Untying the Knots

— Jill Shenker

WHILE RIGHT-WINGERS ARE coordinated in their assault on queers, people of color, women, low-income people and immigrants, many of us under attack are divided, in part because we have learned and internalized the prejudice, mistrust and hatred that the right wing preaches.

Though it is tempting to rally for access to certain rights and privileges in the fight for marriage equality, we will fail to build a successful civil rights movement if we do not include an analysis of the ways the institution of marriage is used to further marginalize already oppressed communities.

We need to wage our struggles for justice with a long-term vision that ensures health care, economic stability and social recognition are available for everyone, regardless of national identity, economic status, sexual identity or marital status.

Immigration, Families and Marriage

Throughout U.S. history, immigration policy has reflected racism, sexism, and homophobia in our society. (See “A Selective History of Marriage in the United States” on page 4.) With restrictive immigration legislation passed in 1996 and the upsurge in anti-immigrant sentiment after 9/11, it has become increasingly difficult for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status.

If someone who has failed to always maintain lawful status in the United States wants to marry or be with a family member who is a citizen, s/he must leave the country for three to ten years before being eligible for a green card visa that recognizes the marriage.

For queer immigrants, the situation is even worse. Current immigration policy only recognizes heterosexual spouses while other committed partnerships go unrecognized — and delegitimized. Transsexual immigrants often face challenges in obtaining documents from their home country that reflect their gender identity, resulting in enormous, sometimes insurmountable difficulties with U.S. immigration.

These policies have devastating effects: Families are separated and forced to break up, people endure emotional distress, and queers who are forced to return to homophobic countries may face harassment, torture or even death.

Both the refusal to recognize marriages with undocumented immigrants and the discrimination against queers and same-sex couples stem from a fear of difference and a desire to keep certain privileges for some while denying them to others.

Women, Welfare and Marriage

While conservative government officials fight against marriage rights for same-sex couples, they are campaigning for welfare reform programs that coerce low-income women on welfare into marriage.

The Bush Administration’s latest round of welfare reform proposals recommend spending $300 million per year on “marriage promotion programs” such as marriage education classes for adults and in schools; financial incentives for single mothers on welfare to get married; abstinence-until-marriage education; and covenant marriage programs developed by the Christian fundamentalist movement, which make it more difficult for those in troubled marriages to divorce.

Many states have already implemented some of these measures. Queer women on welfare who live in states with cash incentives for those who marry are placed in a difficult situation: either deny their sexuality and marry a man, or be open about their sexuality and forfeit needed welfare bonuses that are only given to women who participate in marriage programs.

Both the ban on marriage of LGBT couples, and the promotion of marriage as a way out of poverty for poor women, reinforce the myth that the only valid family is one with a powerful man and a dependent wife and children.

To emphasize this ideology, the radical right has changed the language in welfare policy from “single-parent families” to “father-absent households” and “never- formed families,” phrases also used to disparage LGBT families. We should not reinforce the widespread but problematic belief that state-sanctioned marriage makes a relationship more worthy of recognition and rights than other intimate or familial relationships.

Queers, Family and Marriage

According to the General Accounting office of Congress, there are 1,138 benefits, rights, and privileges contingent on or related to marital status.

Some of the most widely known include access to health care through a partner’s or parent’s insurance, ability to see a loved one in intensive care, inheritance rights, and second-parent adoption rights. These benefits ought to be available to people in intimate relationships regardless of their marital status, not conditional upon it.

Other benefits are about familial commitments and responsibilities. For children of queer parents these protections are critically important.

For example, if a child of LGBT parents gets in an accident, it’s impossible to ensure that their non-biological/non-adoptive parent will be allowed to visit them in intensive care or make decisions about their care. These children may not be able to get health coverage on the insurance policy of their non-biological/non-adoptive parents’ policy.
Many children of LGBT parents express that marriage would offer social recognition of their families, without which they face marginalization and, frequently, harassment.

Ordinary activities like making a family tree in school or filling out a form can make a child feel that her family is invisible and invalid. Often, when the family is visible it is shunned and ridiculed, not only by peers but also by adults in their lives.

Conservatives have made anti-gay initiatives central to their national organizing over the last decade, and this has taken its toll. In addition to the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, there are 19 states with state constitutional amendments proposed to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

These efforts come on the heels of a right-wing campaign that has won Defense of Marriage Amendments* in 38 states since 1996.

Conservatives claim that marriage of same-sex couples is a violation of the sacred institution of marriage, and they use children to justify it. In fact, their campaign to deny marriage equality is harming millions of children, putting caring relationships at risk, and invalidating families.

The strength of the LGBT community lies in our diversity: We are everywhere, in every community. We include families who want to get married (and those who do not), immigrants struggling to be united, and people dealing with poverty and oppressive state policies everyday.

Our struggle for civil rights is about more than the right to marry. All families that are about love, respect and caring are valid no matter what the configuration. Fighting poverty isn’t about “getting a man,” but instead about living wages, access to education, and affordable childcare and health care.

The most successful defense against the attacks on our civil rights is to recognize the connections between our struggles and our different communities. As the LGBT movement works for marriage equality, we need to also fight for the rights of immigrant families, and at the same time, to challenge the use of marriage as a weapon against low-income women and their children.

Don’t let the right wing succeed in dividing us with a coordinated attack. Don’t let marriage equality become a wedge issue in an election year. We can build a more equitable, diverse, and caring society if we make connections and work together across dividing lines.

Notes: Many thanks to Kaaryn Gustafson, Pam McMichael, Holmes Hummel, Ryn Gluckman, Claudia Gomez, Eunice Cho, Meredith Fenton, and Beth Teper for their help with this article.

Resources to learn more: National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights: www.nnirr.org Legal Momentum: http://legalmomentum.org/issues/wel/marriagepromotion.shtml  (formerly the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund) National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: www.ngltf.org.

ATC 112, September-October 2004