Marriage Equality Is Also a Win for Single People

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Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images

In March of 2013, as the Supreme Court was hearing the same-sex-marriage case it ultimately punted on, the right-leaning libertarian journalist Megan McArdle predicted that our nation’s big leap forward on gay marriage was inevitable, and that it would be accompanied by a big leap backward.

The legalization of gay marriage, as McArdle saw it then, “is a landmark victory for the forces of staid, bourgeois sexual morality. Once gays can marry, they’ll be expected to marry.”

On Friday, just a couple of years behind McArdle’s prognostication, the Supreme Court delivered the joyous verdict: In a 5–4 decision, the Court decided that same-sex couples around the country will be free to marry and enjoy all the federal benefits attached to the institution.

And lo and behold, at the very climax of the Court’s written decision, penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy, there was embedded an extremely staid, bourgeois, old-fashioned sentiment, one that stood in stark contrast to the larger message of social revolution: the elevation of legal marriage as the ideal embodiment of human connection.

For those Americans who are not married — by choice or by circumstance — or for those who simply do not regard the institution as the apotheosis of adult existence, Kennedy’s flowery prose in this otherwise stirring context, which unlocked matrimony to millions who have been barred from it, was jarring and more than a little depressing.

“Marriage,” Kennedy writes, “responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.” It’s one of several sentences in his decision that sound really lovely and warm, but is in fact both cruel and inaccurate, what with its implication that marriage is a cure for loneliness and that those who have not found conjugal recourse are howling into an abyss of solitude that brings to mind Alien and its single heroine, Ripley: In [unmarried] space, no one can hear you scream! Kennedy’s vision of unmarried life is apparently absent friends, lovers, siblings, children; contra the experiences of millions, there is no satisfaction, relief, or fulfillment in independence.

He builds further on this in the decision’s ultimate paragraph, one that is destined to be read at gay and straight weddings for decades, but which Nation editor Richard Kim fairly described on Twitter as a “barfy, single-shaming kicker.”

“No union is more profound than marriage,” Kennedy writes, “for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family.” This will come as news to the millions of people who aim their love, fidelity, sacrifice, and devotion high, but in directions other than at a spouse. “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were,” Kennedy continues, just hammering it home: Married partnership, according to the Supreme Court, is not only a terrific institution into which we rightly should welcome all loving and willing entrants, it is an arrangement that apparently improves the individuals who enter it, that makes them greater than they were on their own. Those who have previously not been allowed to marry, Kennedy avers, should not be “condemned to live in loneliness,” as if the opposite of marriage must surely be a life sentence of abject misery.

The fetishization of marriage as the inevitable endpoint of the revolutionary fight for gay marriage is something about which many critics have expressed anxiety. After the Court struck down DOMA in 2013, Jesse Oxfeld wrote a piece in the New York Observer entitled “Yesterday an Oppressed Minority, Today an Old Maid,” in which he confessed that “all this heteronormativization is only encouraging my dull, heteronormative urges” and leaving him feeling bad not only for not having a husband, but for not having had a husband when he was young. In Slate, June Thomas recalled how, during her young adulthood in the women’s movement, “although we didn’t have marriage itself in the cross-hairs, on a certain level the institution represented the patriarchy.” Despite being long partnered, Thomas wrote, “I just don’t want to be a wife — and I don’t want a wife of my own.”

The resistance to old hetero marital norms, to the unequal economic, social, and sexual gender dynamics that were so fully embodied by marriage in many of its older iterations, has often gone hand-in-hand with LGBTQ activism. Many who agitated from the margins of married America have roared against the institution’s narrow, ratifying power to define, validate, and give imagined meaning and purpose to adult life.

That some of those outside groups have now been invited — after considerable banging on the door — to participate in that institution is thrilling. But that the invitation comes with a note that amplifies marriage’s power to diminish everything and everyone that remains on its outside is deflating. It feels like that door opened quickly and then slammed hard in the face of all those Americans whose numbers are growing every day and who live, love, work, earn, and have sex, children, friendships, and full lives outside of marriage.

