Beyond Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law

“A woman married to a man for nine months is entitled to Social Security survivor’s benefits when he dies; a woman living for nineteen years with a man or woman to whom she is not married receives nothing.”[1] The debate over marriage equality for same-sex couples was one that took over the country’s social and political agenda in the early 2000’s. Nancy Polikoff’s Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage challenges this agenda by asking both straights and gays alike to consider a broader definition of what constitutes a family and how this structure should be protected under the law. Those protected by the institution of marriage have privileged status in regards to tax benefits, estate benefits, government benefits, employment benefits, medical benefits, and death benefits among others. Polikoff calls for a revamping of family law; one that takes into consideration the changing nature of family units while also deemphasizing the status of marriage in our society.

Nancy Polikoff is a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law. She teaches Family Law and a seminar on Children of LGBT Parents and has been writing about, litigating about, and speaking about cases involving LGBT families for the past thirty years. Her accomplishments include co-founding the Washington, DC Feminist Law Collective, supervising family law programs at the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, and co-authoring one of the first law review articles on the custody rights of lesbian mothers. Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage is Polikoff’s first book. She has a daughter in her twenties and lives with her partner in Washington, DC.

The first half of the Beyond Marriage gives the reader historical context as to how we got to the position we are in with marriage today. It begins with the advances made by the second-wave feminist movement in the context of marriage, and then describes how those advances have been attacked since the 1970s by the religious right. Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem and others are cited in this section, along with groundbreaking legislature like Title IX. From there, she moves into the gay rights movement and the intersection of lesbianism and feminism. Eventually she delves into the marriage movement of the conservative right and the how the push for preserving marriage as an institution for heterosexual couples strengthened marriage’s societal status. She then brings the reader to the contemporary fight for marriage equality, the most thorough part of the first half of the monograph.

Generally, there are two dominant perspectives in the contemporary marriage debate. First, there are those who support the institution of marriage and believe that opening it up to non-heterosexual couples will undermine social structure. Second, there are those who support equal access to marriage for LGBT individuals since they deserve the same access to benefits as married heterosexual couples. Throughout the book, Polikoff makes reference to groups on both sides of the argument. Frequently mentioned supporters of the marriage movement include The Institute for American Values, the Alliance Defense Fund, and the Liberty Counsel. Those often mentioned on the side of marriage equality include Lambda Legal, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. All of these groups fight for legislation supporting their side of the argument or represent individuals in relevant court cases. Polikoff separates herself from these prominent groups by taking a third stance. She questions the legitimacy of marriage as the necessary qualification for receiving legal benefits and questions whether it is fair to exclude so many other family forms by limiting such benefits. This allows her to reframe the debate over marriage by making the point that the benefits associated with marriage are not inherent, they have been constructed over time and have increasingly drawn a line between families formed through marriage and families formed through other means. By fighting for the right to marriage for LGBT couples, dominant organizations like the Human Rights Campaign are reinforcing the place of marriage in our society as cultural institution that unfairly awards rights to the married and leaves those who are unmarried out to dry. She enforces the argument that marriage is outdated and the benefits that accompany it were developed decades ago when having sex outside of marriage was taboo, illegitimate children were considered outcasts, and marriage had gender roles legally entwined within it. Through the examination of historical movements, she determines that people have changed the way that they view and structure their lives and the current marriage equality movement does not reflect this change.

The second half of the book is dedicated to describing specific aspects of her proposed approach, called “valuing all families,” to make marriage matter less. The most important aspect of this approach is identifying the purpose of specific laws that currently grant marriage-specific legal consequences. By understanding the specific objectives of these laws, relationships can be identified that would further the law’s objective without creating a specific special status for married people. In regards to this approach, she addresses health care, medical leave, medical care, domestic partner benefits, the dissolution of relationships, death, and economic compensation. Polikoff argues that by taking this approach, our society can move more towards a legal system based on the nature of care and dependency in relationships, not just the relationship’s specific name. Her solutions are not only for same-sex couples, they are also for people non-conjugal relationships, like unmarried elderly people, caregivers and the people they help, or friends living together. For instance, through this approach she examines the current family and medical leave practices of businesses across the country, supported by anecdotes of those who were not allowed such leave to care for an ill family member. Many medical leave policies are limited to caring for a spouse or child with serious illness and are often unpaid. Polikoff proposes support of the “Healthy Families Act,” a bill that provides seven days of paid leave per year “to care for a child, a parent, a spouse, or any other individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.”[2] This kind of reform breaks down barriers and helps to redefine the law’s narrow definitions of family that do not accurately reflect today’s society.

