In the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of little changes in terms of the struggle for marriage equality in the United States. First, on December 13, the US Department of Education decided to redesign its federal financial aid applications to reflect the reality that in a post-DOMA world, the federal government recognizes some same-gender marriages. This led to a predictable freak out from among other groups the National Organization for Marriage, which apparently doesn’t understand that one of the results of the federal government no longer barring itself from recognizing same-gender marriages is that same-gender marriages will be recognized within the context of assessing families’ ability to afford college.
In many recent years, the focus of a lot of queer or LGBT* (but mostly just LGB) activism has been on marriage, but specifically marriage as an end goal in and of itself. The actual reality of how the increasing number of such marriages being accounted for in policy decisions, however, should force us all to take a look at what marriage is good for. In the case of the recent revision on FAFSA forms, it might seem like a step backwards. The children of couples now recognized as married, and occasionally even members of such couples themselves, will suddenly have partners or additional parents that the government will see as potentially supportive. For those people, this change will probably reduce the amount of federal aid they’ll receive, but that’s only one way of looking at it.
What this legally does is recognize the difference between single LGBT* students (or, their parents) and those within a spouse (who either is, or is recognized as, the same gender). In an indirect way, this makes certain that support goes to the portions of the queer community that need it most, who actually aren’t married, rather than treating us as an undifferentiated mass of singles.
A few days after that decision, however, another one rocked the national boat even as it seemingly only affected New Mexico. On December 19, the “Land of Enchantment” became the seventeenth state in the US to begin legally recognizing same-gender marriages. New Mexico was something of a hold out, actually. Its marriage laws weren’t specifically inclusive of same gender couples, but the state hadn’t either specifically banned itself from recognizing them either. The court decision marks the end of an era. Justice Edward Chavez’s ruling seems somewhat aware of how this shifted the legal situation, since a part of its basis was the lack of a specific ban. The legal argument has quite literally shifted, from recognition needing to be explained as having benefits to both families and states, to reasons to fail to recognize marriages requiring a pre-existing legal basis.
That local change suggests too that this issue isn’t just changing in terms of how it’s thought of as a legal question but also how it plays in national politics. New Mexico wasn’t quite the last “majority minority” state in the US to begin recognizing same-gender marriages, but its change has left Texas (of course) stranded as the only state with such a population but without such policies (without even the not-quite-a-state District of Columbia sharing that dual status). The ways ethnic otherhood and gender politics in the US intersect is complicated, but it seems like the idea of this being an issue that could divide (presumed White) LGBT* people and (presumed straight and cisgender) people of color should be retired.
Meanwhile, Utah was hot on New Mexico’s heels, however, when the following day, a ruling legalized same-gender marriages in the unofficial heart of Mormon America. Where New Mexico had been the last state to exist in the sort of legal limbo of presumed straight marriage laws, Utah is actually something of a first. It’s the first state not carried by the Democrats in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections to recognize same-gender marriages. It’s the first state with anti-LGBT* sodomy laws that were only struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2003 to recognize those marriages. If Utah’s recent decision is the sign of what’s politically to come, the division between more urban and diverse states and others on this issue isn’t written in stone.
Nearly everything that many people in the US took for granted about same-gender marriage has come under fire in the past few days – that it’s primary benefits are to the couples that are newly recognized; that it’s something that needs to be argued for rather than argued against; that it’s a reflection of White-dominated queer politics rather than something in opposition to White-dominated straight politics; and that it’s a fundamentally “Blue State” phenomenon. The ground is moving beneath most of the US’s feet on this issue, so let’s work to recognize how complicated and unstable this issue really is at this moment.