The popular and populist history of gays in the United States goes something like this: In the beginning, gay people were horribly oppressed. Then came change in the 1970s, where gays like the men in the Village People were able to live openly and had a lot of sex. Then, in the 1980s, many gay people died of AIDS, and that taught them that gay sex is bad. The gays that were left began to realise the importance of stable, monogamous relationships and began to agitate for marriage. Soon, in the very near future, with the help of supportive, married straight people--and the help of President Obama--gays will gain marriage rights in all 50 states, and they will then be as good as everyone else.
This is, of course, a reductionist version of gay history, but it’s also the version of gay (not queer) history that plays out in today’s mainstream media representations of the fight for gay marriage, an issue that is now seen as the alpha and the omega of gay rights in the United States. On May 26, 2009, the California Supreme Court ruled that Proposition 8 would stand, thus upholding a ban on gay marriages; it also ruled that the 18,000 or so marriages that had already taken place would not be invalidated. The decision released a wave of anger in the mainstream pro-gay marriage community. A month later, the Obama administration’s response to the Smelt suit seeking to invalidate the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) brought forth yet another set of petulant tirades and much dramatic rhetoric about “betrayal” by Obama.
An outsider might think that both Proposition 8 and the DOMA case are symptomatic of a widespread wave of unrest among gays and lesbians across the land, who will now take to the streets if need be in their relentless quest for gay marriage. The outsider might also think that this is what every queer in the United States wants: the right to marry. But, in fact, both instances have exposed the fact that the fight for marriage is a drain on the political, economic, and emotional resources of a community that never really wanted gay marriage to begin with. Rather than see the Prop 8 and DOMA debacles as symptoms of a renewed need to fight for gay marriage, I suggest that this is the time to dump gay marriage and return to the real issues that concern us, as queers who are faced with the multiple forms and challenges of inequality in a neoliberal world.
Gay marriage, as framed in the United States, is the ultimate neoliberal fantasy, in that it allows for a politics of the personal to masquerade as a necessity for policy change. In the process, it serves to distract us from the very real issues facing millions of U.S. citizens and residents. For instance, a primary argument for gay marriage has been that it would allow gays and lesbians to acquire health care and other benefits via their spouses. But this claim ignores the fact that the United States is the only Western nation that does not provide health care to its citizens, and that approximately 50 million Americans are without health care. The ability to marry would not help the millions of gays and lesbians without health care in the first place.
As law professor Nancy Polikoff points out in her comprehensive book, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law, the United States is unique in the way that it draws such sharp distinctions between the married and the unmarried. Countries like the Netherlands and Canada do treat gay and straight relationships equally in that they permit marriage, but what’s often ignored by U.S. gay marriage activists is the fact that these countries also treat married and unmarried people in equal ways. In other words, in Canada, you can be unmarried and still have health care and, in various instances, you can name a person who is not your romantic partner as the beneficiary of your estate. In the United States, however, your marital status is, increasingly, what determines your legal status as well as your legitimacy as a subject of the state.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the treatment accorded to single mothers on welfare. Following the egregiously named “Welfare Reform” package of 1996, poor women in particular have been subject to the kind of state intervention in their lives that would be held as unconstitutional if exerted on any other segment of society. With the collusion of the Religious Right, single mothers are required to undergo marriage counselling in an effort to get them to marry the fathers of their children. The stigma against unmarried people swirls around in U.S. culture at large, with an overwhelming array of messages in the media about single people as desperate, lonely souls who need to find their lifemates if they are ever to be considered as human beings. It is no coincidence that such a widespread delegitimisation of single people comes at a time when fewer people in the United States are getting married—currently, less than 50% of U.S. citizens are married. Divorce rates are higher than ever among those who do get married, sparking great anxiety on the part of the Right.
While the gay and lesbian community is widely seen as a liberal/progressive one, its rhetoric around marriage often mirrors the discourse of the Right on the need for marriage as a stabilising force. Gay marriage activists have taken to deploying the strategies of the Right in asserting that marriage is necessary to cure a host of ills, for instance even going so far as to claim that not having marriage increases the social stigma faced by the children of gay couples. But surely we live in an age where the children of unmarried straight people are not considered “bastards,” and are not disallowed from inheriting property or from receiving parental and state support because their parents were not married. In such claims to moral standards, gay marriage advocacy hearkens back to the conservatism of the 1950s and earlier eras. It’s this conservatism that allows for a blinkered distraction from the other, and more pressing, issues that face queers who are not, after all, immune from the ravages of the world. Or, as Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore puts it, “The spectacle around gay marriage draws attention away from critical issues--like ending U.S. wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, stopping massive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids across the country, and challenging the never-ending assault on anyone living outside of conventional norms.” In this way, gay marriage, in framing, reinforces the kind of social conservatism that’s essential to maintaining the myth of the United States as the ultimate arbiter of the value of the subjects over which it claims to hold dominion: whether they be Iraqis, Afghanis, or those whose sexual lives do not fall into the patterns the “normal,” monogamous, two-parent household.