Polikoff’s breadth of knowledge of her field is evident as she provides a comprehensive overview of legal history as it applies to social movements throughout the decades. This method is extremely effective in giving the reader context into the foundational aspects of marriage and establishing the true dividing line that it has become. By making interdisciplinary links through feminism, sexual liberation, class, and justice, her argument is multidimensional and looks at marriage through the views of different legal lenses. The inclusion of a significant amount of laws and court cases is appropriate since the nature of her “valuing all families” solution focuses on reforming these laws. In contrast to the formality of the included law, Polikoff includes many anecdotes and case studies throughout the monograph to explain how the law has failed certain families because of the marriage dividing line. These short stories help to break up the dense law material and make it easy to envision why her reform needs to be implemented in real world situations.

Although at first the idea of diminishing and eventually removing the significance of marriage in a society may seem radical to the general population, Polikoff’s presentation of her argument makes it seem truly possible and reasonable. She provides concrete solutions for reforming laws, many based at the state and local level, and also provides several examples of places where similar laws have been successfully enacted. Even with the abundance of case law, the Beyond Marriage is very much readable by those without Polikoff’s extensive background. This monograph is meant to reach a broad audience due to its increasing relevance, however, due to its connectedness with the marriage equality movement and gay rights, the audience becomes more limited.

Polikoff reinforces in Beyond Marriage that people should have the choice to marry based on their individual beliefs, whether they be cultural, spiritual, or religions in nature. It should not be a choice that people are forced into to obtain unique legal benefits that are specific only to marriage. The end goal of her efforts is a system in which marriage is not the rigid dividing line between who is in and who is out regarding family law, through her “valuing all families” approach. This monograph is a valuable resource for people in all family structures and can help our society move towards a legal system that helps improve the lives of all individuals and families.

Works Cited

Polikoff, Nancy D. Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.

[1] Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), Cover page.

[2] Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 172.

Kellogg’s: They’re Grrreat!

Kellogg’s, a multibillion dollar company and American icon, produced two images one year apart for distinct advertising purposes. The first featuring Tony the Tiger was originally published in the 2014 Atlanta Pride Guide, whereas the second was posted on the official Kellogg’s Twitter account the day that the Supreme Court of the United States legalized same-sex marriage. The two images have distinctly different audiences and purposes, reflecting a break in time and culture surrounding the legalization of same-sex marriage and their corporate motives.

Tony the Tiger accompanied by the rainbow “PRIDE” are both iconic and eye-catching, which draw the reader into a more involved advertisement for the reader. The choice of publication for this image in the Atlanta Pride Guide makes it clear who the intended audience is: people attending the Atlanta Pride celebration. To break this down further, it can be reasonably assumed that the majority of the audience is members of the LGBTQ community, with members of the allied community supplementing the target population. The primary caption encouraging readers to “Wear your stripes with pride” refers to the fact that the “gay pride flag” is a series of rainbow stripes, which obviously appeals to the LGBTQ community who use the rainbow flag as a banner, particularly at pride events. Therefore, the use of the word “pride” plays right into the event at hand, but the association of Tony the Tiger relies on years of prior advertising to appeal to emotions of the viewer. Tony, the mascot for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, is know for being a strong, encouraging character with the slogan “They’re Great!” This slogan could easily refer to the “stripes” that are being worn with pride. Even without being explicitly noted, the point of Tony is to bring that slogan to mind. In addition, Tony himself is covered in stripes since he is a Tiger, so the idea of “wear[ing] your stripes with pride” also encourages the reader to embrace who they naturally are.

