Cynthia Burack is a self-proclaimed “married person who’s always been a marriage skeptic.” She’s also a political theorist and a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies who was assigned to be my advisor in graduate school. In women’s studies, it’s popular to mill about in the gray areas until all meaning of everything is dissipated, but Dr. Burack wasn’t about that. I remember her famously making bold claims with deadpan frankness that stunned rooms of wide-eyed baby feminists. One such claim I distinctly remember is a statement she made in passing, that “divorce is the primary legal benefit to marriage.”
Six years later, I’m still ruminating on that idea. So I decided I’d follow up with Dr. Burack, who is still teaching classes and shocking pink-haired undergraduates, I’m sure. Dr. Burack begins by explaining that in 2010, her partner proposed that they get married. Dr. Burack says, “I didn’t dream about getting married as a kid, and I never looked forward to getting married as an adult.” I wanted to understand what changed her mind. She says, ”I wasn’t interested until my partner pointed out that until she married a woman, she couldn’t challenge her employer, the federal government, to provide the benefits associated with heterosexual marriage.” Without getting married, they were not entitled to the same protections that married heterosexual couples were. Dr. Burack says, “I’m a sucker for a good argument, and that struck me as a good argument for getting married.”
First, I ask her about what she thinks the primary legal benefits of marriage are. She answers wisely, saying that every couple has different needs that will come up, so they will value the various protections of the law accordingly. “For example,” she says, “it never occurred to me that I might make use of the right not to have to testify against my spouse in a criminal matter. To my relief, I haven’t had to use that right.”
However, Dr. Burack discusses a marriage benefit that absolutely applies to her specific situation. Without the protection of the law, Dr. Burack knew there was “the risk that my wishes might not be carried out if I died or was injured so severely that I could no longer manage my own affairs.” This situation was not uncommon in the LGBTQ community prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage. Dr. Burack continues, “I worried about ending up in such a situation, especially as someone whose parents didn’t approve of my sexuality or same-sex relationships.”
Additionally, after reflecting on her own relationships and the relationships in her community, she realized that “as in straight marriages, breakups of same-sex partners often involve custody and property decisions.” The conclusion she came to is that “having the means to dissolve a relationship without losing everything means having the right to divorce. And that means having the right to marry.” Marriage isn’t necessarily the popular route to legal rights and protections for many queer activists, but Dr. Burack says, “Even if you think marriage is bourgeois, reactionary, normalizing, or un-feminist, I’m convinced that the right to divorce is a basic right we all should have access to.”
The right to divorce may not be the first thing on your mind when you’re deciding if you and your beloved want to tie the knot, but Dr. Burack says that “all couples should take divorce into consideration when they think about whether to get married.” She says that in an ideal world, couples would be able to approach their separation decisions together in the best interest of all involved. “But we don’t live in an ideal world. When people break up, they’re often angry, heartbroken, or vengeful.”
Dr. Burack explains that “in straight as well as queer couples, there are sometimes vulnerable partners: people who didn’t see it coming or suddenly find themselves without assets or means of support.” Historically, the vulnerable partners have usually been women, “but there’s no rule that people in same-sex couples can’t find themselves with no property in their name, no legal tie to children, and no career because they’ve been supporting a partner’s education or professional advancement.” The right to divorce is for individuals who find themselves in these circumstances and can ultimately benefit from state protections.
Dr. Burack is well aware that marriage isn’t the answer to all problems, and she doesn’t see it as the ultimate goal. She definitely respects the choice not to marry. However, she notes, “There are many contracts and legal documents that can help people who don’t marry, but those contracts can’t take the place of the rights associated with marriage.” She concludes, “As long as marriage exists as an institution, we should do everything we can to respect every person’s right to enter into it as well as to leave it.”