In the coming days, the Alaska Department of Law is expected to issue a memo to local clerks stating what most Americans already believe: Same-sex couples must be granted the same legal privileges, including the right to marry, that opposite-sex couples have. That memo will rectify an injustice that has festered in our state since territorial days and confirm that this debate is over, that those who want the government to discriminate against LGBTQ people have lost.
I and many other LGBTQ Alaskans, along with our straight allies, will celebrate this moment, and rightly so. However, I'll celebrate it not as a grand victory but as a temporary solution that will allow us to move toward a much more significant goal: getting the government out of marriage altogether.
There is no question that if the government provides services or rights to one group, it must provide them to everyone. But notice the "if." Why should government be the arbiter of our personal and spiritual unions? Why do we need the state to approve deeply intimate decisions we've already made?
State-officiated marriage is a relic of unseemly times, used in eras recent and distant as a tool of oppression. When governments began officiating marriages, in 16th-century Europe, they did so in part to preserve patriarchal control and prevent young adults from choosing partners their families did not approve of. For most, marriage was not a union between lovers but a business transaction between families, and government got involved to ensure it stayed that way. Until 1967 in the U.S., state governments used their marriage licensing authority to enforce racial segregation by banning interracial marriages. Similar laws were also enacted in Nazi Germany and Apartheid-era South Africa. And many states and nations continue to use their power to license marriages to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
The underlying purpose of the LGBTQ rights movement is to prevent the government from intruding into our personal lives. The campaigns to legalize same-sex marriage have been a means to that end, although many seem to have made marriage equality an end in itself and forgotten why we pursued it in the first place. We have solved the problem of unequal treatment, but we've also expanded the government's ability to regulate our private lives. Instead of demanding that the government get out of the bedroom, we've eagerly ushered it in.
The logical end of the argument for marriage equality is actually not the legalization of same-sex marriage but the abolition of state-controlled marriage. If you believe the government has no right to decide whose union is valid and whose isn't, why would you then ask the government to recognize yours? If you believe people should be free to live their lives as they choose, why should they have to ask the state's permission to do so?
Dozens of professors, politicians and writers from across the political spectrum, as well as religious leaders, have argued against state-controlled marriage and advocated a system of private contracts and ceremonies in its place. Religious couples could continue to have their unions blessed by a minister and non-religious couples could continue to exchange vows in non-religious ceremonies (whether the union is called "marriage" or something else would be up to them). Any couple could draw up a custom legal contract, as broad or specific as they'd like, detailing their plans for finances, power of attorney, child custody, joint ownership of property, et cetera. Every marriage or life partnership comes with a unique set of circumstances -- think how different a large blended family is from an aging, childless couple -- so why not seal it with a tailor-made agreement instead of a one-size-fits-all stamp? Imagine how few divorces there would be if every couple intentionally hashed out the specifics of their partnership before making it official!
One of the most contentious points in our national debate has been the idea that, by legalizing same-sex marriage, the government is approving of same-sex relationships and LGBTQ lifestyles. The language of recent court rulings suggests this is true. Opponents of same-sex marriage bitterly resent this, while supporters applaud it as a breakthrough for the LGBTQ community. But I believe the government should not be in the business of approving or disapproving of anyone's lifestyle, and I don't need the government to validate my identity. The value of a loving same-sex partnership, and of LGBTQ culture itself, is intrinsic; it does not come from a legal memo, court ruling or ballot measure. We don't need the approval of a government – especially one that has shown us little respect until now -- to be who we are.
The impending legalization of same-sex marriage here will thankfully allow same-sex couples to manage their affairs the same way opposite-sex couples do, and that's a step worth celebrating. But it's just that: a step. Once the celebration dies down, we'll realize that we're left with an antiquated and unnecessary system in which your marriage isn't "real" enough to warrant benefits unless the state says it is. So let's dismantle that system of licenses and benefits and let people manage their relationships exactly as they choose. I don't know if I'll ever get married. But if I do, I want to do it on my terms, not the state of Alaska's.
Egan Millard is a copy editor for Alaska Dispatch News. He can be reached at emillard(at)alaskadispatch.com