One of the biggest fights friends in my master of divinity program ever had erupted over same-sex marriage. The question was not if it should happen—all were fierce advocates for equality—but how and when. On one side were strategic minds worried that a case brought before the Supreme Court too soon could set equality back. On the other were persons from less friendly parts of the country where the lack of equality for all would continue to mean equality for none.
It’s challenging to be radically progressive and pragmatically strategic. We in the United Methodist Church know this well.
But here we are, just a short time away from finding out how this Supreme Court will deal with the questions of marriage equality before it. And beyond what my friends or I could have imagined just a few years ago, there are social and political indicators to suggest the U.S. is “ready” for a sweeping ruling (whether or not these justices will be so bold is another matter).
Even still, while I celebrate the progress and the potential in this moment, I also warily wonder what and, more importantly, who it is “victory” on marriage would represent. While an ostensibly effective strategy for allaying fears and winning popular approval of marriage equality might be to present same-sex couples as “just like us” (notice the continued privileging of the heteronormative position), it is important that we consider who is in view, who is not, and what is given up to appear “acceptable.”
Being strategic toward very particular change isn’t necessarily being radically progressive toward thoroughgoing justice.
We would do well to pay attention to the subjects put forward as acceptable, as not too threatening to the status quo: to notice their social-economic status, gender, race, ethnicity, abilities, etc. And if we are concerned for justice, we ought to pay attention to the persons and issues not addressed or served all that well (or at all) by marriage equality as it has been conceived, who are in fact obscured and left behind by relatively elite and conservative interests in perpetuating a nominally expanded institution of marriage.
This present iteration of marriage equality still creates and sustains its own sets of exclusions. Some relationships are still privileged over others, with significant implications for access to health care and an array of other economic, social, and religious benefits. How might we better support mutually supportive relationships, from friends who serve as one another’s primary caregivers to blended families to adult children caring for their parents and so forth? (See beyondmarriage.org for such an agenda.)
Moreover, if we turn toward those who do not pass the acceptability test, whose concerns are not as sexy as marriage, whose very lives challenge our comfortable complacence, how might we better direct limited resources to address urgent, often life-and-death issues faced disproportionately by LGBTQ persons, issues like homelessness, sexual assault, racism, and inadequate access to health care?
Taking up these questions while also hoping for marriage equality is not an either/or proposition. Indeed, the view beyond marriage calls us to a more expansive both/and political and religious consciousness.
To be sure, should any part or the entirety of the two Supreme Court rulings be favorable, it will be a moment to celebrate, and I do anticipate that day will be a joyous one (whether this year or in the future, for the day will come). Though I am challenging here the primary focus on marriage to the exclusion of what are arguably more pressing matters, there is indeed value in marriage.
It is not the only form of exemplary relationality, yet marriage at its best can signify ways of living and loving that press beyond specificities of gender and demonstrate how mutual care between intimate partners can engender further a whole web of relationality grounded in radical love, hospitality, and commitment to justice.
In these ways, I celebrate what marriage can teach us. At the same time, I yearn for a movement that can look underneath and beyond marriage to the persons and relationships whose urgent concerns are yet to be served adequately by our social, political, and religious structures.
Whether or not the Supreme Court deems loving partnerships between two persons of the same gender legally “acceptable,” may we strive for justice movements mediated not by acceptability but concern for the unaccepted, the marginal of the marginalized, the ones whose needs are not yet addressed by this version of equality. May the rolling river of justice lead us, yes, to marriage equality but beyond it toward a more fulsome, far reaching vision of justice.