Why "Marriage Equality" Isn't Truly Equal

Until the marriage equality movement can recognize that marriage is about much bigger issues than sexuality, it can't really legitimately position itself as a movement promoting equality.
Publish date:
June 10, 2014
gay marriage, disability rights, immigrant rights, marriage equality

I've been having mixed feelings about the marriage equality movement ever since it started gaining serious steam1. I totally support the right of whoever to marry whomever, but that's actually where my problem with the movement lies: Because it's not about full marriage equality. It's about chipping away at some of the inequalities in this country's approach to matrimony, but no one involved with the movement wants to admit that.

Gay and lesbian couples should absolutely be able to get married. But marriage equality doesn't end there. It's not just about sexuality, and making sure that everyone has the right to enjoy the same benefits as heterosexual people -- not when marriage rights are still restricted in some of the same states we're currently celebrating for supporting marriage equality.

Did you know that disabled people who have court-appointed guardians -- like their parents, or the state -- can't get married without the approval of a guardian? This means that fully-grown adults don't have the autonomy to decide when and if they get married -- and that's not equality. Disabled people have had to sue not just for the right to get married, but also for the right to live with their partners after marriage, and they're not always successful.

Does this sound like marriage equality to you? If what we're fighting for is marriage equality, how come the unequal treatment of disabled people doesn't come up in advocacy? Or rallies? Or expensive dinners with gay celebrities? How come it's important that same-sex marriage be supported, but not the right of two disabled people who love each other to get married?

Even when disabled people aren't barred from marrying by guardians, group homes, and other outside authorities, they face what's known as the SSDI marriage penalty. In essence, the government programs designed to support disabled people recalculate benefits when they marry, on the grounds that a couple living together doesn't need as much help as two people living alone.

Given that SSDI and other disability benefits are already well below what people need to survive, and create a state of enforced poverty for disabled people, the SSDI marriage penalty, which reduces benefits by 25%, can be devastating. A couple may not be able to marry simply because they can't afford to -- because the adjustment to their benefits would make it impossible to survive and get the healthcare and support they need.

When people advocate for marriage equality and push for equal rights, do they discuss the SSDI marriage penalty and talk about how this policy affects disabled couples who are considering marriage? Are advocates for marriage equality concerned about how disabled people are economically (and thus functionally) barred from marriage in many cases?

Another group that faces a marriage penalty is low-income people in general. For low and moderate-income families, the structure of the tax system actually creates a financial penalty for being married, creating a disincentive for marriage, and barring people from taking vows with the people they love. Single mothers in particular are hit hard by such penalties, as they may be forced to remain single in order to keep needed government benefits to help support themselves and their children.

Combining their income with that of their partners traps them in an awkward hole in the tax system, and also pushes their income beyond the level needed to qualify for benefits like healthcare. However, their combined income still isn't enough to pay for these benefits independently -- so women remain unmarried to protect access to services like Medicaid for their children.

When people can't afford to get married, that's a problem -- and it means that marriage inequality is an ongoing issue. Because no one should have to refuse to get married because of concerns about finances and a penalty created through marriage -- and similarly, the larger "marriage equality" movement doesn't address this issue, illustrating that it has yet to recognize the class barriers involved in marriage.

What about the marriage difficulties faced by immigrants of any sexual orientation? Immigrants are often accused of marrying US citizens for the citizenship benefits, which devalues their marriages and positions them as outsiders bent on unfairly grabbing a piece of America. When immigrants do marry and prepare to move through immigration proceedings, both they and their spouses are run through a gamut of humiliating interviews designed to test the "validity" of their marriages, and yet, marriage equality advocates don't speak up for immigrants -- unless they're seeking same-sex marriage rights.

This ignores the larger picture involved with the barriers faced by immigrants, who may not be explicitly barred from marriage or unable to get married due to financial issues, but do face discriminatory attitudes from members of the public as well as the legal system. Like everyone else picking up a marriage license or seeking one, immigrants want to marry the people they love, but they also want to access the civil rights associated with marriage, like being able to make medical decisions for their partners and being able to pick their children up at school.

Numerous people, including Emma Lazarus and Martin Luther King, have been credited with the quote: "none are free until all are free," or some variation thereof. It's a philosophy by which I lead my own life, and in this case, marriage isn't truly equal until everyone has equal access to marriage. Not just same-sex couples who want to get married, but disabled couples, and low-income couples, and immigrant (or immigrant/citizen) couples.

Until the marriage equality movement can recognize that marriage is about much bigger issues than sexuality, it can't really legitimately position itself as a movement promoting equality. All it's currently doing is promoting equal access to marriage for same-sex couples -- which is definitely a goal I support, although I don't prioritize it as highly as some of my queer peers do -- which doesn't equate to full equality.


1. Not least of which is that I'm more concerned with issues like trans youth being thrown out of their homes, the huge LGBQT suicide rate, the widespread role of transmisogyny in our society, and LGBQT-related employment discrimination. Marriage is important and symbolic, and it can secure some civil rights (like the right to visit a hospitalized partner), but this movement seems to be one of primary concern to middle-class, gay white men. Return