David Badash: Dan Savage’s Open Marriage Will Set Back The Entire Marriage-Equality Movement

As The New Gay‘s Zack Rosen once  wrote, “Sex is a part of who we are. If we trade sex for rights, we are not fully free… No one ever won equal rights by keeping their oppressors comfortable.” He’s right on both counts.

Yes, words matter. Yes, Dan Savage is one of America’s top advice columnists, one whose every word millions of people scrutinize. And yes, the religious right will use Savage’s words to make our battle for equality that much harder. But the religious right has called us promiscuous perverts, child molesters and poo-eating, Communist animal rapists for decades. Do we really think one interview and a single column are going to cost us the 2012 marriage referendum in Minnesota?

Savage’s words didn’t come from “mindless rambling.” He’s long advocated for open marriage in columns, speeches, podcasts and books. But yet this particular interview and this particular column of Colson’s is the flashpoint threatening to set back the marriage equality movement? Hardly.

Savage doesn’t write in a vacuum; he’s just one of many queer voices in this particular discussion, one of many heard by “swing voters.” He’s not a spokesperson for the marriage- equality movement like Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry; he doesn’t even “run” the It Gets Better campaign, something that has become larger than him. Savage is foremost a gay-rights activist and sex columnist. And when he talks about monogamous marriages not working for everyone, he applies that to gay and straight people alike.

It’s not like Savage advocated child rape or bestiality. He advocated open relationships, something more morally sound than lying about an ongoing extramarital affair. And because he is influential and in the national spotlight, he is actually in a good position to influence swing-voter Americans to abandon their preconceptions about what marriage must be and embrace a new vision of what it can be. As he sees it—and his many writers and callers have attested—”traditional” marriage doesn’t always work for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. (After all, we homos didn’t create the staggering divorce rate.)

So when Savage advocates for open marriages, it’s so that marriage can transform into an institution that is less repressive and sexist—a ambitious and admirable goal.

Anti-equality foes will contend that we want to redefine marriage as part of a scheme to outlaw religion, stomp morality, indoctrinate children and spread disease and promiscuity throughout the land. They’ve said it for decades and they’ll continue saying it for decades.

In response, we shouldn’t shy away from espousing our vision of what the institution could become.  Just as the US government redefined marriage over the centuries to include minority and interracial couples— and to allow women to retain property and deny their husbands’ sexual advances—so too should the institution be redefined to include committed adults who consensually love and support each other in the way they see fit. Savage’s words don’t take away from that vision, they merely acknowledge its problematic reality.