Why this queer isn’t celebrating

I’ll admit it: I couldn’t help but get a bit happy when I heard that California was legalizing same-sex marriage. And today, when I heard about the first couples in line to enjoy their new rights, couples like Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin who got married again after their 2004 marriage was declared invalid, my heart was kinda warmed. After all, politics aside, it’s beautiful to see people celebrate and commemorate their love, out in the open, and with a long-awaited sense of equality and societal recognition. It’s hard for me not to get a little bit sentimental and proud in the most rainbow-flag-waving sense of the word.

But it didn’t take long for that warmth to turn chill and that pride to shrivel up completely when I read this article from the LA Times:

The gay and lesbian couples who packed a Hollywood auditorium last week had come seeking information about California’s new marriage policies. But they also got some unsolicited advice.

Be aware.

Images from gay weddings, said Lorri L. Jean, chief executive of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, could be used by opponents in a campaign designed to convince California voters that gays and lesbians should not have the right to marry. Those getting married, she cautioned, should never lose sight of what they might be supplying the other side.

Sitting close to his husband-to-be in the audience, hairstylist Kendall Hamilton nodded and said he knew just what she meant. No “guys showing up in gowns,” he said.

The article goes on to discuss how “proponents of same-sex marriage are now taking care to emphasize mainstream unions.”

Many of the … early weddings around the state were also of long-term couples who could have been selected by central casting to appear both nonthreatening and mainstream.

And as the SF Gate reports, even the gay-marriage-themed window displays are being engineered to be as normative as possible:

In window one: two men on a wedding cake, one in a $6,000 Brioni tuxedo, the other in a $4,000 Belvest tux.

In window two: two women, one in a black Roberto Cavalli skirt tuxedo ($3,655) and the other in a $1,900 Catherine Regehr white dress.

“Describe them as straightforward,” [San Francisco clothier Wilkes] Bashford said. “I definitely did not want them to be camp.”

That’s right, folks: no camp here. No gender non-conformity, either. And definitely no guys in gowns.

Why? Because the marriage equality movement is largely predicated on the notion that us queers are just like “everyone else,” meaning mostly white, mostly middle-class or up, gender conforming monogamists. You know, the non-threatening queers. The rest of us should apparently find a nice closet to go hide in for a while, lest we threaten the rights that are apparently meant for the more upstanding, respectable members of the LGsomeotherlessimportantletters community.

“One of the things about the gay and lesbian community is we’re known for our outrageousness, our flamboyance,” said West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran, who is president of the board of directors of Equality California, an organization pushing for gay marriage. “But we’re under this incredible political pressure not to have those portrayals” right now.

Because that’s the way to push for equality – by privileging individuals and couples and relationships that are the most tame, the most palatable, the most marketable while shunning those who stray a bit too much from Middle America’s ideas of propriety. Has it ever occurred to these so-called movement leaders to say, “You know what? It doesn’t matter what the people are wearing, or how they define their gender, or whether they’re picket fence aspirants or not. We all deserve the same rights by virtue of being human beings.” Nah, because that would be too hard. Not only would all the nice, normal gays and lesbians need to wait around until the government and the rest of American society decided that the freaks were human, too, but those same nice, normal gays and lesbians might have to confront their own prejudice and acknowledge their own privilege. Gasp!

Of course, this is all par for the course when dealing with marriage equality, which has never been and can never be about true equality and justice for all people who fall within the LGBT spectrum. That’s because legal marriage is about sanctioning and rewarding certain kinds of relationships while disqualifying and demeaning others. And while I don’t begrudge Lyon and Martin or any of the other couples who have found relief and joy in finally being able to marry legally, I do begrudge a movement that has devoted so much time and attention and resources to a cause that does not serve the most crucial needs of the vast majority of queers and that further marginalizes the most marginalized and vulnerable members of the LGBT community, if you can call it a community.

