I'm Lena Chen, a writer, activist, and media producer who's been called a "skank" (by Bill O'Reilly) and "a small Asian woman" (by The New York Times). My favorite part of my workday is the hate mail.For the unlikely story that is my life, read on.
We reject the idea that any relationship based on love should have to register with the state. Marriage is an institution used primarily to consolidate privilege, and we think real change will only come from getting rid of a system that continually doles out privilege to a few more … Believe it or not, we felt incredibly safe, happy, taken care of, and fulfilled with the many queer biological and chosen parents who raised us without the right to marry … In the ways that our families might resemble nuclear, straight families, it is accidental and coincidental, something that lies at the surface. We do not believe that queer relationships are the mere derivatives of straight relationships. We can play house without wanting to be straight. Our families are tangled, messy and beautiful – just like so many straight families who don’t fit into the official version of family. We want to build communities of all kinds of families, families that can exist – that do exist – without the recognition of the state.
I’m a strong proponent of LGBT rights, but recently, I’ve begun to think the focus on marriage equality is terribly misguided. Marriage has never been about what people personally attribute to the institution (i.e. “love”); it’s about state recognition. I’ve blogged before about my disenchantment with the same-sex marriage movement and marriage in general. Nonetheless, I’ve been hesitant to voice my growing opposition to the movement’s single-minded pursuit of marriage rights, because I don’t want to be construed as 1) wallowing in heterosexual privilege or 2) straight-up homophobic. But you know what? I know I’m neither. I also know that I have no idea what it’s like to not have marriage as an option, so I won’t pretend to know what it feels like to have the state deem my relationship inferior. (Although I would tell those who are personally offended by this exclusion that the state is a pretty shitty judge of legitimacy.) What I do know is that not everyone wants or chooses marriage, that domestic partnerships are a real option elsewhere in the world, that I’m in the minority but I’m not alone.
Over the past year, I literally read hundreds of articles — a lot of them boring, dry, and scholarly — about sexual norms related to premarital sex and virginity. The resulting thesis, which I turned in two weeks ago, argues that sexual stigmas originated from and are reinforced by the state-backed marriage institution, which itself is a site of regulation and oppression. What conservatives idealize as the basic building block of society is also conveniently one of the oldest and most effective ways for governments to control their population. Nowadays, that is less apparent, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. This is not my opinion. This is an accurate reflection of history. When you take out all the fluffy shit that bridal magazines and chick flicks associate with marriage, you realize that the institution, at its core, is not very romantic at all.
When conservatives argue that marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples because of its procreative purpose, LGBT advocates decry this view as narrow-minded. But you know what? The conservatives are actually right in this regard. Marriage, because it relies on recognition from the government, is inherently not based on love, but rather, based on the interests of the state, which in turn, is very much invested in the procreative potential of its citizens. If marriage were really about love, then it would not come with benefits and incentives that induce people to marry even in absence of love. If marriage were really about love, it would not be an agreement mediated by law. If it were about love, there would be no history of parental vetoes, anti-miscegenation legislation, or queer discrimination. Of course, that ugly past exists precisely because marriage, historically, is not about romance, but about money — how to create it and how to maintain it. For the majority of Western history, marriages were dictated by fathers and patriarchs, treated as property alliances between families, and restricted by the state, which took an active interest in limiting the ability of young adults to marry for love (and without parental permission). The concept of “companionate marriage” did not even exist until the eighteenth century and did not become widely practiced until less than a hundred years ago. Before then, marriage used to be an undeniably harmful institution for everyone. Today, we don’t need our parents to sign off on our engagements, but we do still seek validation through law, despite the fact that the state has historically not been on the side of its citizens’ romantic well-being.
Coming to terms with these ideas hasn’t been easy for me. Back in October (less than six months ago), I was still discussing my fantasy of “don[ning] a floor-length gown” while reluctantly acknowledging that my somewhat infantile desire for a wedding (and the accompanying attention) was no justification for opting into this whole patriarchal, oppressive marriage business. Nowadays, I still get weak in the knees at the thought of perfectly printed Save The Date cards, crisp flower arrangements, and delicate place settings. But let’s face the facts: if I get married, it will not be an expression of love but of my somewhat unhinged desire to become the young, Asian, and slutty version of Martha Stewart. And the fact that I can get married anyway is just an example of how utterly ludicrous this institution has become. If it were really about love, then the state would take an interest in the fact that my respect for the sanctity of marriage ends where the table runner begins. The conservatives have it all wrong when they think marriage needs to be “saved” (it’s been doomed long before the LGBT movement), but marriage equality proponents are also deluded when they expend so much energy into gaining access to an institution without their interests in mind.
I no longer have any intention of getting married for love. If I ever get married (which is still doubtful), it will be because I need the benefits associated with it. Should those benefits not be available to me anyway as a single person? If I marry my best friend for health insurance, what does that say about the sanctity of marriage? If marriage isn’t an appropriate affirmation of love, then what is? Perhaps we need to come up with more diverse and creative ways of expressing our commitment to our partners. (As divorce rates indicate, getting married is obviously insufficient for doing so.) Perhaps we should also question our reliance on marriage to affirm relationships in which we should already be secure. I find it disheartening that so many people — both straight and queer — do not challenge the societal norm that says our romantic relationships are only legitimate if approved by the government. We do not hold our friendships to this standard (and let’s face it: many friendships last longer then marriages), so why should we hold our romantic ones to it? I’m personally and politically invested in LGBT equality. I want gay couples to have the same rights as straight couples. But even more so, I want unmarried people to have the same rights as married ones. That kind of equality would truly recognize that love is in our hands, not in the hands of the state.