of success. And the reason this can make sense as a symbol of elite arrival is that the trappings of a bourgeois nuclear family can no longer be taken for granted as they were in the postwar heyday of the “traditional family” — they are the exception rather than the norm. In the lower and working classes, successful marriages are increasingly difficult to sustain amid the strain and upheaval that comes from uncertain employment and financial prospects (a problem that is compounded by the systematic criminalization of young men in minority communities). While marriage is still a widely-shared goal, the situation now is similar to that with college: a relatively small elite get to really enjoy its benefits, while a growing number of aspirants are burdened with significant costs (student debt, the costs of divorce) without much to show for it.
Now that marriage has become a meritocratic aspirational goal, it makes sense to think of it primarily in terms of equal opportunity and equal access. Why should a successful young couple be deprived of this valuable status symbol simply because they’re gay? Surely the facts of the DOMA case provide some potent symbolism here. The couple in question was wealthy enough to have to pay over $300,000 in estate taxes — and the surviving spouse was wealthy enough to pay the amount in question and then undertake many years of litigation in order to reclaim it. This was a couple that had most definitely “made it,” and given the broader cultural context, it makes sense that they — rather than the vulnerable and downtrodden gay partners who are deprived of hospital visitation rights or health insurance or who are separated from children they helped to raise — get to be the gay couple whose complaint proves legally decisive.
I am not trying to make a “guilt by association” argument here (though I’d be willing to bet over $300,000 that Ross Douthat’s column in the Sunday Times will be broadly similar to this blog post, with a “guilt by association” twist). The fact that this victory for gay marriage plays so perfectly into our meritocratic culture does not discredit it or render gay marriage itself questionable — I cannot imagine a just or desirable regime of family formation that would exclude gay couples. Much that was problematic about our current regime of marriage still remains firmly in place, however, even after the indisputably positive step of ending the exclusion of gay couples from it.