Once Tony has the attention of the reader, there are a series of more nuanced aspects of the ad to be considered. The logos at the bottom include a multicolored “pride & allies” tag that features the traditional Kellogg’s “K,” the full “Kellogg’s” name, and an endorsement from the Human Rights Campaign. The “pride & allies” tag serves as a self-proclamation of the fact that the company is composed of both allies members of the LGBTQ community. An endorsement from the HRC justifies that proclamation by providing a third-party perspective. The HRC as the largest LGBTQ rights organization in the country has a lot of influence and is a well known symbol on its own. So, to have a huge organization mark Kellogg’s as a top place to work for LGBTQ equality is a noteworthy accomplishment. It also works in conjunction with the rest of the text in the ad which discusses the company’s culture with regard to gender and sexuality acceptance for its employees. The explicit message from Kellogg’s in this ad is not “buy our product” but instead “work for us” which is an interesting tactic to take from a corporation. However, it is significant because of the turmoil regarding workplace discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community. In many places there still are not universal non-discrimination clauses, so for a company to outwardly advertise that it does not discriminate is pretty significant. The sense of security and acceptance appeals to the audience, and even if readers do not choose to work for Kellogg’s, they may still choose to buy their products because of that acceptance.

 One year later, the second image was posted on the Kellogg’s Twitter account the day that same-sex marriage was legalized. Some features are the same as the Pride Guide ad, such as the HRC endorsement and “pride & allies” tag. However, there are also some notable distinctions. The only explicit reference to the LGBT community is in the HRC endorsement for Kellogg’s as a top place to work. The other tags from DiversityInc and the NGLCC are not obviously referencing support of the LGBT community, unless the reader is familiar with the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Anyone unfamiliar would likely not recognize the acronym and may not understand the endorsement. Similarly, the rest of the text and symbolism of the image may not be obviously pro-LGBT to someone who was not familiar with the rainbow flag. The flag is used as a subtle placemat for a bowl of cereal, which could be easily overlooked while reading the caption “LOVE: the same at every table” for which the bowl of cornflakes serves as the “O.” The smaller caption under the company name reads, “Nourishing families so they can flourish and thrive.” Both of these captions are generic enough that they could reference any given family without specifically referring to the legalization of same-sex marriage.

By posting this image on the official Kellogg’s Twitter, the company obviously is reaching out to a different audience than that of the Pride Guide. Instead of a primarily LGBT and ally audience at a specific pride event, the image could be seen by anyone who follows the Kellogg’s account, as well as by the followers of anyone who shared the image. Presumably this larger audience is exactly the reason for less explicit support of the LGBT community. The use of the rainbow flag makes its support clear to the community and to its allies, but it is subtle enough to potentially go unnoticed by opponents of LGBT rights. This ad is a way for Kellogg’s to make its stance known without offending and potentially losing the sales of less accepting Americans. It is interesting that the company appears to strategically walk a line by gaining LGBT and allied customers while not losing their opponents. The approach of referring generally to “love” and “families” plays into the idea that Riki Wilchins presented that for the LGBT cause to be successful, there has been a focus on portraying LGBT people to be the same as straight people, just with different sexual interests. This image implies that “love” is same no matter what and that any version of that love can constitute a family that Kellogg’s can nourish. This focus on sameness has evidently been successful since at the time of publication of this image, marriage equality had been achieved.

The difference in audience and message between these two images before and after the landmark legalization of marriage equality indicates a difference in the degree of publicity that Kellogg’s is willing to accept in supporting the LGBT community. Advertising in a printed Pride Guide assures that the first ad will reach a more specific audience, and because of that, Kellogg’s can explicitly try and recruit LGBT employees and customers. While this ad could have been put on social media, to do so more than a year before the Supreme Court ruling would have been very progressive, and the company likely would have faced more backlash. However, distributing a more generic love-based ad on social media after the ruling serves to publicly support the newly granted rights as opposed to advocating for a controversial cause as it would have been before the ruling. This timing implies that even though Kellogg’s was willing to announce a pro-LGBT stance to a small audience, they stayed out of the broader public eye before the ruling so as not to be seen as too progressive and lose opposing customers. These two images are good examples of how corporations get involved in social and political issues while still maintaining a capitalist agenda.

