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The Secret History of Gay Marriage

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June 25, 2015























Any day  now, perhaps even as early as tomorrow, June 26,  the Supreme Court will deliver its verdict on gay marriage.


Everywhere, mainstream gays and lesbians are claiming to be waiting with bated breath.  On both Twitter and Facebook feeds, everyone writes about their anxiety.


All this simulated anxiety reminds me of the stereotypical Victorian woman, pretending to be surprised by the attentions of a suitor: “Why, I never!  Gay Marriage in my lifetime?  Heavens, I am quite taken aback!”

Surely, given the tremendous shifts in both cultural and legal attitudes to gay marriage both here and abroad, we might finally drop this pretense of surprise.


Still, gays and lesbians everywhere are pretending.  And part of this cultural exercise involves a rewriting of history to make it seem like marriage is not only the natural but the only desired outcome of decades, really, centuries of queer existence.  


Take, for instance, Frank Bruni's recent op-ed in the New York Times where he begins with the words, “Remember the AIDS crisis?”  He goes on to write about the many who were denied the right to visit their loved ones in the hospital as they died of AIDS. "This," writes Bruni, "was a recurring story, an infuriating leitmotif, and many gays and our allies remarked and railed that it wouldn’t be happening if committed same-sex relationships got the legal recognition that heterosexual ones did."


Actually, the facts are much more grim.  AIDS killed millions because of a toxic combination of homophobia and non-existent universal healthcare.  There was neither research nor medications available to treat them, and hospital policies combined with public health ineptness.  People with AIDS were overwhelmingly, at the time, gay men, and were literally turned away from hospitals and left to die.


Were those who made it to hospital beds kept away from their loved ones? Yes.  But the loved ones weren’t just romantic partners but friends, ex-lovers, and many more who had spent several decades prior to the time of AIDS carefully forging complicated and caring networks of friendship that exceeded the limitations of biological family or commonly understood relationships.  The devastation to those models of care and kinship is perhaps one of the many lasting legacies of AIDS with which we have yet to come to terms.


So, no, the fact that romantic partners, all husbands in waiting as Bruni’s myopic history would have us believe, were turned away from the bedsides of dying men was not the central problem with AIDS in the 80s.  The far bigger problem was that men were dying of AIDS, period, and in often brutal and dehumanising conditions.  But if you were to believe Bruni, the lesson of AIDS was that gay marriage would solve all the problems of the epidemic.


It gets worse. Bruni goes on about the the Mattachine Society, “one of the earliest gay rights groups, [which] appeared in 1950, in Los Angeles” and “[t]he Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian political organization, [which] appeared in 1955, in San Francisco.” And concludes: “From those seeds, the legalization of same-sex marriage flowered, and no shortage of harsh winters intervened.”


Rubbish. For the most part, marriage was not on the collective minds of these organisations which, instead, struggled in dark anonymity and between the brown paper envelopes in which their newsletters were posted, simply to record the existence of gays and lesbians, to provide support and, whenever needed, to help with legal resources when gay men and women were outed against their will in an era when that meant the loss of livelihoods and even life itself. As relatively conservative groups, both Mattachine and DOB have been criticised for the assimilationist politics, but there is no denying that they were often the only resources for many gays and lesbians.


The secret history of gay marriage is that it was never a topic of huge concern in the LGBTQ community until the rise of the mainstream gay organisations in the mid-1990s. Here's what really happened: Following a depletion of political energy post-AIDS, we saw the growth of groups like Human Rights Campaign and the older National Lesbian and Gay Task Force (now The National LGBTQ Task Force), led by mostly white gay men and women or the occasional token people of colour who fervently believed that normative politics was the only way to go.


When the secret history of gay marriage is finally written, it will reveal that gay marriage was foisted upon a community with few resources, held hostage by a wealthy few.  The mid-90s onwards saw the rise of out gay men and women, mostly men and mostly white, who were powerful and wealthy and wanted a way to ensure that their aspirations to be seen as just like everyone else would be fulfilled and that their wealth would stay in their families and continue to enrich the financial interests they had so carefully nurtured.


The secret history of gay marriage is that it has never been about "equality" in any real sense, but about ensuring that a small section of gay men and women are able to hold on to their wealth.  


The best example of this is the case of Edith Windsor, painted by Bruni and others as some kind of brave heroine.  HRC and others quietly gave created a mythology around her, that she was a little old lady sitting in an empty garrett somewhere in a cold, drafty apartment in New York, striking match after match just to keep herself warm while the wolves howled at her door.


In fact, Windsor is more than well off — my informal and rough estimates place her value at around ten million.  She is a pauper only in comparison to New York's wealthy, for whom the amount is pocket change, but she is far more comfortably off than many of the delusional gays and lesbians living on much, much less who fondly imagine that they actually have estates that would be affected by the DOMA ruling in any way.  The  central point is what we have to pay attention to: that Windsor was not refusing to pay taxes because she couldn't afford to, but because she refused to.  


The secret history of gay marriage is that both the left and mainstream press happily colluded in maintaining this myth around Edith Windsor, thus ensuring that she remained the helpless victim.  Take, for instance, the New York Times’s coverage of Windsor, in this article. The Times, in general, makes a point of revealing people's net worth. The Times is, after all, primarily designed to be read by the wealthy, who like to know about their fellow wealthy people.  More importantly, this was a story that centered around taxes and a lawsuit focused on the same, so it was in fact imperative that the Times ask about and reveal how much Windsor was worth.  And yet, the Times had absolutely nothing to say on the matter.


After all, if the People of America, to whom this was case was meant to appeal, found out that Edith Windsor was not financially strained at all by taxes, there would have been much less sympathy towards her and the case, battled in the court of public opinion — look what’s being done to this poor little old lady — could likely have been lost.  So the Times chose to drop any pretense at journalistic integrity and simply covered over the crucial fact.  It had to disclose the amount of taxes she was being compelled to pay, already a matter of public record, but it dutifully abstained from mentioning anything so vulgar as her actual net worth.


The secret history of gay marriage is that such efforts to disguise the real purpose of the campaign have meant that several other issues facing queers have been neglected.  A common claim made even by those who claim to be critical of gay marriage is that it has simply not been the right priority, but that it will eventually allow for other matters to finally receive the attention they need because, as some are fond of putting it, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

This is bullshit.  There is no rising tide, and gay marriage has proven to be more like the iceberg that wrecked the Titanic. As Ryan Conrad points out in his article on the Maine marriage battle, several organisations working on matters like AIDS/HIV and youth issues struggled; several have since shut down.


In short, the secret history of gay marriage is that its real history, as a rapacious, greedy, and entirely selfish campaign carried out by rapacious, greedy and entirely selfish gay men and women has been systematically erased by gay men like Frank Bruni and their unctuous straight allies like Frank Rich and Linda Hirshman. The secret history of gay marriage is not that it might prevent our sex lives from being more interesting, but that its victory enables the cementing of a neoliberal society where only private relationships can ensure access to economic security and healthcare. The preferred narrative is that gay marriage will be a dream come true.  The reality is that gay marriage is nothing but a nightmare and neoliberalism’s handiest little tool.


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This is a free piece intended to raise questions, not provide all the answers.  If you're interested in learning more about the real history of various gay campaigns, like that of gay marriage, take a look at the Against Equality archives.

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