Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mixed feelings after No on 8

For those who’ve been sleeping since election day, or who still haven’t sobered up from the parties celebrating Obama’s victory, California’s Prop 8 passed. This means that same-sex marriages are no longer sanctioned by the California state government.

Prop 8 may or may not stand up for long. The court has already granted a review of the proposition (citation). Even the notorious Governator is saying he hopes the Court will overturn Prop 8 (citation). But for now, most gay people are feeling really let down. One woman I know says that all she wants to do since the election is watch TV and eat mac and cheese. The community is depressed and distressed about it.

On the Wednesday following the election, several gay and straight coworkers approached me during the day to process their sadness and disappointment about Prop 8. I was having feelings about it, too, but they were mixed feelings. In fact, I had mixed feelings about the No on Proposition 8 campaign all along, in the days leading up to the election as well as afterward.

Of course I felt disappointed, like many others did. I was disappointed in the election results, but I was also disappointed in myself for getting caught up in the campaign. You see, marriage is not my issue. I have strong mixed feelings as well as strong opinions about marriage in general and about marriage as a political priority for the gay rights movement. In the midst of the gay community’s mourning period following the election, I felt nervous about voicing my feelings and understandings about the issue. Now, I’m stepping up. I’m know I’m taking a social risk by even posting this, but I feel it’s important to voice a different perspective on the issue.

Here’s where I stand on marriage: I think it’s a bad idea. Not same sex marriage in particular, but marriage in general, as a governmentally recognized category of relationship. I think a person’s marital status is a ridiculous way to decide whether people are considered family, whether they get to share health insurance, retain custody of their kids, or seek citizenship, and how they are taxed.

Please understand that this has nothing to do with how people define their own relationships. If individuals want to be married, or religious communities want to recognize couples as married, they should go for it. I wish them well. I just don’t think that the state should have anything to do with it.

Further, I think it is ridiculous that the (relatively) mainstream gay rights movement – what some folks have taken to calling the homonormative community – prioritizes same sex marriage as a political agenda. I’m with them this far: so long as marriage is a prerequisite for certain rights and privileges such as those listed above, everyone should have equal access to it. But aren’t there more urgent issues? GLBT and queer youth make up between 20% and 40% of homeless, runaway and throwaway youth (citation). Transgender people in San Francisco, of all places, experience unemployment at a rate of 60% (citation) and live in poverty at a rate of 90% (extrapolating from citation combined with cost of living data for the area). Transgender women of color are routinely arrested for sex work, whether or not they are working, and confined in men’s prisons (citation, citation). And we’re putting our energy into marriage?

For that matter, there were initiatives on the California state ballot this year that I found even more nefarious than Prop 8. For example, Prop 4 to require parental notification for minor abortions, Prop 6 to increase penalties for gang-related drug offenses, and Prop 9 to decrease the frequency of parole hearings (citations). And we’re putting our energy into marriage?

Advocates of legalizing same-sex marriage will say that it’s not about marriage, but rather about the civil rights that go along with marriage. This argument makes a certain amount of sense. One primary difference between marriage and civil union is symbolic. Another is that insisting on marriage is a strategic step toward making sure that same-sex marriages can eventually receive all the privileges associated with marriage, which civil unions do not.

That word – privilege – is exactly why I think that it is about marriage, and not only about civil rights. When homonormative people advocate for same-sex marriage as a way to obtain to civil rights like access to healthcare, paths to citizenship, legal recognition of second-parent adoption and so on, they are speaking from a place of privilege. It is only from a place of privilege that marriage can be seen to guarantee any of those rights.

In our current foster care and child welfare system, poor parents of Color risk having their children taken away, even if they’re married (see Spade, “Compliance is Gendered: Transgender Survival and Social Welfare,” in Transgender Rights , eds. Paisley Currah, Shannon Minter, Richard Juang (2006) or this study for example). In our current economic system, poor people are denied healthcare, even if they’re married. In our current immigration system, transgender people may be denied paths to citizenship, even if they are married to a U.S. citizen (citation, citation). Need I go on?

In “Is Gay Marriage Racist?,” (Bailey, Kandaswamy, & Richardson, in Mattilda Bernstein’s That’s Revolting, Soft Skull Press 2004 & 2008) three panelists discuss some of the reasons many queer People of Color have not gotten on the same-sex marriage bandwagon. The gist of it for these panelists/authors is that they understand that marriage will not automatically create access to those rights and privileges that marriage activists claim to be after. They understand that healthcare, citizenship, and family integrity are privileges not only of heterosexuality, but also of race and class.

For all of these reasons, I have felt less attached to same-sex marriage campaigns than many of my peers and colleagues. From the time I first moved to CA in July, I felt bored and sometimes annoyed at the ubiquitous focus on marriage.

Of course, we didn’t exactly choose the battle. The theocratic right put an enormous amount of funding and strategizing into Proposition 8, and the No on 8 campaign was from the start a defensive one. I couldn’t blame people for getting caught up. Eventually I started to get caught up, too.

