Tuesday, August 8, 2006

After a decade of fighting for same-sex “marriage,” some homosexual activists are breaking their silence to say it’s time to fight for benefits for all kinds of relationships.

Families and relationships “know no borders and will never slot narrowly into a single existing template,” several activists said in a statement issued last month called “Beyond Marriage: A New Strategic Vision For All Our Families and Relationships.”

Because marriage is “not the only worthy form of family or relationship,” it “should not be legally or economically privileged above others,” according to the statement, which was signed by 270 homosexual rights activists and heterosexual allies, such as Princeton University professor Cornel West and feminist icon Gloria Steinem.

Other kinds of relationships that they say deserve marriagelike benefits include senior citizens who aren’t married but live together; single-parent families; blended families; “committed, loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner”; “queer couples who decide to jointly create and raise a child with another queer person or couple, in two households”; and nonsexual cohabiters, such as friends or siblings, the statement said.

“A lot of people are being left out” in the same-sex “marriage” discussion because their families and relationships “don’t fit” with marriage, said National Gay & Lesbian Task Force activist Amber Hollibaugh, one of 18 drafters of the statement.

Universal benefits are needed because “nobody’s family should be excluded from what it needs in order to survive and prosper,” she said.

“People deserve … rights and protections just because they’re people,” said Joseph DeFilippis, leader of Queers for Economic Justice and another drafter of the statement, which is available at www.beyondmarriage.org.

The Beyond Marriage statement has attracted tremendous interest and support — hundreds of e-mails are pouring in from people asking to sign it, said Mr. DeFilippis. It touched a nerve, he added, because it finally says publicly what many homosexual, bisexual and transgendered activists were saying privately.

But some observers, both homosexual and heterosexual, are alarmed by the statement’s sweeping agenda.

The Beyond Marriage “manifesto” may be well-intentioned, but it undermines one of the homosexual rights movement’s best arguments, which is that it’s unfair and wrong to allow heterosexual couples to marry, but not homosexual couples, Washington Blade executive editor Chris Crain wrote in a recent column.

“What’s more,” he wrote, calling for benefits and recognition for any kind of family group “really is the radical redefinition of marriage and family that the conservatives have been braying about for so long.”

“Realizing the Right’s worst fears is the last thing that our movement needs to do at this critical juncture.”

Mr. DeFilippis rejected Mr. Crain’s criticism.

“We are just reflecting reality. We live in complicated ways,” he said. Pretending that certain aspects of the homosexual community don’t exist “just further disempowers” them. Plus, he added, “kissing up to the right wing … hasn’t gotten us anywhere.”

Janice Crouse, a scholar with Concerned Women for America, said the Beyond Marriage statement was “smart,” “sophisticated,” “savvy” and “dangerous.”

“[T]hey have framed things in their new vision in a way that is less strident. It’s much more acceptable. They talk about ‘daring to dream,’ having room for all, so the language they use is very soft rhetoric,” Mrs. Crouse said. “But underneath the soft rhetoric is a hard wrecking ball” aimed at core concepts about marriage and family.

“I don’t think the public is ready for same-sex marriage … . I don’t think they’re ready for polygamy, and I don’t think they want to legally or economically support various definitions of family,” she said.

The average American may not realize it, but the ideas espoused in the Beyond Marriage statement are being strongly debated in family law and academic circles.

America remains a marriage-oriented culture — in 2001, roughly 90 percent of Americans 45 or older had married at least once. But the 2000 census also showed that the nuclear family of a married father and mother living with their own children went from being the most common household type to the second-most common. (Single people are now the most common household type.)

Other kinds of lifestyles appear to be gaining in popularity, such as living alone but having multiple sexual partners; cohabiting outside marriage; marrying, divorcing and remarrying, even multiple times; and engaging in same-sex relationships or polyamorous relationships in which it’s common to have multiple sexual partners.

Many family-law authorities, researchers and academics see these alternative family forms as an inevitable evolution. In a 2004 paper on the “deinstitutionalization of American marriage,” Johns Hopkins University scholar Andrew J. Cherlin wrote that it was possible — but unlikely — that the nation would return to a 1950s view of marriage.

What’s more likely, he wrote, is that marriage and cohabitation will become equal in status and/or marriage will “fade” away and be replaced by “pure relationships” that are held together by voluntary commitment.

Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, said she wasn’t surprised to hear that some homosexual activists aren’t satisfied with just pushing for same-sex “marriage” — and she said some polls indicate that as many as 30 percent of homosexuals oppose same-sex “marriage.” Also, a recent report by the institute found relatively few homosexual couples taking advantage of “marriage” where it’s available.

The marriage-benefits-for-all statement looks like an effort to court new allies, such as senior-citizen groups or minority groups, who might be interested in universal benefits, she said. Still, it will probably be a “hard sell,” she said, because the public — which has overwhelmingly supported marriage constitutional amendments — isn’t even ready to accept changes in marriage.

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