I’d supported same-sex marriage since I was a teenager back in the ’90s. Since before I identified as bi. The only arguments I’d heard against it were the usual bigoted froth.
Then I hit college and read The Trouble With Normal . It blew my mind wide open. It (along with That’s Revolting!) exposed me to a critique of marriage equallity from the left. You probably know it already, but just to make sure we’re all on the same page here, it goes something like this:
Back in the ’70s, gay activists were radical. They pushed back against heteronormativity, against the nuclear family structure. The basic idea: straight people act like we’re abnormal and deviant. Instead of saying, “No we’re not, we’re just like you,” what about saying, “Okay, what if we are different? If we are ‘deviant’, what are we deviating from?? Maybe the stuff we’re deviating from is actually fucked up. Maybe it’s constraining and harmful. Maybe there are other, equally valid, ways to live, to date, to have sex, to form families.”
Now our political fight has been co-opted. Now we’re fighting hard to join existing institutions that are fucked up at their core. We’re fighting to be part of the mainstream, to be seen as normal when it shouldn’t matter whether we’re normal or not. The quest to join in on marriage and the military — two institutions that many leftists are deeply skeptical of — is a betrayal of earlier, better, more radical aims.
And this isn’t an accident — it’s a direct function of our movement being run by the most privileged section of our community. Affluent white cis gay dudes nearly have it all and they want one last piece of the pie. In addition to betraying our radical queer foreparents and the hope of creating a viable counterculture, the quest for marriage (and the military) means we’re shoving aside the priorities of queer folks who are much more vulnerable — people of color, trans people, poor people — and hogging valuable time, energy and money for a cause that doesn’t affect them.
If you’re someone who’s critiqued the fight for marriage equality from the left, does that seem like a fair regurgitation of that argument? If not, hit me up in comments. I honestly don’t want to act like an asshole. When I first read this critique, I found it provocative, fascinating, kind of… okay, “sexy” isn’t the word, but I liked it.
I was sympathetic to it. I’m skeptical of marriage and the military, too, have been for a long time. I got a thrill from seeing a whole new way to look at things, from being forced to question a status quo that I didn’t even realize could be questioned — despite my skepticism, it was still this deeply ingrained norm, like wallpaper I’d passed all my life but never noticed until someone pointed it out.
But even though I was sympathetic, thrilled, etc., I also couldn’t embrace it. Now that we’re possibly, possibly on the cusp of having same-sex marriage being legalized by SCOTUS (DON’T LET ME DOWN, KENNEDY), here’s why I argue that this entire thing hasn’t been a waste of our time or a ~betrayal of our ~radical queerness. Or that maybe it has been a betrayal and that that’s okay.
What I really can’t argue with: we white affluent queer folks have long shoved aside the concerns of our more marginalized queer brothers and sisters. It’s not okay. It’s never been okay. It makes sense for people to be really, really mad about it. What I will argue: that the fight for same sex marriage, in and of itself, has aspects to it that go directly to the heart of our struggle as a community against homophobia, which means it’s been a net good for our entire community, key word “entire.”
How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love Dirty, Dirty Assimilation:
1. The one you’ve all heard before, or: I can’t wait til the Revolution for my hospital visitation rights. There are people right now that need the benefits and privileges that go along with marriage.
2. It’s not only affluent, white, cis GLB folk that want to get married. Enough said.
3. Not everyone is radical. And that’s okay. For as long as there have been GLBT folks that have said, “I’m a weirdo, I hate the mainstream, I wanna be part of something completely different, and that’s awesome,” there have also been GLBT folks that have said, “I’m just like everybody else, my sexuality is as unremarkable as left-handedness or green eyes, I’m just waiting for everyone else to recognize that.” Those people are never going away. Those people — I know this is shocking — are, I’d argue, the majority. Otherwise us fringe weirdos wouldn’t be so fucking weird.
I’m not even talking politics, necessarily. I’m talking innate personality differences, and the desires those inspire. It’s not only lack of privilege that forces people outside of the mainstream. Sometimes it’s just how we’re wired. And we’re not all wired the same. My webcomic partner in crime has blue hair and wants to build a house out of dirt. Did being queer play a part in those things? I’m sure. But I’d also bet that even if she were born straight, she’d still have blue hair and wanna build a dirt-house.
Basically: some people are going to want to assimilate, and it’s not just down to “false consciousness” or groupthink, but because their desires and conceptions of themselves are different than yours. I mean, this is obvious, right? When discussing That’s Revolting! and the Gay Shame movement and the like, a friend and I had a shorthand that went: “Not everybody wants to fuck in the streets, guys.”
(Sidebar: I shouldn’t be claiming political fringe-i-ness. To a centrist or a mainstream liberal Democrat, I’m a Commie. To an anarchist, I’m a dirty reformist liberal. I’m fringe-adjacent. Fringe-curious.
A tourist to be spat on whoops, nothing to see here.)