The Nuptial Deal: Same Sex Marriage and Neo-Liberal Governance


On June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Thousands of LGBT couples can now receive state recognition for their partnerships. Some of these couples had been together for decades and they understood better than most heterosexual couples just what their marriage meant. Homosexual couples now had access to 1,138 federal rights only available to married people, they could rest easy knowing they would not be barred from seeing one another and their children in the hospital, and they hoped that this legal decision would increase public acceptance.  This issue had become a social focal point for the LGBT community taking precedent over issues such as improved welfare state. Jaye Cee Whitehead’s 2011 The Nuptial Deal: Same Sex Marriage & Neo-Liberal Governance explains the arguments leading up to this historic decision and explores the reasoning and exclusions that made marriage equality the focal issue for the LGBT community.

Whitehead expertly explains neo-liberal governance and how this ideology structures the arguments both for and against marriage equality in the United States. Neo liberalism is the application of efficiency and practicality to the management of the population. Whitehead emphasizes the use of governance rather than government because often this management occurs not through formalized laws but through underlying institutions. Neo-liberal governance stresses methods of self-governance by pushing responsibility away from the state and on to the self. Marriage is, therefore, a technology of neo-liberal governance because it transfers problems such as poverty or care for the sick from the social sphere to the private family sphere.

Whitehead argues that the prominent LGBT dialogue, particularly from Marriage Rights Now[i] (MRN) the group she investigated, plays in to the neo-liberal framework by promising to reinforce rather than destabilize the social structure. In the “nuptial deal” homosexual partners agree to maintain marriage systems that reduce state expenditures and the state in return provides privacy and legitimization to their union. The nuptial deal of course only benefits those who have enough resources to share or pass on, and the book focuses almost exclusively on these privileged stories. Whitehead demonstrates how nearly every argument for marriage equality is structured, and sometimes censored, so that it fits a neo-liberal narrative. Through the obvious argument of increased tax revenues for the state, the argument that marriage benefits all homosexuals by promoting acceptance and understanding in society, homosexual’s desires to internalize their family health and economic concerns, and an overemphasis on the homonormative monogamy in the LGBT community Whitehead demonstrates why homosexuals traded other social concerns to fight for same-sex marriage. One powerful quote reads, “Proponents of same-sex marriage do not question the symbolic power of the state to create social groups or categories… instead, they struggle for the capital of recognition that these categories afford” (108).

Dr. Whitehead is aptly positioned to render this study and discuss its results as she is a sociologist with specializations in gender, sexuality, family, emotions, and social theory. A professor at Pacific University in Oregon she has contributed a great deal to this field of literature through books, papers, lectures, and opinion pieces. Although The Nuptial Deal is partially ethnographic, and Whitehead therefore recounts many of her own experiences, she refrains almost completely from including her own opinions about the marriage equality movement or the efforts of MRN activists. The reader’s only insight is a brief paragraph in chapter one where Whitehead announces her own opposition to legal marriage as a restrictive institution, and although she celebrates the victories MRN achieved she is discouraged by the neglect necessary for these victories.

The Nuptial Deal is interdisciplinary in nature as it draws upon Whitehead’s background in sociological theory, ethnographic observations and interviews, and textual analysis of official court documents to present its arguments. Additionally Whitehead’s work situates comfortably between several literature narratives while adding an otherwise absent ethnographic component. She writes,

The concurrent development of the ‘right to marry’ and assaults on those who fail or refuse to live up to the neo-liberal model of the dual earning-couple have been at the forefront of queer, feminist, and gay and lesbian analysis of the family. With my discursive ethnography of same-sex marriage activism, I build on this literature by explaining how marriage can make neo-liberal calls for self regulation of population-level problems so enticing (18).