The Yes on 8 campaign was not friendly. They used the most blatant homophobic stereotypes to generate support for the proposition. The feeling of threat and sense of urgency associated with defending our community against these attacks was almost infectious. Even I started to catch it. I knew (and announced) that I would never get married even younger than I knew I was queer. And yet, as election day approached, I began to think something important was afoot, and that I needed to seize the moment. I donated a total of $200 to the No on 8 campaign – not much in the scheme of things, but a lot relative to my budget, and more cash than I have ever donated to any political or non-profit cause. I stood on street corner in Oakland in the pouring rain holding a No on 8 sign. I then left that sign in my car, for a whole week, not knowing how my neighbors might feel about the campaign, but knowing that many of them are still uncertain about my gender.

Even while I was feeling strongly enough to take some not-entirely-sensible risks for the campaign, I had mixed feelings about my participation. Of course I didn’t want Prop 8 to pass, but I felt kind of dirty working for marriage as if it were uncomplicated. I felt like I should not voice my critiques of marriage as an institution or the same-sex marriage movement – or of Obama, for that matter – because my concerns were secondary to the election. And that’s what I did. I kept my mouth shut, for the most part, and did my duty by the gay community. (I still have all my car windows.)

As soon as the election was over, the urgency of the campaign subsided for many gay people into anger and disappointment. I shared those feelings, but not their target. Rather than being angry at the Yes voters, and disappointed with the results of the election, I was angry and disappointed with myself, for getting caught up in a marriage campaign.

I have organized my life so that most of my energy beyond self-care is going to help causes I believe in, and believe to be both urgent and important. Marriage is not one of those issues. I am feeling angry with myself that I let myself get distracted.

And I’m also feeling scared – as I was before the election, too – that my homonormative brothers and sisters will not come back for me. I’m hopeful that Prop 8 will not stand up in court, and that soon enough we’ll get a ruling from the State Supreme Court saying this whole process wasn’t legal to begin with, marriage rights are restored, and it’s all okay again. And yet that hope is also my fear.

After marriage, then what? After the relatively privileged homonormative folks get over throwing lavish wedding receptions, will they notice that young people are still homeless, trans people are still getting imprisoned, poor people still lack healthcare, and the child welfare system is still racist?

The week after the election, after hearing me explain these arguments, two people suggested to me the following course of action: First, keep fighting for No on 8. Then later, after Prop 8 is repealed, give the gay people some time off to enjoy their long-awaited honeymoons. Then, go confront those people and convince them, by guilt or guile, to come back and fight for those left behind.

I get it, or at least I think I do. There was a moment we had a chance to seize. We didn’t get to choose the issue, because the theocratic right chose it for us. And if we all throw our energy in together, we can win, and then we can move on to the next fight.

But I’m scared. I’m scared those homonormative folks won’t be with me for the next fight. I’m scared they already decided that this is the last fight. I know that my fears are not all reality-based. I also know that I have seen this happen before.

I lived in Massachusetts for about ten years, both before and after same-sex marriage became legal there. At the time I was working (volunteering, really) in a queer youth center. The center was able to stay open largely because adult volunteers donated their hours to staff the center. As soon as it became possible to get a marriage license, many of our most reliable and beloved volunteers quit, in order to take time to plan their weddings. They literally prioritized picking out china patterns over putting energy into the community. Did they deserve a little something to honor their commitment to each other? Yes, I’m sure they did. Can I blame them for walking away from young people who trusted them to be a second family? Yes, I certainly can.

And then there’s ENDA. Many people including I have written about the ENDA/HRC debacles (citation), so I won’t go into it here. The point is, this fear is not from nowhere. History suggests that the privileged do not “come back” for the most marginalized members of their coalitions, at least not without a whole lot of prompting.

And besides, this isn’t a one-way exchange. I need the support of homonormative gay rights power structure, and they need me too. The homonormative folks can’t do it without the queers, trannies, and especially poor people and People of Color. Before the election, some of the homonormative folks who have tried to convince me of the primacy or marriage used arguments to the effect of "We don't have time/energy for a complex intersectional analysis, because that will distract from or prevent us from winning marriage right now." After the election, much rhetoric has been spewed and analysis offered to the effect that No on 8 lost because it failed to reach out to communities of Color. That demands the question, as one very clever person put it to me recently, “Would it have killed them to have an intersectional analysis?”

I’d rather not wait until after the honeymoons. I’d rather get people on my side now. I’d rather build understanding amongst our heterogeneous communities that we are all in this together. I’d rather know now that I am throwing down for marriage because we’re seizing a moment, and that not decades from now but immediately, the folks in my community who feel urgently about marriage and will benefit from it will also be throwing down for causes I believe in.

To build this understanding is not the work of an evening or a campaign season. This is the work of movement building, of coalition building, which in the ideal is also community building. I am hopeful and scared about this work. Right now, this is what I’m willing to throw down for. Are you in it with me?