booknotes: beyond (straight and gay) marriage

This booknote is part two of Saturday's booknote, which discussed a book called Red Families v. Blue Families. Click through to the first one if you want a bit of context for what I write below.

Red Families, by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone discussed the changing demographic landscape in America through the context of changes in family formation and related those changes to the legal and political landscape. They then laid out what they believed to be a way forward: a path which combines (or attempts to strike a balance between) the values of "red families" and "blue families." See my review of that book to learn what I found unsatisfactory about their solutions.

Nancy Polikoff's Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008) similarly tackles the question of the changing socioeconomic and cultural landscape of family formation in the United States and details the way in which our network of legal and social policy has failed to re-form in response, leaving us with laws and policies that fail to address the needs of all of the nation's families.

The keyword here is "all." The key phrase is "valuing all families." Polikoff argues that by continuing to privilege married couples and their blood (and adopted) dependents/kin, the law discriminates against all family forms (straight as well as queer) which do not revolve around marriage. While she acknowledges the importances of marriage equality as a civil rights issue (all consenting adults should, by right, have access to marriage as a social institution), she points out that even if marriage were equally available to straight and same-sex couples, many types of families would continue to be excluded from accessing the economic and legal benefits currently provided to citizens exclusively or primarily through the apparatus of marriage. Polikoff argues for replacing the marriage-as-gateway model with a system that would
  1. Separate marriage from the myriad economic and legal benefits and rights to which it now controls access. Marriage would continue to be an option, one which -- if chosen -- would trigger a cascade of economic and legal benefits for the family members which the marriage recognizes (much like it does today). However it would cease to be the sole method for obtaining those economic and legal benefits. "Marriage is not a choice," she writes, "if it's the only way to achieve economic well-being and peace of mind" (133).
  2. Provide robust legal alternatives to marriage for all family forms, not just those organized around sexually-intimate couples. These alternatives would allow families to establish legally-recognized interdependent relationships that would give them access to the important resources and rights which our society currently only provides to married couples and their dependents.
Polikoff describes in detail the types of rights and benefits now associated exclusively with marriage. By my reading, these rights and benefits fall roughly into two categories.
  • Recognition of economic interdependency through tax benefits, social security benefits and access to health insurance and other work-related compensation benefits currently extended (with few exceptions) only to married couples and their dependents
  • Recognition of the unpaid care that families provide one another through nurturing dependents and intimate partners, providing material support when family members are ill or otherwise temporarily (or permanently) disabled, and the need to protect family members' ability to provide that care when necessary -- for example through family leave at a place of employment, or the ability to make healthcare decisions for an incapacitated family member.
When taken together, these two clusters of legal rights and benefits work to support family structures in the valuable work they do to counterbalance the vulnerability of individuals as they move through their lives: families act materially and emotively to protect members from potential suffering due to job loss, physical or mental ill-health, emotional loss, and ease the stress of major and minor life transitions.

To the extent that families provide these forms of care, it is in the interest of the state to support their activities because if families were not there to care for individuals, the economic and social burden would fall to the community as a whole (taxpayers) as represented by the state and social service agencies. Thus, it is not only a matter of social values, but also in the state's economic and political interest to support (value) all family forms that fulfill these functions for their members, regardless of what shape these familie units take.

Which brings me back to the way in which Polikoff's "valuing all families" approach ultimately serves us so much better than the policy solutions put forward by Cahn and Carbone in Red Families v. Blue Families.  Polikoff steps outside of the constraints imposed by assuming that families will form around a sexually-intimate dyad, including those pairings in her vision but not excluding all of those who do not fit within its bounds. She doesn't enumerate the specific kinds of families that would count within this vision -- leaving it up to us to imagine the myriad possibilities.

Which is precisely the point: when we stop playing gatekeeper -- when we stop judging certain types of family formation over others -- we can begin to truly value the work that family members do. We can begin to value (through law) the roles and actions rather than the naming who can and cannot fulfill those roles. Rather than seeking families with a "mother," a "father" and "children," for example, we can start thinking in terms of "adult interdependent relationships," (with two or more individuals involved) in terms of "caregivers" (those caring for dependents) and "dependents" (children, those made temporarily dependent through illness or disability). And we can begin to formulate family policies that support the work that these relationships do in promoting health and wellness for all beings.

I'll end this (somewhat rambling) review with a quotation from early in Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage. It is a definition of "family" written in 1973 by the American Home Economics Association.


By the American Home Economics Association.

I want you to think about these two things while you read the definition.
[A family is] two or more people who share resources, share responsibility for decisions, share values and goals, and have commitments to one another over time. The family is that climate that one "comes home to" and it is this network of sharing and commitments that most accurately describes the family unit, regardless of blood, legal ties, adoption or marriage (33).
I hope that this is the understanding of family that as a society we will eventually realize serves all of us best.

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