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.