4. We’re not going to destroy the institution of marriage anytime soon. And unlike institutions we dismantled — slavery, child labor — this one has people trying to, you know, get in on it, because it’s got a lot of pluses. And if we want to extend those pluses to other people, well…
4b. It’s more practical to build on what’s there than to tear it all down and start from scratch. Less emotionally satisfying, but more practical. In The Shock Doctrine (not exactly a right-wing or centrist manifesto), Naomi Klein returns again and again to the idea that a blank slate is impossible — that whether you want to break down an entire regime or a single human mind, you’ll never achieve a blank canvass that you can start afresh with. All you’ll leave is charred ruins, with battered survivors picking amongst the rubble and using what remains to rebuild. And because they’re using what was already there, the old system will get patched together again… just in worse shape.
Which is a really dramatic way of saying: we have a system. It has gross origins. But we can make patches.
Basically, I’m arguing against the Revolution. (Dirty liberal! Dirty liberal!)
5. Same-sex couples fighting for the right to get married exposes the ugly core of why homophobes have been fucking us over for centuries. Why do homophobes kick their queer kids out of the house, rendering them homeless? Why are homeless shelters for queer youth denied adequate funding? (To grab two issues that are often held up as higher priorities for marginalized queer folks.)
Because homophobes don’t want to see men being in love with men. Or women being in love with women. Plus the whole “thou shalt not defy traditional gender roles” thing. Demanding not only that our relationships, our love, be recognized, but that it must be treated equal to heterosexual love, goes right to the heart of their entire objection to us.
How can that not change minds? How can that not lead to less queer kids becoming homeless in the first place? How can that not lead to more straight people donating to queer youth homeless shelters? Or to AIDS-related causes (to pick another fight that’s often cited as one higher on the priority list for the marginalized members in our community)?
If your issue isn’t straight homophobes, but instead the white cis gay dudes running the GayTM… if your issue is the idea that white cis gay dudes want to climb up the ladder, then pull it up after them, then… their racism and classism is going to have to be fought regardless. The next cause celebre, if the racism and classism isn’t tackled, is still going to be white/cis/rich-centric. Saying “Ditch marriage equality” when marriage equality could help a whole host of GLBT people isn’t going to get rid of the racism and the classism. Relatedly…
6. Intersectionality doesn’t mean “ignore that axis of oppression you’re dealing with and fight on this other one instead.” I realize this seems rich coming from me, arguing what I’m arguing. Bear with me. Here’s what I’m saying: Ignoring the concerns of queer POC and queer low-income people is wrong, and surely we can find a way to make sure that all the money and all the energy isn’t being spent on marriage equality, that money and time and energy are going to issues that more marginalized queer people prioritize more highly.
But Beyond Marriage basically says, again and again, “Fight the class war instead. It affects us all! Gay and straight!” If classism is fucking you over harder than homophobia and you want to make that your priority, then that’s cool, but dude, don’t act like those of us who are affected primarily by homophobia can’t prioritize fighting homophobia.
I get that it isn’t often that cut and dried, that different aspects of our identity don’t just separate out like they’re arranged on a school lunch tray.
But we’re not talking about a white woman going, “I’m tired of dudes thinking that women don’t get horny and we don’t like sex and we just use it as a bargaining chip,” and a black woman going, “Um, actually, for me, it’s more like white dudes expecting me to be some jezebel 24/7*,” where these two identities intersect and so does the sexism and the racism and it causes this whole separate kind of oppression.
We’re talking about Beyond Marriage going, “Winning marriage equality in order to access our partners’ benefits makes little sense if the benefits that we seek are being shredded.” Fight austerity, not homophobia.
Or: “For example, an estimated 70-80% of LGBT elders live as single people, yet they need many of the health care, disability, and survivorship benefits now provided through partnerships only when the partners are legally married.” Yes, we should be more expansive and generous when it comes to government benefits. But (1) couldn’t expanding the definition of marriage lead to another expansion? That’s what the right-wingers have been screaming about, right? OMG, slippery slope! Doesn’t it make more sense to try and expand the definition now and give people benefits now, rather than torch the whole thing because it’s not perfect? And (2) why are they single? A lot of queer elderly people feel they have to be closeted or at least not super-open about who they are… which comes down to homophobia. Fighting to make sure elderly people are financially secure is, of course, an important goal, but doesn’t it also make sense to attack homophobia?
I get, “Don’t fight this because I don’t agree with the goal itself, which is assimilationist.” I disagree, but I get it. I get, “Don’t hog all the movement’s time, energy and money with this, some of us want the movement to focus on other important issues.” But when those are conflated and mutate into, “Homophobia doesn’t really matter, drop that fight, fight racism and classism instead,” that’s… not helpful.
To sum up: Money and energy and time are finite. Those of us pushing for progressive goals are always going to fight over what gets prioritized. I think that’s the unfortunate reality. But there are times when activists have fought on more than one front. Equality Maryland allied with the Maryland DREAM Act campaign, working to get both pieces of legislation passed. They succeeded. After marriage equality passed in Maryland, Equality MD tried (again) to get a trans-enclusive state ENDA passed. They failed (again), but they tried. We can connect our causes together and share resources and win things. It doesn’t just have to be the rich-white-cis-dude-concerns-only model, and it doesn’t have to be “no war but the class war,” either. It’s hard, but we can fight on multiple fronts.
*I hope you enjoyed this week’s installment of, “Conversations That Would Never Be Phrased This Way!” Next week: “I dunno, I’m just tired of people appropriating my anger,” said a random teenager playing DDR.