April 15, 2008
Thoughts on the Tyrrany of Marriage at Tax Time
I’ve seen a few articles over the last few days about taxes and inequality for lesbian and gay couples, due to the inability to get married, as well as straight couples who aren’t married. Mostly, they are addressing the economic inequality faced by cohabitating queer couples who are legally unable to marry (in 49/50 states). Also, any tax allowances made for couples in civil unions at the state level don’t apply to federal taxation.
I thought I would take this opportunity, then, to give a mention to what many times is overlooked in the Andrew Sullivan version of same-sex marriage advocacy (see his Virtually Normal): that economic dependencies and living arrangements are not internal to intimate relationships. In other words, just because the majority of economic relationships are intimate ones as well does not mean they have to be, and does not mean they are necessarily correlated conceptually. The way our social, economic, and legal policies have shaped the meaning of intimate and economic life informs the way that we think about structuring life. Take away those institutional expectations and rewards, and new possibilities are opened up for organizing the fulfillment of a variety of needs– and perhaps in more productive ways.
In full disclosure, my Master’s thesis involves gender norms as they are produced in marriage and through the interconnection of marriage, economics, legal decisions, liberal political theory of the founders, and citizenship, so my thoughts are referring to a body of research that cannot in any way be meaningfully replicated here.
I simply pose a few questions to chew on:
- Why do we assume intimate relationships must also involve economic dependencies and domesticity? Or rather, that if they don’t, they are less socially valuable, are less fundamental to society than those who do.
- Why do we assume that the skills and qualities of an intimate couple are what makes the best or proper parents? This is especially relevant when oftentimes it is friendships, not intimate relationships, that end up being the life-long ones.
- What is marriage a (presumed) life-long relationship, characterized by economic dependency/support, cohabitation, emotional reliance, sexual fulfillment, and potential parenting partnership? Why do we assume that one person should be responsible to fulfill all these needs? And that we should assign civic identities and rights based on the collapse of these relationships into one?
- In what ways does the emphasis on marriage and coupling, especially in the same-sex marriage rights movement, neglect and further marginalize those who espouse other arrangements than the life relationships collapsed into one?
- Does the emphasis on same-sex marriage in LGBTQ advocacy render even more invisible and produce second-class citizens of queer folks who do not replicate heterosexual relationship norms of marriage/domestic partnerships?
- Finally, what is the function of marriage as a civic identity?
This last one is actually the question my thesis addresses, and it is a complex one. But thinking about it, and the other questions I pose, should make us question why our society rewards structuring both “private” and “public” spheres of life in terms of marriage and coupling and their affiliated expectations.
Sure, same-sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples. That’s not where my argument is centered. I’m just not convinced that so many rights should be allocated based on intimate coupling, and the assumptions that go along with it (see bullet #3). I personally advocate that civic identity should not be premised on intimate relationships or on the way one structures one’s relational life. I see a value in affording certain benefits for those who are in economic dependencies, but that those dependencies should be unrelated to intimate life.
Further, we can begin to think about the other possibilities for living than the only one provided to us when we shake the assumption that marital coupling is and should be the center of social organization. Hell, it may even allow us to think of ways to resist consumerism, financial strains, the emotional stresses of work-family balances. Sustainable living and embracing the Slow Movement become more practical and plausible ways to live. The dirty commie idea of communal living or intentional communities as a shared approach to solving certain daily needs can be more commonplace. But this is a threat to aggressive capitalism by solving problems and meeting needs outside of the capitalist marketplace and reducing consumption. This too, of course, threatens the tax base by creating fewer discreet households by redefining ‘household’. Shaking the emphasis on the individualistic and atomistic ideal of marriage and coupling as the ultimate conflation of relationship needs can indeed challenge ‘rugged individualism’ that has harmed values of community and shared responsibility. Indeed, for me, challenging the place of marriage as the civic identity par excellance is deeply politically progressive.
Thus, I argue that aggressively advocating (same-sex) marriage (or alternatively offering rights to “marriage like” relationships) tends to imply that the marriage-based structure of rights and privileges is just fine “as is” (and I’m not even going to broach the gender normativity still (re)produced in marriage). Instead, I’d like to advocate for different solutions, beyond marriage.
recommended reading: Michael Warner’s Trouble With Normal (on my amazon recommendations)
cross-posted to The Reaction