Thursday, January 10, 2008

Help me name my new project

Will you bear with me for one more self-serving "I need ideas!" kind of post?

Here goes: A friend and I are collaborating on a project. We are going to market a weekend-long "Institute" to train college and university personnel (and eventually maybe other institutions) about transgender issues. We need a catchy name for the front page of the publicity packet. (This does not replace "Think Again Training," which is still the name of my own business website. Now I'm looking for a name for this particular offering. The two of us will market it together and do gigs as a team.)

Here are some ideas we've come up with so far:

RGI - Rethinking Gender & Institutions
EGI - Exploring Gender & Institutions
ETGI - Exploring Trans/gender & Institutions
TACT - Transgender Awareness & Competency Training

We need more ideas! Please post as comments if you can. Thank you!

The Marriage One - version 2

Call me old fashioned, but, I still think marriage is a tool of the patriarchy.

In my previous post I outlined a few ways of thinking about who does and does not benefit from same-sex marriage. One answer is, same-sex couples who choose to get married benefit. Adults who choose not to get married, do not benefit.

I was a graduate student in Massachusetts both before and after same-sex marriage became legal here. Before the law went into effect, graduate student employees at my University could register their non-married, same-sex domestic partner to share their University-sponsored health coverage and other benefits. As soon as same-sex marriage became legal, University administration tried to end this program. Their argument was, now that same-sex couples could get married, those couples should get married in order to share benefits, just like hetero couples do. It was a short leap from gay people are allowed to get married, to gay people had better get married.

The financial benefits of sharing health insurance are not insignificant. A couple in financial hardship might reasonably decide to get married for that reason. Actually, I know some couples who have. Holding basic human rights like healthcare hostage to a marriage certificate is tantamount to compulsory marriage. “Compulsory marriage” smells an awful lot like “compulsory heterosexuality.” Hence, marriage is a tool of the patriarchy.

To be clear, I think it was always ludicrous that hetero couples couldn’t get non-married domestic partner benefits. See, hetero marriage is a tool of the patriarchy, too.

In this case, the gay community rallied to convince the University to retain the non-married same-sex couple benefits. The outcome was not as bad as it could have been. However the arguments they deployed were disturbingly conservative.

The argument that seemed to have the greatest impact on administration was that some lesbian couples were choosing not to get married because some adoption agencies won’t work with gay parents. It’s easier for one partner to adopt as a single woman, and then do a second-parent adoption later, than for both of them to adopt as a married same-sex couple. In other words, “We just want to be a normal family, just like you. And because of homophobia in the adoption industry, the only way for us to do that is not to get married until after we adopt kids.”

This was another repetition of the “normal family” rhetoric I critiqued in my previous post. It is racist, classist, and ultimately heterosexist in its valuing of one kind of family structure over all others, and in its effort to align white, upper-middle-class gay people with white, upper-class people in power.

An argument that rings truer to me is this: Compulsory marriage is wrong. Basic human rights should not be tied to any particular family structure. Compulsory marriage has been used in the service of racism, sexism and classism. If the gay rights movement is a movement for social justice, we can’t align ourselves with institutions of oppression.

(here ends the short version. for the long version, keep reading.)

When I talk about compulsory marriage, I am not talking about ancient history. Quite recently, marriage incentives in public benefits programs have been used to compel single mothers to marry their kids’ fathers in order to retain their welfare benefits (see for example Dean Spade, 2006, “Compliance is Gendered,” in Transgender Rights, edited by Currah, Juang & Minter). Such “incentives” send a clear message to single parents (especially mothers) and other non-nuclear families in need: “When we say that we value families, we don’t mean you.”

The rhetoric of “family” has been used to circumscribe the kinds of people considered deserving of public aid. Marriage plays a large role in defining “family” so as to exclude from benefits certain kinds of people, who people in power don’t want to help. Unsurprisingly, those who are excluded tend to be people of Color and poor people of all races.

(It may seem redundant to talk about poor people, since we were already talking about public benefits. But consider this contradiction: single women on welfare are now required to put their children in daycare at a young age and go back to work, whereas wealthy “stay-at-home moms” can get a tax break for the work they do in caring for their children. In effect, wealthy mothers’ childrearing labor ‘counts’ as work under the law, and poor mothers’ labor does not. See Dean Spade, same citation as above.)