As a result of its growing conservatism, the gay marriage movement is gaining support from mainstream media and a range of politicians, including prominent Republicans. This is not an indication of the liberalisation of the United States (inasmuch as we can consider liberalism desirable, which it is not), but its increasing conservatism. At the same time, the vast resources invested in gay marriage also mean a depletion of resources that could go to issues that affect queers on other levels of the state’s interaction and imprisonment of their bodies. At a recent queer anarchist conference, I met with activists Liam Michaud-O’Grady and Ashley Fortier, from the Montreal-based Prisoner Correspondence Project. Their group helps to establishing links between queer prisoners and queers on the outside, with a long-term mentality. I also met with Michael Upton, a graduate researcher at the University of Manchester, whose multi-nation work analyzes and critiques the intellectual property rights issues that surround the global AIDS pharmaceutical industry.
Both projects reminded me that queer activism, while still flourishing and sustained, is muted or silenced in the cacophony around gay marriage. Yet, in the 1970s, prisoner solidarity was a key part of the gay movement. In the 1980s, the wholesale critique of BigPharma was integral to the mandate of queer activist groups like ACT UP. A Chicago attorney who specialises in working with gay groups in countries where embattled queers need the support of international activists to resist the harassment they face told me of his conversations with funders who said, bluntly, that they were only interested in funding gay marriage initiatives. In Connecticut, the gay marriage group Love Makes a Family decided to disband when gay marriage became legal in that state. But surely there is more to gay rights than marriage, and surely a group that could, presumably, corral the kind of economic and social capital that LMF had access to could continue to think of directing its energy to the issues of, say, queers in prison. Instead, it chose to disband. As Nancy Polikoff wrote in a Bilerico post: “The folding of this Connecticut group confirms my fears that marriage is the end point for many people and that achieving justice for the same-sex couples who don’t marry and for all the gay men and lesbians, and their children, who are not partnered is not on the agenda.”
Contrary to what the gay mainstream and the press have decided, gay marriage is not the movement. Marriage should never have been our goal to begin with, since, at best, the goal of marriage is a symbolic and sentimental one. Over the last number of decades, gays and lesbians have in fact forged interesting and productive social networks outside of marriage. But with the recent publicity, few in the United States now remember when domestic partnerships were actually seen as a sexy, desirable and viable alternative for those who didn’t want to marry. In Massachusetts, and now in Connecticut, for example, several employers have begun to disavow domestic partnerships for all with the simple logic that now that everyone can get married, everyone should, if they want health care and other benefits. Such decisions have raised nary a whisper of protest among the gay marriage group. Today, if any major organization is asked: if civil unions or domestic partnerships could be crafted so that they provided exactly the same benefits as marriage, would you accept them? The answer is usually a resounding no. The goal of marriage has become an end unto itself.
The point, to borrow from Polikoff, should be to make marriage less necessary, not to allow it to become an integral part of access to rights as basic as health care and custody of children. The intense personalisation of gay marriage as an emotional cause (i.e. as something that should matter because of the grief it causes your gay neighbour), is just another way to rationalise and increase the relentless privatisation of everyday life, another way to absolve the state of its responsibility to its subjects. Increasingly, I hear from straight friends that they are being compelled to marry because they are afraid that their unemployed/underemployed partners might be left vulnerable without their health care. All of this is depleting energy from the fight for universal health care. The United States is the only Western nation that does not provide health care. That, and not the fact that we don’t have gay marriage, should be something that shames us all.
As we quibble about marriage, it’s easy to forget that a rise in poverty and the lack of health care means that large segments of society are already denied their rights to decent education, housing, and a sense of security about their well-being.
As for the argument that some proponents make about marriage being the only way to have your love recognized—really? If your love can’t abide not being recognized by the state, perhaps it’s time to consider that you might have bigger problems than simply getting a piece of paper to validate your relationship.
As for the famous line about the 1000+ benefits that can only come through marriage--what about those who are excluded from these benefits simply because they’re not married? And here’s the basic question: why should marriage guarantee any benefits that aren’t available to those who don’t want to marry? Why build up the power of the state to coerce people into marital relationships that they don’t want, just so that they can get the basics like healthcare?
Marriage has, for too long now, been held up as the only solution to a host of problems, including the lack of health care. The fight for gay marriage, in granting that institution so much importance, is slowly eroding the possibility that the rest of the population might get rights and benefits without marrying each other. The fight over gay marriage has emerged as a progressive cause that all progressive straights should join when, in fact, it’s a deeply conservative movement that strips our movement of any imagination. Instead of asking for one way to grant rights and benefits, we ought to be advocating for a multiplicity of options.
Let’s dump marriage now.