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Marriage and Immigration
by Yasmin Nair
2006-03-01

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OINK: One Income, No Kids. That's how I describe myself. I'm part of a growing number of single people that's nearly 40 percent of the population. Marriage rates are down to less than 50 percent, and over half of all marriages end in divorce. A recent Sun-Times report indicates that more women refuse marriage even if they have children. Instead, they live within large and complex networks that include friends, family and supporters.

That used to be the queer model of 'family.' But if you believe the news, marriage is the all-consuming topic of concern for queers. And not just any marriage—gay marriage, as defined by the public figures who talk of its many advantages, is more retrograde than straight marriages have been for decades. In a desperate bid to affirm that they are not just like but better than straight couples, proponents of gay marriage ( PGMs ) evoke a model of marriage that reproduces gender and labor disparity. The New York Times reported last year that larger numbers of gay men choose to live as dependents on their spouses and stay home to take care of their children.

Gay marriage will be legal in the next 10 years—not because it's a progressive idea but because it's a truly conservative cause in cultural and economic terms. PGMs are fond of phrases like 'marriage equality' and the 'freedom to marry,' but gay marriage promotes inequality and allows the state to distance itself from necessary reform in the areas of health care and social services. Give us marriage, PGMs say, so that we can enjoy the privileges of straight couples, like health care and benefits.

You can't ask for privileges that are, by definition, only available to a few and still claim to ask for equality. PGMs are silent about 40 million uninsured single and married people. They dismiss opponents of gay marriage as homophobic bigots. But the opposition to gay marriage also comes from progressive quarters. Why should gay marriage take the place of real reform? Why should anyone feel forced to marry in order to get health care?

PGMs argue that gay marriage will only make things better for the rest of us. If our marriages are recognized as equal, they argue, society will eventually recognize equality for everyone. Straight marriage has only ever worked to the advantage of straight married couples, so why would gay marriage work differently? PGMs don't think about 'marriage rights' in a framework of social justice and that allows employers and the state to deny benefits to unmarried people. After Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, several employers there discontinued domestic partnership benefits for unmarried gay couples, explicitly stating that those who wanted them needed to get married.

That leaves gay couples with no options but to enter into marriages in order to keep benefits, and it does nothing to address the larger issue of health care reform. Gay-rights groups further this kind of tunnel vision by insisting that we present one voice. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force admonishes us: 'First and foremost, everyone in the community, no matter where he or she is on marriage—for, against, don't know or don't care—must unite to fight the backlash.' The real backlash here is not against gay marriage but against anyone who dares to voice dissent from the PGMs' agenda and who believes that one's marital status should not be the primary guarantor of rights.

Lately, PGMs have seized upon the issue of immigration. In the wake of upcoming immigration reform bills, PGMs argue that legalizing gay marriage would benefit 'bi-national couples.' American queers could sponsor their spouses for citizenship. But what about the many single queer and straight immigrants with no desire to couple up? Couples are not more deserving of recognition, their love is not sacred, more complicated or more worthy of rescue.

Arguing for gay marriage as part of immigration reform reinforces the inequalities that we see with regard to domestic partnerships—gay immigrants will be told to marry or else. In fact, because immigration is so bound up with the notion of 'family,' many straight immigrants are coerced into exploitative and abusive marriages in order to avoid deportation. PGMs would like to extend that abuse to queers as well.

Immigration laws reproduce gender and labor inequalities in the same way as marriage. The fact that 'spouses' can gain entry and citizenship simply because of their marital status means that unpaid domestic labor involving housekeeping, child care and sex becomes invisible at the point of entry. Immigration laws reinforce inequalities when deciding what kinds of immigrants should be allowed in and with what kind of status. A businessperson is more likely to be given a green card and citizenship than a migrant worker whose labor is considered less necessary and who is much more likely to be exploited and even unpaid. There's a direct parallel between the invisible labor of spouses and that of migrant workers. That's why making the gay or straight family and marriage the bases of immigration reform keeps labor inequalities in place.

Queers who care about immigration reform consider it in its totality. Currently, HIV-positive foreigners cannot enter without special waivers. Transgendered people face overt discrimination at points of entry. Immigration proposals like the Sensenbrenner bill ( H.R. 4437 ) would make it illegal for even homeless shelters to aid undocumented workers. A truly comprehensive immigration reform package would re-evaluate the outmoded domestic paradigms under which we allow immigrants, gay and straight, to enter. And it would explore the links between domesticity and labor. We need to reconsider how and why we value some domestic arrangements—monogamy, family and 'commitment'—over others. PGMs pretend that their marriages operate outside the economic sphere. But marriage has always been an economic contract; the link between romantic love and marriage is a recent construct.

If PGMs are not willing to think about immigration reform in these expansive terms, they really ought not to think about it at all. And return to their families that are more like the fast-disappearing heterosexual ones: 2.8 children, one working spouse, a stay-at-home parent and barbecues on a well-tended lawn—a lawn that's cared for by one of the millions of possibly unmarried and undocumented laborers who keep this economy going.

Yasmin Nair can be reached at welshzen@yahoo.com .


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