Marriage equality should be for all

Earlier this week Washington state Governor Christine Gregoire signed a law that grants marriage rights to same sex couples. On the surface this does create greater equality among couples in Washington state, but I believe this law and similar efforts ignore many fundamental questions and problems with the link between marriage and our legal system.

The first thing to note is that, assuming the new law holds up to various legal challenges, there will still be people who would like to marry but cannot. For example, polyamorous relationships have in recent years become more common and socially accepted. There are numerous types of relationships covered by the blanket term ‘polyamory,’ but the unifying characteristic is the involvement of more than two members in an open and honest way.

For many, the thought of a relationship with more than two people carries strong negative connotations, in part due to the association of male-centric polygamy with radical Mormonism, and may even seem inherently immoral. It’s important to realize, however, that various forms of relationships between more than two individuals are practiced in a number of non-western cultures. In addition, biological evidence suggests that maintaining multiple sexual partners has been part of human evolutionary history until relatively recently. Of course this isn’t an argument that everybody should be doing it, just that the idea isn’t as “unnatural” as it may seem at first.

Proponents of marriage equality should be arguing not only for same sex marriage rights, but for the legalization of polygamy as well. Individuals in committed long term polyamorous relationships are denied rights relating to taxes, immigration, and socio-economic benefits that traditional couples have access to. In many states even civil unions, despite the fact that they are not recognized by the federal government, provide same sex couples more rights and benefits than individuals in polyamorous relationships can obtain.

It is clear that allowing plural marriage, although necessary for true marriage equality, would require substantial adjustments to the legal system. There is also the possibility that, if it was legal, people might marry in large groups simply to exploit the system and receive benefits.

One possible alternative is to simply abolish marriage and civil unions as legal institutions. This would create genuine equality between all traditional couples and other types of relationships. Traditional wedding ceremonies might still take place, for those who desire them, but they would carry no legal weight. This would also allow typical opponents of gay marriage to maintain their religious traditions without worrying about the sanctity of their ceremonies being ruined; since for this group marriage is perceived to be divine and sacred, the lack of legal recognition would be relatively inconsequential.

Obviously this approach would also require many reforms. Some might complain about the disappearance of things like tax benefits, but in reality most people likely agree that the government shouldn’t be subsidizing our personal lives, particularly through an increasingly outdated and underperforming institution like marriage. These benefits could also simply shift to apply to anyone raising children, maintaining their usefulness to society while not discriminating against who can receive them.

While the signing of same sex marriage into law is a victory for one group, it clearly does not promise marriage equality for all. It is important that people examine the issue within a broader context, rather than focusing single-pointedly on the rights of one group, in order to really understand the implications of demanding marriage equality while maintaining its regulation by the law.