Kennedy’s framing seems to bolster McArdle’s prediction of a return to Victorian social constriction. But because of the growing number of single people in America, it brings up the possibility of something worse: the cutting off of rights and benefits to an ever-expanding population of independent adults. It corresponds to the worst fears of single advocate Bella DePaulo, who has written that even when gay and lesbian people gain true marriage equality, “all those people who are single — whether gay or straight or any other status — will still remain second class citizens,” wanting for the tax breaks and legal dispensations and next-of-kin rights enjoyed by their married peers.  

What’s extra galling about Kennedy’s wording is that it makes the glorious same-sex marriage victory a cramped thing, when in fact the social progress it represents is expansive in ways that should redound positively to many Americans, not just those who have already or who aspire to walk down an aisle or into a judge’s chambers. In reality, the right for gay people to marry each other represents a victory not only for gay-marrying people and their straight-marrying brethren but also for non-marrying Americans.

The entrance of gay and lesbian people into the federally legalized marital market, rather than an affirmation of marriage’s centrality, should be viewed as a major step toward busting up the institution’s monopoly on adult life, a step that gay and lesbian people are taking in tandem with and not necessarily at the expense of millions of unmarried people.

Marriage, traditionally, was not something that encouraged individual flourishing, but rather its opposite, a reality made manifest, ironically enough, by Antonin Scalia’s furious dissent on Friday. In his angry response (in which he also scolds the Court for deciding on a matter that will affect American populations that remain unrepresented by the nine justices, a complaint that centuries of women and people of color will be charmed by), Scalia sneers at concerns for freedoms of intimacy or spirituality or expression. “Expression, sure enough,” writes Scalia grumpily, “is a freedom, but anyone in a long-lasting marriage will attest that that happy state constricts, rather than expands, what one can prudently say.”

This dour view of matrimony is in fact consistent with a lot of what it used to be, back when it held a stranglehold on us all. That hold was especially punishing for women, who needed marriage for economic stability, social standing, a sanctioned sex and reproductive life and who also saw their rights, opportunities and identities diminished within it. The expectation that most adults should be (hetero) married adults muffled a huge diversity of individual desires and predilections and ambitions and tastes and habits; it straightened millions of winding paths, directing them toward wedding cakes topped by brides and grooms.  

Gay marriage has presented a challenge to straight marriage in part because it resists the mandate that everyone be straight married. It also, ideally, takes the great things about partnership — love, companionship, commitment — and makes them the basis of the institution. This dismantles the structurally worst parts of the institution, if not the personally worst parts: Yes, of course, gay marriages include power imbalances, injustices, and problematic dependency relationships. But the identities of the subjugated and the dominated are no longer determined quite so reliably by the sex of the people entering the union. 

But the other thing that’s so revolutionary about fighting for marriage to be about love and companionship — and not about a strictly gendered economic or social power construct — is that it acknowledges human connections that are also available to millions of people outside of marriage altogether. There is an abundance of romantic love and sexual partnership enjoyed by couples who choose not to marry, by people who co-habit or co-parent or co-exist happily. There are also powerful networks of support and stability between friends, individuals who may not have encountered, or chosen not to commit to, a traditional romantic partner. 

Our world is full of single people who are gay and straight and bi, people who have full, busy lives, who do work that is important to themselves and to others; who take care of people and who are taken care of by others; who enjoy pleasures and disappointments with the same intensity as their married compatriots, who break hearts and have their hearts broken; who give birth to and raise children. These millions of people now have more freedom — thanks to lots of social movements, including the one that has brought us legal gay marriage — to live these full, varied lives without being anyone’s wife or husband.  

And yes, some of these people feel lonely; some may want to get married. But guess what — married people, gay and straight, also feel lonely. Many of them wish to be unmarried, or to be married to someone else. The notion that marriage ameliorates loneliness has no relation to a reality in which some of the most miserable people on earth are those in bad marriages. And it’s precisely the preponderance of bad marriages, which exist today and existed in perhaps even greater abundance back in the days when most of us were expected to get hitched for life to the first person we rubbed up against at the community dance, that radical shifts like the acceptance of gay marriage are exploding.   

Here is what we should not be doing: adding one narrow, institutionally defined expectation of adult life to another narrow, institutionally defined expectation for adult life. The freedom to marry someone of the same sex is the freedom to not have to marry someone of the opposite sex, which in an ideal universe should be tied to the freedom not to have to marry, period.