One of the most significant consequences of legalizing same-sex marriage is transferring the burden of discrimination from sexual orientation to marital status. While there were numerous arguments about how same-sex marriage would influence the institution, policies indicate that marriage post–Obergefell has been greatly enhanced in terms of its exclusionary power. While marriage is now gender-inclusive, those who cannot or choose not to engage in a state-sanctioned monogamous relationship are left out of many legal protections and benefits. I argue that marriage functions as a panopticon, exerting social control by “othering” those who do not participate in the institution. From losing out on tax benefits and employer-sponsored health care to determining who can visit someone in the hospital and the disbursement of someone’s estate after death, these legal benefits are tied to marriage. Significantly, some states and employers that previously offered domestic partnership benefits have transitioned their policies to be solely tied to marriage. Marriage equality has resulted in a new wave of marriage promotion policies and behaviors.
Cohabiting couples, individuals in multi-partner relationships, single people, and people with additional “othered” statuses do not benefit from marriage equality. While those promoting marriage have the goal of strengthening “family values,” the legalization of same-sex marriage and continued policy-driven marriage promotion instead disproportionately burdens those who do not participate in these normative structures. Marriage is not equally beneficial for all parties, and same-sex marriage intensifies the disparate impact of not being married – and thus left out of all the state-sanctioned benefits – on poor individuals and people of color. In the post-marriage equality climate, marriage has increased importance, leading to growing ramifications for those who do not engage in this state-sanctioned civil status.
What does this new landscape mean for family scholars and others who study marriage? Who is “othered” and left out of this new “equal” institution? What empirical work needs to be done to explore the ramifications for individuals who do not marry? As an institution, will marriage slide into irrelevance or will it continue to be used as a panopticon and tool of social control? What are the policy implications? Drawing upon prior empirical and theoretical work, I consider theoretical frameworks relevant to this topic, what future empirical work could consider, and alternative policies that could be adopted to organize love and care work.
Format & Rationale for Inclusion:
The arrival of legal marriage reshapes how family scholars will study marriage as an institution. While more people now have access to the institution, those who cannot or choose not to get married are denied an increasing number of benefits associated with marital status, making this an important topic to study from a social inequality lens. Examining the ways marriage will continue to act as a barrier and mechanism for discrimination remains a ripe area for future research. I propose this session as an informal roundtable contribution. It is well suited for discussion as this project is at the development stage and I’m anticipating others may have empirical and research design questions, allowing for a robust conversation on this issue.