Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law

Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage book cover
By Nancy D. Polikoff


The debate over marriage equality for same-sex couples rages across the country. Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage boldly moves the discussion forward by focusing on the larger, more fundamental issue of marriage and the law. The root problem, asserts law professor and LGBT rights activist Nancy Polikoff, is that marriage is a bright dividing line between those relationships that legally matter and those that don’t. 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.

Polikoff reframes the debate by arguing that all family relationships and households need the economic stability and emotional peace of mind that now extend only to married couples. Unmarried couples of any sexual orientation, single-parent households, extended family units, and myriad other familial configurations need recognition and protection to meet the concerns they all share: building and sustaining economic and emotional interdependence, and nurturing the next generation.

Couples should have the choice to marry based on the spiritual, cultural, or religious meaning of marriage in their lives, asserts Polikoff. While marriage equality for same-sex couples is a civil rights victory, she contends that no one should have to marry in order to reap specific and unique legal results.

A persuasive argument that married couples should not receive special rights denied to other families, Polikoff shows how the law can value all families, and why it must.

Read the Introduction to Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage

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“A much-needed intervention in the contemporary debate about marriage and family. Polikoff’s argument is provocative, illuminating, and original.” —John D’Emilio, author of Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin

“Polikoff mobilizes an impressive array of legal history and contemporary court cases to show how marriage, whether same-sex or heterosexual, has ceased to be the only place where people incur long-term obligations. She argues vigorously that our society needs to find new ways of determining when legally-enforceable responsibilities and entitlements have accrued in interpersonal relationships.” —Stephanie Coontz, author, Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage

“This book really matters. It is brilliant and thoughtful, not simply about a set of laws, but as a manifesto to transform the way we understand, recognize and respect the reality of our diverse and complex family compositions. Polikoff grounds her arguments in the 35 year history of social change activism in this country to construct a passionate and nuanced argument for expanding our same sex marriage activism to include all of the ways people love, form families and build community.” —Amber Hollibaugh, Senior Strategist, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and author of My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming her Way Home

“Passionate but completely grounded in reality, Polikoff challenges LGBT rights advocates to see beyond gay equality arguments and question the fundamental fairness of limiting family recognition based on marriage, gay or straight. It is a powerful call for social justice.” —Nan D. Hunter, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project and Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School

“A provocative and perspicuous intervention in one of the most devilish recent debates in U.S. law and politics…In a principled yet pragmatic analysis, Polikoff mounts a compelling case against the continued grip of ‘conjugalism’ on our family law and policy. Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage challenges us to imagine and build a political consensus that respects the realities of contemporary American kinship and family life, in all its complexity.” —Kendall Thomas, Nash Professor of Law, Columbia University

“Polikoff wades through legislation and legalese with style and substance, plus a touch of flair. Impeccably researched, the book offers an evocative read that takes in the full breadth of the issues affecting marriages and avoids pedantry while remaining persuasive.” —Publishers Weekly Review

“Ultimately, marriage isn’t the right dividing line, Polikoff maintains in this provocative argument for valuing all kinds of family.” — Whitney Scott, Booklist

About the Author

Nancy PolikoffNancy Polikoff is a Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, where she teaches Sexuality and the Law and has taught Family Law for more than 20 years. Previously, she supervised the family law programs of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, and before that she practiced law as part of a feminist law collective, where she specialized in family law. For more than 30 years, she has been writing about, speaking about, and litigating cases involving lesbian and gay families.

Professor Polikoff’s articles have appeared in many law journals, including those at University of Chicago, Georgetown, Harvard, Hastings, and Hofstra. Her history of the development of the law affecting lesbian and gay parenting appears as a chapter in the 2000 book, Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights, edited by John D’Emilio, William Turner, and Urvashi Vaid. Professor Polikoff was successful appellate counsel in the case that the established the right of lesbian and gay couples to jointly adopt children in the District of Columbia, and in a Maryland case overturning a visitation order prohibiting any contact between a gay noncustodial father’s children and his life partner.

Visit Nancy Polikoff’s blog,