Additionally, legally sanctioned marriage has always been reserved for only some kinds of couples. These days, we mainly hear about same-sex couples being unable to marry. But until 1967, interracial couples were not allowed to marry in many U.S. states. Some state laws forbidding interracial marriage were still on the books as late as 2000, even though they were not enforceable after the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision affectionately known as the Loving decision (citation: wiki).

The ignoble history of legal limitations on marriage came to the attention of many white gay Massachusetts residents right after same-sex marriage became legal here. At that time our then-governor, Mitt Romney (R, presidential candidate, please don’t vote for him), dragged up a decrepit old state law forbidding couples from obtaining a marriage license in MA unless the couple had legal residence in MA.

Romney was trying to protect his conservative buddies in other states from possibly having to honor a marriage certificate issued in MA to a same-sex couple from another state. Previous to that, the law had hardly been noticed for decades. It was still on the books from back before the Loving decision, when it was legal for interracial couples to marry in MA, but not in many other states. MA legislators had sought to prevent interracial couples from other states from coming to MA, getting married, and going back.

When Romney dragged up that law, I thought, the nerve of him! Beyond his frankly heterosexist goals, to use an obviously racist legal relic to get there seemed … well, racist.

But if marriage laws and policies have been racist, classist, etc. as well as heterosexist, then we must also say that the very institution of legal marriage is racist, classist, etc. That’s not to say that monogamous partnership is necessarily oppressive (although it may be). But the legal institution of state-sanctioned marriage with state-defined terms and benefits, has always served oppressive purposes.

Whether it could serve a purpose of liberation rather than oppression, seems to me to be beside the point. It never has. It doesn’t now. It won’t in the near future.

The mainstream gay rights agenda (mainstream relative to other gay agendas, that is) seeks inclusion for same-sex couples in the institution of legal marriage. Why should we desire inclusion in an oppressive institution? Why should we seek inclusion in the tools of domination? A movement for social justice cannot be built on an agenda of “we want to be the oppressor, too!”

Instead of demanding access to marriage, we should be challenging marriage and all its legal and policy implications. We should be rethinking ways to value partnerships and families of all kinds. And we should speak for our selves, and speak loudly, and not let an affluent, white gay rights movement claim to speak for all of us queers.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Marriage One - version 1

(The personal, angry, rant-y version. Stay tuned for version 2 - the calm, logical, scholar-citing version.)

I’m almost as burnt out on marriage rhetoric as I am on Christmas carols. Can’t gay rights activists talk about anything else? Marriage has become the issue that defines gay rights activism.

Aside from being an unfair and oppressive political strategy (more on that below), this can lead to bizarre leaps of logic. For example, a recent post on a FtM listserve defended HRC’s backing out of a trans-inclusive ENDA by arguing that we (trans people), can’t expect them (gay people), to support trans rights, because we (trans people) aren’t committed enough to gay marriage to forgo marrying until all couples can marry.

Say what? Allow me to pull apart just a few of the things that are wrong with that argument.

First of all, it’s not true. Some trans people can’t legally marry, and those who can are still denied many of the benefits that non-trans, hetero married people get (such as the ability to get citizenship for one’s non-citizen spouse). Even so, some trans people who could marry are forgoing marriage as a way of showing solidarity with couples who can’t legally marry.

Second, the idea that “we don’t work on their issue, and they don’t work on ours,” reveals a depressingly self-interested view of political advocacy. Oy. That wouldn’t get us very far.

Finally, the argument fails to take into account that gay rights activism might possibly encompass issues other than marriage. The person who wrote that post equated “trans people aren’t strong advocates for gay marriage” (again – not true anyway) with “trans people don’t work for gay rights” – which is so patently untrue I can hardly stand to type it. At the risk of sounding trite, I’ll return to the old adage about who started the Stonewall Riots. Underage Latina MtF sex workers launched the modern gay rights movement. Viva Sylvia Rivera!

Anyway. Now’s the time when I take a break from this already rambling narrative, to say, in the interest of full disclosure, that this is not an emotionally neutral issue for me. I’ve recently learned that several friends of mine will probably be missing our annual get-together, because they’ll be too busy getting ready for their weddings. This and other similar events make me wonder if marriage might not have an overall negative impact on community building.

But this essay isn’t about that. Some other time I’ll elaborate on my thoughts about marriage in general. Right now I want to lay out some ideas on gay marriage as a political issue in the contemporary gay rights movement.

