It's Valentine's Day — that magical time of year when the media is quick to remind us that we should all be head-over-heels in love with "the one," and (of course) that we should all be either giving or receiving a lot of chocolate and diamonds. Rather than being a day to celebrate love in all its forms, V-Day (and the month of advertising leading up to it) seems to be all about reinforcing normative ideas of what the ideal romantic love should be: two people, living happily and monogamously together for all eternity. But does this one fairy-tale concept of love really belong so high up on a pedestal?
Traditional marriage advocates, of course, say yes. And in the push for marriage equality (which I wholeheartedly support), even same same-sex marriage advocates are beginning to resemble evangelical defenders of "traditional family values" in their glorification of the committed, monogamous pair.
David Blankenthorn, who once opposed same-sex marriage and appeared as a witness in opposition to California’s Proposition 8, has since changed his tune. He announced last June that he wished to join forces with same-sex marriage advocates “to build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same.” And his recent “Call for a New Conversation on Marriage” — with its claim that “this hollowing out of marriage in mainstream America is among the most consequential social facts of our era” — has been signed by both gay and straight activists and thinkers from across the political spectrum.
Even the president, in his initial statement of support for marriage equality last year, held up traditional values he witnessed in same-sex relationships (particularly monogamy) as the reasoning behind his support.
Even if we put aside for a moment the fact that many “traditional family values” are deeply rooted in patriarchy, is this really the best turn for the marriage-equality movement to make? If we can agree to cast away the oppressive social institution of compulsory heterosexuality, why are we so commmitted to keeping the institution of compulsory monogamy intact?
As a polyamorous woman, I admit to having a personal stake in that question. Families like mine, with more than one romantic partner, are seldom treated with credibility. To conservatives, we're the ultimate danger that the "slippery slope" of gay marriage might lead to. To liberals and particularly same-sex marriage advocates, we're often seen as a silly distraction from more important matters. (That is, when we are seen at all.)
But relationships like mine do exist, happily, and we want the same thing anyone wants: to have our choice of partners recognized and accepted by the world we live in. And of all the arguments I have heard against the ethics of relationships like mine, I have yet to hear any that do not rely on the same kind of "defending traditional values" reasoning that has so long been invoked against gay marriage.
I don't mean to criticize the choice to marry; I'm legally married to one of my partners, and would quite likely marry the other if multi-partner marriage ever becomes legal. And I certainly don't mean to scoff at lifelong commitment, as someone who has made not just one such commitment, but two. Nor do I wish to criticize monogamy, which is wonderful for a lot of people, but simply not right for me. What I do wish to criticize is the notion that there is any one correct way to form intimate, loving relationships.
I believe that marriage, monogamy, and lifelong commitments should be seen as choices that are no more or less worthy of respect than the many alternatives. And I’d like to echo the words of Senthouran Raj, writing in response to the recently formed "Monogamous Gay Australia":
"Monogamy is neither better nor worse than any other relationship arrangement. Whether you want one spouse for life, practice polyamory, or remain single, the ethics of intimacy cannot be measured in quantitative terms. You only need to see the appalling instances of sexual violence in various romanticised ‘traditional’ relationships to see why there is no inherent virtue in any one sort of intimate practice.”
Living in a society that frowns on your most cherished relationships, that denies the validity of your chosen family, is painful; same-sex couples know this all too well. I, for one, believe in the possibility of a marriage-equality movement and a society that embraces an expansive view of what love, romance, and intimacy mean. I'd like to live in a world that allows people to freely make their own relationship choices, to partner (consensually) in whatever ways they see fit, that does not hold one kind of relationship up as an ideal at the expense of all others.
That would be a view of love worth celebrating.