Marriage Equality Does Not Give You an LGBT Pass
I know that sometimes my rallying against marriage as a defining issue for the LGBT movement makes me sound a little obsessive, or even like I’m against marriage. I’m not, not really, though I do have critiques of marriage as a legal institution. What really bothers me about same-sex marriage, though, isn’t about marriage itself but about how it operates as a proxy for queer rights. It bothers me that being pro-marriage equality in this day and age basically gives you a pass.
More and more, I’ve been hearing explanations of LGBT rights that only talk about marriage. LGBT equality is getting boiled down to this one issue not only in terms of dollars and non-profit organization priorities but in terms of perception. There is a sense that being an ally simply means accepting same-sex marriage, and that gay people who work towards marriage equality are also doing their part for the community as a whole.
Marriage is a comfortable issue for many people. Not only does it lend itself to assimilation and “we’re just like you” politics, but it’s an easy thing to support without questioning structural inequality. Straight people who won’t get married until their state passes marriage equality legislation are hailed as incredibly brave heroes without having to do the uncomfortable work of questioning systems that are patriarchal, oppressive, imperialist, racist, and homophobic/transphobic especially at the level of inequality for poor queers of color.
What happens when same-sex marriage is legal in all or most states? Not only does the LGBT movement as a whole lose momentum and money, making it impossible to fight the remaining battles in the same way, but a perception of equality will take hold. The argument that marriage leads to other rights, that seeing gay people who are married and have kids will lead straight people to support LGBT equality in other areas, presumes a very white middle-class worldview. Gay married couples may indeed become normalized, but that doesn’t automatically lead to an end to discrimination against poor queers, to fewer incidents of police violence against trans people, to acceptance of queers of color or disabled queers, to recognition of the unique challenges undocumented queers face.
I suspect that such a victory in the area of marriage equality will highlight a divide many of us already experience. It’s not so much LGBT people on one side of the line and straights on the other. It’s folks who subscribe to a particular family model, who believe in the fallacy of the American dream, who find American democracy as a whole unproblematic, who are uncomfortable with the prison-industrial complex but don’t come up against it much in everyday life, staring back at us from that privileged side of the line.* The rest of us will then be fighting for structural change, for an end to anti-trans violence that doesn’t depend on a deeply racist incarceration model, for economic justice, with little money and little support. In other words, not much is going to change.
An issue like marriage equality gives folks a convenient measure by which to declare a movement “done.” Just as many white people in this country genuinely believe that racism is mostly over, just as many conservative women don’t see sexism, when we have marriage a lot of folks are going to go home. Some of those queers for whom marriage was the main barrier will be absorbed into those folks and see no reason to support ongoing queer causes. The very term “marriage equality” encourages us to see marriage as a general human rights issue, not a queer issue. And while there is a value in reminding people that rights are really about humanity, humanity used in this way tends to default to the majority. Human rights turn into rights for white people, for straight people, for cis people, for men. The specificity of queer struggle fades into the background, and I don’t want that to happen.
Thankfully, there are a lot of individuals and organizations that are doing great work on less popular issues, often with little funding. I’m starting to think more and more about how we emerge from the marriage obsession and capitalize on the resources we do have, to build a sustainable movement. If you have ideas, please leave a comment or share your thoughts via social media. I’d love to get more discussion going on this.
*I don’t mean to imply that I, or others on this side of the line I describe, don’t have privilege. Personally I have a HELL of a lot of racial and economic privilege. But in a big picture sense, I am seeing this split in the movement despite individuals’ situations.