How Upholding ‘Traditional Marriage’ Benefits Rich White Men

Winning the argument on same-sex marriage would bring us one step closer to unveiling the whole truth: that opposite-sex marriage is, in fact, the emperor with no clothes, neither ensuring the existence or economic stability of two-parent homes.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments for and against the legal protection of same-sex marriage. During the arguments, attorney John J. Bursch, speaking on behalf of Michigan, argued against same-sex marriage by repeatedly cautioning that the state’s interest in marriage is to bind children with their biological parents and that extending marital rights to couples who are unable to procreate serves to weaken that bond.

As a lesbian, wife, and mother, I see this argument partly as an excuse to discriminate against families such as mine—after all, states do not require heterosexual couples to prove intent or ability to procreate before receiving a marriage license. But beyond that, I believe the conservative establishment is seeking to uphold a stagnant definition of marriage because the institution as it currently stands benefits both the patriarchy and the economic elite.

In arguments, several of the justices questioned whether it was appropriate for the court to change a definition of marriage that, for centuries, has been restricted to opposite-sex couples. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg responded that the characterization of marriage as an unchanging institution was incorrect:

“But you (same-sex couples) would not be asking for this relief if marriage was what it was a millennium ago. I mean it wasn’t possible. Same-sex unions would not have opted into the pattern of marriage, which was a relationship, a dominant and subordinate relationship. Yes it was a marriage between a man and a woman, but the man decided where the couple would be domiciled; it was her obligation to follow him. There was a change in the institution of marriage to make it egalitarian where it wasn’t egalitarian.”

The argument follows that once marriage changed from being an economic arrangement where women were claimed as property and instead became an agreement between two equals, the door was open for same-sex marriages.

But while women have improved legal rights within a marriage, the claim that marriage is a socially egalitarian arrangement is a reach. In cases where the wife earns income outside of the family, she still often takes on the majority of child-rearing and home-tending responsibilities. The unequal division of labor is now enforced by gender norms instead of legal status.

And in families where the husband is the primary wage earner, women can be vulnerable to both emotional and physical male dominance because they do not have the financial wherewithal to leave the relationship. Here economic realities can leave women with little practical choice but to be submissive.

These are not the only realizations of marriage—some heterosexual couples do value and achieve real equality. But overall, heterosexual men still very much benefit from traditional marriage.

Because same-sex couples already lie outside the norm, we are less likely to fall into default arrangements. Our relationships do not face the same social pressure toward inequality and thus can serve as more egalitarian models. Even in relationships like my own, where my wife and I have divided our responsibilities in a very traditional way with her as the main income earner and myself responsible for our son and household chores, the division was very intentional. As such, the benefit of the work I do is not as hidden or minimized as it might be in an opposite-sex marriage.

It is absolutely to the disadvantage of the patriarchy for this experience of marriage to become socially acceptable as it then begs the question of why equality is not more present in heterosexual marriages. Casting same-sex marriage as deviant is an as-to-now effective way of maintaining the status quo.

But the implications of traditional marriage as the ideal social foundation move well beyond gender-based power differentials. Promoting marriage as uniquely critical to successful child-raising also serves the economic elite well in justifying the extreme poverty in our country.

Nicole Sussner Rodgers, editor-in-chief of Role Reboot, wrote in a recent op-ed:

“Despite all evidence to the contrary, the idea that poverty can be alleviated by increasing the prevalence of ‘traditional’ families is apparently as irresistible as ever. Just last month during the ‘Future of Marriage in America‘ panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute asserted: ‘If you want to eliminate poverty overnight you can wipe it out by having stable, two-parent households.'”

This argument allows conservatives to effectively blame poor (and particularly poor and African-American) families for their own poverty by pointing out the precipitous increase in single motherhood over the past decades. Their logic is that, if these families would only follow the moral imperative of traditional marriage, their quality of life would improve dramatically. This, even though Rodgers reports that new census data refutes the claim that poverty and family structure are highly correlated.

As such, an issue like same-sex marriage that chips away at the untouchable sanctity of traditional marriage serves as a potentially dangerous domino for the conservative argument. If Americans begin to embrace the idea that laws and mores around marriage need to reflect modern society instead of outdated ideals, other traditional assumptions around marriage will come under increased scrutiny. This may well include the not-so-radical idea that the marriage patterns of poor African-American families are not the cause of their generational poverty. The phenomenon is not likely to happen overnight, but universally recognized same-sex marriage is certainly a first step.

Maintaining an aura of irrefutability around traditional marriage and its inherent necessity to society is thus critically important to the economic elite. The fact that the Supreme Court arguments took place in the shadow of the Baltimore riots only emphasizes the urgency of this fact. As John Angelos, executive vice president of the Baltimore Orioles tweeted in response to the Freddie Gray protests:

“That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.”

As the direct consequences of poverty come into the full view of the general American public, the economic elite have an increased stake in maintaining the moral high ground and, among other misleading strategies, hiding behind traditional marriage as the real solution to society’s ills. Winning the argument on same-sex marriage would bring us one step closer to unveiling the whole truth: that opposite-sex marriage is, in fact, the emperor with no clothes, neither ensuring the existence or economic stability of two-parent homes.

Much is at stake when the Supreme Court releases their decision this June. At face value, the decision will determine the extent to which same-sex headed families such as my own are guaranteed equal treatment in society. But beyond that, a decision in favor of same-sex marriage opens the door to continued scrutiny of the institution as a whole and may well eventually contribute to a more equitable society in general.

Anne Penniston Grunsted is a Chicago-based writer who focuses on her experience with disability (her son has Down syndrome and she lives with mental illness) and parenting. She has published in Brain, Child, Quartz, and Chicago Parent and won the 2014 Nonfiction prize from Beecher’s Magazine. She lives with her partner and son in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.

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