By Michelle Marzullo, PhD
Complicated. This is the word that comes to mind when people ask for my opinion on the recent marriage decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). At first blush, the opinions of the high court in the cases of California's Proposition 8 (Hollingsworth et al. v. Perry et al.) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) (United States v. Windsor) seem clear. First, Proposition 8 remains unconstitutional based on the California Constitution (In re Marriage Cases), therefore marriages in California among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) couples may resume. Second, such couples married in the states allowing it may now be held to all of the federal obligations, regulations and benefits of marriage.
Yet culturally, as the throngs outside the Supreme Court's building attest, these matters are far from settled. The narrow way U.S. marriage is interpreted by some as done only one way for 2000 years is based on a U.S. neoconservative argument developed in the 1980s. In 2004, when President George W. Bush stated his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment to codify that very narrow understanding of marriage into the U.S. Constitution, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) made a Statement on Marriage and the Family based on over 100 years of research. Importantly, that statement emphasized that heterosexual marriage is not and never has been the only way to do marriage. Instead, marriage is a symbolic process varied in cultural meaning and practice through different places on earth and able to change over time in a specific area based on shifts in environment, economy and history.
Complicated American Marriage
In other words, if the entire human race had a Facebook page, the relationship status would read: It's Complicated. It is especially complicated in the diverse experiment known as America. Yet a particularized post-war, Christian, heterosexual and gender-role specific interpretation of marriage has been codified and defended in U.S. state constitutions since Hawaii used the Equal Rights Amendment in their state's constitution to assert that gay and lesbian couples had a right to marry there in 1993 (Baehr v. Lewin). In 1996, Congress created DOMA in response to Hawaii. The recent SCOTUS decision on the matter affirmed that DOMA not only sought to injure couples based on their interest and/or participation in marriage but that the law deprives them of a "dignity and status of immense import." In law, SCOTUS found that DOMA restricts the liberty of these individuals based on protections afforded under the 5th Amendment. The dignity and status that this decision hinges upon is culturally conferred through marriage.
The symbolic ideal of marriage in the United States is still constantly changing and not just because LGBTQ people are now getting married. For a concise history on this read Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. A recent Pew research study reports that the majority of those now marrying in the U.S. are older, college educated and more affluent than previous generations. My work as well as other U.S. marriage scholars (see also Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage) finds that a new marriage norm now exists, which developed under the pressures of our consumerist society lead by "supply-side" economics (also called "neoliberalism"). Under this economic ethos, becoming financially independent has become more and more tricky -- as so many recent college graduates who are now living with their parents understand intimately. To be marriageable now men and women must be financially independent and able to provide a house, car and decent standard of living before considering marriage.
Now, back to the subject at hand. In the United States v. Windsor, Edith Windsor had to pay $363,053 of estate taxes when her wife, Thea Spyer, died. The 5th amendment protects against the deprivation of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." In light of all this, how do I feel about the SCOTUS marriage decisions? As a feminist anthropologist who thinks that practical solutions to immediate pressing problems are as important as utopian thinking about the need for legal marriage in modern society, I think the decisions are marvelous. Now those couples who are in legal marriages may be protected in terms of jointly-owned property, inheritance, Social Security spousal and survivor benefits, and the over 1,000 other important federal legal benefits of marriage.
But as my discussion of the new marrying norm suggests, many in the U.S. do not have access to property enough to pass on to a loved one after death or even protect them with in life. I don't write this to begrudge those who have done well in their lives, like Edith and Thea, who toiled under ferocious homophobia and sexism over their entire working lives and made it anyway. I am instead turning my focus to those who have not had that kind of success.
In a society becoming more and more stratified, many will not ever have that kind of financial independence. Occupy Wall Street, which spectacularly responded to the widening gap between the rich and the poor in this county, was a reaction to this. The enormous property grab of the subprime mortgage crimes setting off the 2008 "Great Recession" and ruining millions of people's ability to again buy property was a result of the economic theory upon which our country currently runs. These are intimately connected to who is getting married and why -- even who is marriageable. Now, this includes LGBTQ persons desiring marriage.
Looking at the SCOTUS decisions we must start from the ground up considering who is not served by marriage. Doing so begs some cultural questions for you, dear reader:
Do you believe the new marriage norm is fair? Do you personally support it? In a country that still struggles with issues of inequities based on race, gender and ethnicity as proxies for class-based differences and property acquisition, why do we culturally accept that marriage should still serve these inequities? Finally, what could our relationships and country look like if we challenge these equivalences?
Such questions lead us from the practical-present-oriented, problem solving from which the fight for LGBTQ marriage arose to the next steps begged by the marriage question. Marriage in the U.S. is as richly complicated as America is. It is to this complexity that I will lift a celebratory glass: to all those who boldly explore the unknown territories of happily-ever-after in a nation of dreamers, risk-takers, lovers and fighters of the good fight. Here's to you. Now, let's get to work honestly answering those questions.
Michelle Marzullo is an anthropologist who researches marriage, sexuality and the economy in the United States. She holds a PhD in anthropology focusing on race, gender and social justice from American University in Washington, DC. She also holds a Master's degree in Human Sexuality Studies from San Francisco State University. As part of the American Anthropological Association's Open Anthropology project that works to bring anthropological knowledge to the general public, a recent co-authored article by Dr. Marzullo on the marriage movement's effect on youth attitudes toward marriage is available without charge here.