She additionally relies on, though does not elaborate, upon literature describing the history of same-sex marriage and its social contexts, and utilizes Foucault’s work on government and Bourdieu’s concepts of symbolic power to craft the reader’s understanding of neo-liberal governance.

While I found all components of The Nuptial Deal compelling, it is Whitehead’s unique use of ethnographic interviews that served to best convince the reader of the influences of neo-liberalism in the marriage equality movement. She includes quotes and stories both promoted and silenced by MRN, and through these she uncovers what is unnatural about the argument that marriage is a natural union. The first example is one of careful language choice that demonstrates how pointed MRN’s argument was. Whitehead observed a discussion between new members; they used the phrase “same-sex marriage” several times before being interrupted by a leader. “It’s called ‘marriage equality,’ not ‘same-sex marriage.’ We really don’t want to use those words because it brings the bedroom into it” (96). This quote serves as a convenient and convincing way for Whitehead to articulate MRN’s desires to normalize the gay community to the public.

Another key argument in The Nuptial Deal is that the same-sex arguments fights the slippery slope argument my buttressing the superiority of monogamy in promoting stable societies. This secures gay marriages without leaving the door open for a fundamental change in the institution of marriage or allowing similar rights to polyamorous relationships. Whitehead’s interviews with various MRN members reveal how strongly this point is emphasized as well as the opinions of members who disagree but do not speak out. For example when she asked one member about marriage’s discrimination of alternate forms of intimacy he replied, “It’s definitely on the fringe… I am just personally such a strong believer in monogamy that, um, I don’t [see it]. I have a hard time seeing it as discrimination” (144); while others expressed agreement with Whitehead’s point and did not agree with the inherent dangers at the end of the “slippery slope.”

Much like the speaker in the quote above the reader is unfortunately not brought to see the true discrimination of marriage. Whitehead includes stories of middle class gay couples struggling with school pick-ups or filling out forms, but she does not include stories of those truly marginalized by the institution of marriage. She looks for blind spots within MRN noting that all leadership positions are held by white upper-middle class homonormative couples, but she does little to correct for these blind spots in her own analysis. An ethnographic account of someone who rejects marriage, even the author herself, would have served her argument well, and without it we are left, like many in MRN, “not seeing” the full oppression of marriage.

Whitehead is convincing in her claims of the influences of neo-liberalism on the discourse of marriage equality, but as a reader I was left desiring a stronger historical exploration of just how the two ideas emerged and eventually converged. Whitehead contrasts the current gay respectability to the more radical standpoints of the 60s and 70s. She also contrasts current neo-liberal concepts to an earlier time when the state was seen in opposition to the free market, but she does explain how we got where we are today. Although a full discussion of these two evolutions might prove too lengthy or beside the point, I was disappointed by the lack of historical discussion on the two prominent ideas in the book.

As is mentioned above I found The Nuptial Deal to be clearly written, expertly argued, and generally compelling[ii]. As a child from a single-parent household I am no stranger to the structural and sociological benefits marriage provides. For this reason I was, like Whitehead, able to appreciate the strides made for marriage equality while still being conscious of those that were excluded from the nuptial deal. I believe the author focused too narrowly on her fieldwork with MRN, and an increase in the dissenting opinions throughout history and today would give the reader a fuller understanding of the problem at hand. Nonetheless the book excels in its contributions to queer studies, sociological and family studies, and the general public’s discourse on same-sex marriage. Although written during the pinnacle of the marriage equality debate The Nuptial Deal remains an important discussion of the impact of neo-liberal governance and will remain relevant long after the court’s 2015 decision.

[i] Marriage Rights Now! is a pseudonym for the actual organization Whitehead studied.

[ii] Although I don’t recommend reading most of the book on Valentine’s Day, as I did, if you plan to celebrate the inherently monogamous holiday.



Whitehead, Jaye Cee. The Nuptial Deal: Same Sex Marriage and Neo-Liberal      Governance. University of Chicago Press. December 2011. Print

“Jaye Cee Whitehead, PhD.” Pacific University Oregon Website. n.d. Web. 15 February 2015.