Broadly speaking, the gay rights movement has articulated two main arguments in favor of gay marriage: a) that gay marriage shows us (gay people) to be responsible, normal, family people, and b) that a plethora of legal rights and privileges are attached to legal marriage, which same-sex couples should have equal access to along with different-sex couples.

The first argument is a straightforward application of “we’re just like you, except for ­­­­____." In this bald-faced plea for inclusion, “you” always means someone with more social power than the person putting forward the argument. It doesn’t mean single mothers on welfare, or undocumented immigrants, or homeless disabled veterans. It means the imaginary “general public,” which is to say people who are white, upper-middle-class, Christian, normatively able-bodied, native English speaking, etc.

It is an attempt to portray gay people as “normal,” – and “normal” is always defined in opposition to something else. When gay rights activists say, “we’re normal just like you,” they’re also saying, “not like those other people.” It is an attempt to ally gay people with people in power, against people who are already marginalized. It is an inherently racist, classist, etc. argument.

Perhaps more subtly, the argument reinforces the idea that a married couple is the definition of a normal family. “We just want to get married – so we can be normal, just like you!” This devalues non-married couples and single parents. It also ignores the possibilities of extended family ties, which even hetero families may rely upon. And it especially stomps on non-traditional family structures and chosen families that have for years been central to gay cultures.

The second argument carries somewhat more logical appeal. There are indeed some thousands of legal rights and privileges tied up with being legally married. It is an obvious inequity that same-sex couples do not have access to these benefits. However the argument bears a closer look, especially given the gay rights movement’s demonstrated penchant for speaking with the voice of “we’re not like them!”

So, who benefits from extending the privileges of legal marriage to same sex couples?

The first, most obvious answer is, married people benefit. Extending legal marriage to same sex couples confers benefits only on those couples who choose to get married. It does nothing for people who remain un-partnered, or for couples who remain un-married.

What else can we say about who benefits? Well, one of the benefits that gay marriage activists highlight is the ability to share one’s employer-sponsored health insurance with one’s spouse. In this way, same-sex marriage benefits those same-sex couples in which at least one partner has a job with health insurance. These days, those are pretty middle-class jobs, and those are mostly middle-class couples. The activists also mention the ability for one partner to maintain control of the couple’s shared home when the other partner dies. Obviously, this is a benefit only for couples well-off enough to own a home. In other words, the gay people who benefit from gay marriage are primarily those gay people least desperately in need of the government benefits attached to marriage. Gay marriage is a middle-class agenda.

This point was driven home to me rather forcefully when I was a youth leader in a GLBTQQA youth center several years ago. At that time, gay marriage was really a big deal in our state politics. I heard adult volunteers at the center explaining to the youth members why gay marriage was so important, using many of the arguments listed above. Housing, healthcare, “normal” families … Meanwhile, I didn’t have health insurance, and neither did any of my friends or lovers. We were all barely affording the rent on our apartments, which always contained more residents than bedrooms. The most valuable asset any of us owned was my car, which was over 10 years old. We knew then, without needing a sophisticated political analysis, that gay marriage was for a specific kind of gay person, and we weren’t it.

What was worse was what happened after it was announced that same-sex marriage would become legal. Actual marriage licenses wouldn't be available for another year or so, but politically we were pretty sure it was a done deal. That summer, the volunteers seemed to drift away one by one, or sometimes two by two. They said things like, “We’ve put a lot of energy into this community, and now we feel it’s time we put our relationship first.” Then they started picking out china patterns. Who has time to mentor queer teenagers when there’s a wedding to plan?

So, on the list of who benefits from gay marriage, we can add that it’s not young queers who need the mentorship of older GLBTQ people. It’s not community-based organizations, or community organizing processes, that require buy-in and commitment from a significant proportion of the adult GLBTQ population. In fact, I’m tempted to say that communities don’t benefit from gay marriage at all – only couples do.

But I wasn’t supposed to be talking about marriage per se, I was supposed to be talking about marriage as a gay rights priority. So let’s look at a different question: What issues are relegated to the back burner, when marriage is the gay rights movement’s top priority?

What ever happened to ENDA?? It was a big deal on the list serves, but it got as much press, this time around, as any given hiccup in the gay marriage debates. What kind of movement would prioritize marriage over equity in employment? Oh, yeah. A movement in the interests of people with financial privilege. A movement for middle-class gay people.

Where’s the concern for queer youth? Where’s the concern for queer poor people? Queer prisoners? Queer immigrants? Hell, queers at all! The gay marriage movement is not a movement for queers. It is a movement for middle-class gay people.