Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the US Supreme Court handed down the Obergefell decision, enjoyed a certain degree of celebrity in 2015. The press eagerly documented Davis’s crusade in her jurisdiction as well as her audience with the Pope. Other headlines, however, soon drew attention to Davis’s own complicated familial past. Married four times (twice to the same man) and divorced three, she also was the mother of twins, born five months after divorcing her first husband. The children were, in fact, the biological children of her third husband, but were adopted by the second, who is also the fourth. For many supporters of same-sex marriage, Davis’s seeming lack of respect for the institution that she so vehemently insisted on defending was the epitome of hypocrisy. But her story is compelling, too, for an entirely different reason. However unwittingly, Davis’s personal history reflects a current messiness–for lack of a better word–in many facets of American family life that played a key role in very decision she opposed.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, same-sex marriage seemed destined to be a great and prolonged marriage crisis, as many Americans believed that such unions represented an assault on “family values.” Arguments in the 1990s and early 2000s against same-sex marriage repeated a number of key themes: insisting that marriage across time, place, and cultures had “always” been between “one man and one woman;” arguing that allowing same-sex couples to marry would open the floodgates to other “alternative” marriage arrangements, like polygamy and incest; and claiming that permitting same-sex marriage would do irreparable harm to heterosexual marriage. This opposition had widespread political ramifications, from the 1996 passage of the “Defense of Marriage Act” to the placement of referenda about same-sex unions on various state ballots during the hotly contested Presidential election in 2004.
But the same-sex marriage crisis has not had the legs that many commentators predicted it would have. By the time the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell, survey results suggested that public support for same-sex marriage was on the rise, although significant pockets of opposition do remain, seen just last month in Missouri. (Furthermore, legal discrimination against the LGBTQ community in other arenas is still a pressing social problem.) Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion did address — and dismiss — each of the usual objections to same-sex marriage. He took aim, in particular, at the notion that same-sex marriage could hurt heterosexual marriage. He celebrated a vision of “marriage” (without any qualifiers) that assumed the superiority and normativity of the nuclear family. Highlighting “the transcendent importance of marriage,” Kennedy argued: “it is the enduring importance of marriage that underlies the petitioners’ contentions.” He held that all marriage “embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.” Kennedy also claimed that the inability to marry had a negative effect on the offspring of same-sex couples, contending: “Without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser.”
Why did Kennedy focus so intently on the esteem that same-sex couples have for marriage, as well as the damage that living with unmarried parents could allegedly do to their children? It is possible that from his white, elite perspective, a different “crisis” in American marriage trumped the one posed by same sex-marriage. The enemies in this new crisis here are ones that the family values crowd would have paired with same-sex marriage in the past: cohabitation, infidelity, divorce, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies, to name a few. Marriage, while always a dynamic institution, has witnessed particularly significant changes in recent decades. Most important, various statistics suggest that marriage has declined in importance for many Americans. Indeed, historian Stephanie Coontz has gone so far as to observe in the New York Times: “Marriage is no longer the central institution that organizes people’s lives.” Census data released in 2014 suggested that there were fewer married Americans in 2012 that at any previous point in the nation’s history (from a peak of 72% in 1960 to a low of 50.5% in 2012). Well-educated Americans are increasingly more likely to be married than the less educated. And a significant number of American children, especially in the African-American community, live in single-parent households.
The Obergefell opinion, in other words, effectively works to supplant one marriage crisis with another. It suggests that same-sex marriage is not the problem of American family life in the twenty-first century. Not enough marriage, of the lifelong, monogamous variety, is. Rather than dealing with the complexities of American families as they exist in the twenty-first century (exemplified, ironically, by Kim Davis), the opinion forwards a vision of marriage that does not fully reflect reality, especially factoring in class and racial divides. Contemporary American history has been marked by heated debates over how to define, value, and defend marriage and the family. The Obergefull decision should be understood as part of this longer conversation. Furthermore, we should continue to question and interrogate the sources and meanings of declarations of marriage crisis, no matter the source.
Image credit: “Manchester Pride 2012” by Emma, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.