[MB: Enku is a friend who has some great insights into this issue and I wanted share his thoughts.]
In the streets and in the courts; in the legislative halls and in our communities; liberals have demanded marriage equality. This issue has not only divided liberals from conservatives. It has divided liberal gays and allies from radical queers and allies. Queers, being anti-assimilationist, have often taken the position that either 1. Marriage doesn’t matter to 2. Marriage is the wrong fight, a conservatizing effort within the LGBTQ community and should be rejected. I have found myself on the cusp of these arguments. On the eve of possibly securing marriage equality finally through the courts, I would like to weigh in and challenge the gays and the queers.
First, I’ll challenge the pro-marriage gays and allies:
Marriage is not THE issue of the LGBTQ community, and the domination of this issue within the movement has been destructive. It has left us blind to the realities of many LGBT people, primarily the poor. LGBT youth are twice as likely as straight youth to face homelessness. LGBT people are legally discriminated against in employment and housing. Hate crimes against our community continue. The marriage fight will primarily benefit middle class LGBT folk, and the movement overall has been elitist in this way, making other very real challenges facing LGBT people invisible.
For those (including President Obama) who seem to believe that the fight for justice for LGBT people is culminating in marriage, that our fight is soon to be over, I would say that your conception is narrow and classist. I would also say that the movement has given into the assumption that monogamous, married families are the best way we should organize ourselves thus disempowering, making invisible, or demonizing those of us (and straight people) who choose to build our families differently. This could be polyamorous people or people who recognize the historic oppression that has come along with marriage. The movement for marriage equality cannot interrogate the economic and social construct of marriage and will divide our community among the “respectable” married folk and the rest of us. The fight for marriage also precludes us from interrogating larger social systems that push people to get married. On this point, the rhetoric of “choice” to marry or not is undermined. Social policy privileges the married in many ways, and the fight for marriage equality has been about both the nonmaterial (respect) as well as the material (health benefits, taxes, housing, etc.). I do believe we should be fighting for a world where people have the true freedom to choose their relationships and not be coerced by a system that privileges the married over the non-married. I believe we should be fighting for a world where everyone has healthcare, for example, and not one where we can extend privileges of marriage to gays, thus coercing us into marriage. Marriage often facilitates one individual’s dependence on another. Historically, wives were considered to be the property of their husbands, and we haven’t interrogated this violent history of the institution which still shapes the institution today. In this, the fight for marriage equality has become low hanging fruit for liberal middle class folk, and is problematic.
Now, I’ll challenge the queers…
Given all of this above, I believe LGBT people should have the right to choose whether or not to be married. Although I note above that “choice” is undermined by a system that coerces people into marriage, I do not believe the correct response is to say that no-one should have a choice. In fact, it is a privileged choice in some circumstances to be able to not get married and take such a purist political stance. Yes, we must fight for a society where marriage doesn’t mean these massive material benefits over the unmarried. But, that is a fight to be waged by those who do not marry or choose not to marry, not a fight for LGBTQ people who are forcibly excluded from marriage. Marriage is deeply important to many people. While we might hope that it wasn’t, or that society didn’t coerce people into marriage, this is the world we live in. Repeating radical critiques of marriage has become as knee-jerk and non-reflexive as the pro-marriage side and instead of moving the conversation forward we have often retreated into queer communities to pat ourselves on the backs for our ideological purity. I recently heard a queer theorist say “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to get married.” This poverty of understanding, this lack of heart, this ideological purity, has cost us our ability to connect with many people. Such a stance does not take people where they are and engage them. It blames people for not being where we are. It does not recognize the community-level symbolic importance of marriage. For a theory (queer) that seems to be all about the shifting subjectivities of people, it casts the pro-marriage gays and liberals in static terms, one based on a false-consciousness argument that would be theoretically detestable to many radical queers.
It may be the case that the marriage fight will be seen as the end of the LGBTQ movement, but it might also be the case that achieving marriage equality will make it considerably easier to tackle issues like housing and employment discrimination.
The movement for marriage equality has been highly problematic, and rightly criticized. I support marriage equality.
The New Yorker: Supreme Court Justice Scalia Says Marriage Views Not Affected by Lifelong Fear of Gays