The Myopic Politics of Gay Marriage

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When the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law across the country on Friday in Obergefell v. Hodges, it was an important event. An important and overdue event. An important, overdue and severely limited event.

Marriage equality is a good thing. There was literally no argument against it that wasn’t bigoted, stupid, irrelevant, embarrassing or some combination thereof.* Of course, everyone should be free to marry whomever they choose, and I offer sincere congratulations to all the married couples with new rights they should have had all along, and to the newly affianced and married couples in all 50 states. Mazel tov.

One of the Facebook profile pictures offered to followers by activist performance artists Darkmatter the day the Supreme Court ruling was handed down. / via
A provocative Facebook profile picture
offered to followers by activist performance
artists Darkmatter the day the Supreme
Court ruling was handed down. / via

However: the victorious ecstasy with which this Supreme Court ruling was met by large segments of the population belies a troubling lack of political imagination…and empathy, history, etc., etc. That it turns out the LGBTQ power structure has been directed by Andrew Sullivan and the so-called Human Rights Campaign (HRC) (and to a lesser and more recent extent, Dan Savage; watch the video below) is a profound source of the opposite of pride.

Impossibly long ago — the mid 1990s — then-conservative, now-more or less centrist (although I still consider the center uncomfortably conservative) gay pundit Andrew Sullivan declared the primary, the only, struggles facing the gay community (I use “gay” rather than “LGBTQ” here advisedly) to be exclusion from military service and marriage equality. He has been undeniably influential with his small thinking about the identity politics of gay people. It’s not his fault; to his credit, he has always been clear about where he stands. Rather, it is a disappointing failure of so many others to transcend his limited agenda. If individual LGBTQ people want to lead lives suitable for wholesome 1950s sitcoms, power to them; it doesn’t affect anyone outside those specific families. There is something wrong, though, with the full weight and influence (read: money) of the LGBTQ political establishment working exclusively toward imposing that goal on everyone.

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The HRC is a robust and far reaching brand, but any substance behind the brand is more elusive. They are unparalleled at getting people to sign on to lists and HRC-ify social media profile pictures and buy merch and send donations. They have effectively colonized the visual culture of gay politics (again, advisedly) with their yellow-on-blue equals sign, second only to the rainbow flag. Darkmatter’s image above, “Stop this cis gay nonsense,” appropriates the HRC’s highly recognizable palette. For years, they’ve been more about star-studded, high-priced benefit galas for family-friendly gay causes célèbres than helping vulnerable populations who couldn’t afford their parties. And the recently-released report about their appalling lack of diversity was not so much of a surprise to those who have been paying attention.

So, I’m genuinely happy for couples who want to get married who now can, but, in broad strokes, this is why the success of this specific political movement ultimately feels exclusive rather than universal and, while happy and positive on the scale of individuals, more complicated and problematic on the scale of society at large.

Another potential profile image from Darkmatter
Another defiant image from Darkmatter

As a result of all the work on behalf of marriage equality, bourgeois and otherwise privileged LGBTQs became more bourgeois and privileged, but the large and diverse LGBTQ communities who have been fighting for more fundamental rights—access to healthcare and a living wage, freedom from violence, acknowledgment of their existence and allies for their struggles—got nothing last week.

Well, that’s not exactly true: trans and immigration activist Jennicet Gutiérrez got publicly criticized and removed from the White House a few days earlier. The criticism was courtesy of President Obama, and also came from many who should have been her allies, but instead acted as if achieving marriage equality (and receiving an invitation to the White House) was the only thing that stood in the way of charmed lives full of streets paved with rainbow glitter and pet unicorns for everyone. This despite Gutiérrez’s indisputable rightness and righteousness.

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It is important to push back against the popular and long-standing presumption and implication that marriage equality has been the single most important issue facing the entire LGBTQ community. Moreover, we also need to question the energy, activism, time and resources that went into this fight that, at least at first, primarily benefits those who already have plenty of privilege at the expense of more fundamentally disenfranchised groups.

To be fair, there are important broad-reaching benefits of the Supreme Court ruling. In the abstract it does a lot to establish the LGBTQ community as a legitimate and visible class. More concretely, for some, it has benefits such as providing a new path to documented immigration status that had previously only been available to straight people.

Still, to celebrate this ruling as an across-the-board burgeoning of freedom rings hollow. Empowered, privileged people saw the end of one kind of discrimination against them and are now vetting wedding planners. Heartbreaking numbers of disempowered trans women of color, especially undocumented immigrants, though, rather than registering for gifts at Bloomingdale’s or Target, are still quite literally in fear for their lives.

It really, really shouldn’t have to be a radical position to challenge the idea that “marriage and not murder is the number one queer issue,” but it is shockingly rarely discussed in the mainstream. Here are poets/performance artists Darkmatter (the same artists from whom I borrowed my images, above) making this point expertly—at the expense of Dan Savage (some NSFW language):

The concept of “the LGBTQ community” is a convenient, catch-all shorthand that makes it easier to talk about a broadly diverse group of people. But if we take the ideal of community seriously, not as mere shorthand, then it’s reasonable to expect all those men shopping for wedding dresses and women shopping for tuxedos to spare a thought for the members of their community who still don’t have access to basic services or personal security.

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Just based on sheer right-on-ness vs. assholery of leaders and thinkers, no one should embrace the new marriage ruling with uncomplicated relief. If the choice is to stand with legitimate activists, The Audre Lorde Project or Gutiérrez vs. standing with Andrew Sullivan and the HRC, the choice is overwhelmingly obvious. Or should be.

And it’s not as if there weren’t other options along the way. The nonprofit collective Against Equality — “queer challenges to the politics of inclusion” — has compiled a valuable archive of brilliant, radical, queer writing that resists the assimilationist impulse of the mainstream fight for marriage equality. Don’t read Andrew Sullivan; instead, read these essays and learn something challenging and important.


*If you have an ethical, progressive critique of all marriage, I hear you and you’re exempt. Those arguments are right-on, just not my focus here.