In Defense of D.C.’s Domestic Partnerships
On Alternet, Melissa Harris-Lacewell argues that even as the nation fights to establish marriage equality, it must work to reevaluate institution of marriage itself. "Our work must be not just about marriage equality, it should also be about equal marriages, and about equal rights and security for those who opt out of marriage altogether," she writes. Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., Councilmember David Catania's efforts to establish same-sex marriage in the District will come with a price for those who "opt out." Catania's bill will allow gay couples to marry in the District of Columbia, but will eliminate another form of legal unions in the District: domestic partnerships. According to the Washington Blade, "Catania’s bill calls for phasing out the city’s domestic partnership law by ending the ability of same-sex or opposite-sex couples to register new domestic partnerships with the city as of Jan. 1, 2011."
Responding to criticisms of the provision, Catania Chief of Staff Ben Young said that domestic partnerships will be "unnecessary in a world with marriage equality." Young told the Blade, "Domestic partnerships were developed as a substitute for civil marriage for gays and lesbians, and could continue to serve as a vestige of an era of inequality." But as Harrice-Lacewell details, the institution of marriage itself is a vestige of centuries of sexism, racism, classism, and heteronormativity. Will incorporating same-sex couples into the institution manage to fully strip marriage of its problematic history?
In D.C., domestic partnerships afford same- and opposite-sex couples "nearly all of the rights, benefits and obligations of marriage." Here, the difference between partnership and marriage is largely symbolic. Marriage equality advocates across the country are fighting for that symbolic cultural recognition as much as they are the hospital visitation rights and the tax breaks. But for some couples, both gay and straight, the symbolic implications of marriage are precisely what turn them off to the institution. For these people, domestic partnerships have functioned not as a vestige of inequality—a poor substitute for marriage—but rather as a welcome legal alternative, minus the cultural hang-ups. These couples should be allowed the option to secure the rights and benefits of marriage without associating with what has been, for centuries, a bigotry shit-show.
Even when everyone who wants to get hitched is allowed to, a "world with marriage equality" may still leave unmarried gay men and women outside the fold of this new-found social acceptance. "I think that the more gay life can become legitimized (which is usually just code for "heteronormafied"), it will create a further subclass within the gay subclass," says Zack Rosen, editor of The New Gay. "[The current movement's] school of thought is that we can win rights by being the best damn gay people we can. That means getting married, washing behind our ears, etc. The problem with that, though, is that if it only rewards gay people that want to get married and have kids, the gay people that decide not to do that will become further marginalized."
Those gay people who do want to couple up for the long-term shouldn't be forced to opt into this problematic social institution in order to secure their legal rights. By denying couples the ability to enter into domestic partnerships, the District of Columbia tells its gay population that the road to legal and social equality must end in marriage. For those couples, gay and straight, who see marriage as an institution historically dedicated to inequalities, that reasoning is hard to swallow.