Recently someone I know posted an excellent synopsis of why the California ruling is not a source of unbridled and uncomplicated joy for all queers. I’ve been meaning to repost this for a while, but with the marriages beginning today and the media circus surrounding them. It’s an op-ed written and signed by Toby Beauchamp, Steven Blevins, Abigail Boggs, Cynthia Degnan, Benjamin D’Harlingue, Cathy Hannabach, Christopher Jee, Tristan Josephson, Liz Montegary, and Kara Thompson. Thanks to them for writing it and for crystalizing the problems so well.

Not all LGBT people are happy about the same-sex marriage ruling. While we recognize that the California Supreme Court decision positively and importantly affects some queer lives, marriage alone cannot solve the problems plaguing queer communities. In fact, the ruling further marginalizes relationships and families that don’t conform to a lifelong, monogamous two-partner structure. We are concerned that most media stories about the ruling have erased queer voices that are critical of extending rights only to a privileged few.

Most U.S. households are not modeled on the nuclear family, meaning many families and relationships still do not receive the rights and benefits afforded married couples. Blended and extended families; single parents; close friends, siblings, or senior citizens serving as primary caregivers to each other – all are common examples of family structures denied rights extended through marriage. While legal marriage benefits some, this ruling does not grant full equality for all LGBT people.

We are also concerned with the state’s use of marriage as a coercive tool. For example, the current U.S. welfare program provides economic incentives to promote marriage, in some cases offering extra benefits to single mothers who marry their child’s biological father, even if this relationship isn’t desired or beneficial. Welfare benefits that limit parenting and relationship choices demonstrate that for many people – regardless of sexual orientation – marriage is not the key to social justice. While some LGBT people celebrate state-recognized relationships, many of us are wary of increased state control over our sexual lives.

For a chilling example of the state’s regulation of bodies, sexualities and supposed deviance, consider the May 14th sentencing of an HIV-positive man in Dallas, Texas to 35 years in prison for spitting on a police officer. Despite long-standing reports from the CDC that saliva does not transmit HIV, the defendant’s saliva was ruled a deadly weapon, meaning he must serve half of his sentence before being eligible for parole.

Consider also the current committee appointments for revising the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The DSM lists diagnostic criteria for mental disorders, including Gender Identity Disorder (homosexuality was removed in 1974). Dr. Kenneth Zucker is chairing the Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders Work Group, despite advocating that queer and trans people (especially youth) can be “cured” through reparative therapy. That many LGBT people are unaware of these recent abuses by state institutions reveals that the same-sex marriage struggle overshadows some of the most damaging actions against queer and trans communities.

We support the personal and spiritual meaning that marriage has for many, but question whether fighting for marriage as a state-run institution is the best strategy for queer liberation more broadly. We urge the networks formed through the same-sex marriage struggle to continue working in the service of all marginalized communities. Following the work of projects like Queers for Economic Justice and beyondmarriage.org, and scholars and activists such as Lisa Duggan, Richard Kim and Nancy Polikoff, we advocate the following: Instead of linking state benefits like healthcare, housing and welfare to marital privilege, they should be detached from marriage and available to all, regardless of marital or citizenship status. Rather than furthering the norm of two partners acting as a single economic childrearing unit, we argue for a movement that embraces multiple meanings of family, and recognizes that marriage and domestic partnership are not always optimal or desired choices. Finally, we believe we can better serve marginalized communities by fighting against all state regulation of sexual and gender choices, identities and expressions.

(cross-posted at Feministe)

21 Responses to “Why this queer isn’t celebrating”

  1. 1 professor what if

    Thanks for a great post and for including the excellent op-ed piece.

  2. 2 rabi

    aw. that “no dresses” thing is so depressing. thanks for pointing it out. I never know how to reconcile my own personal discomfort with Marriage The Institution and my broader wish to support LGBT rights, so this is just more to think about.

  3. 3 ButchFatale

    Good thing the paparazzi won’t be invited to my John Waters bluegrass wedding in the redwoods next summer. I am a bad, bad queer, and I hang out with bad bad genderqueers and commie smut-writing leatherfolk who give the HRC nightmares. Thanks for this post, I’m feeling inspired to dust off my blog and join the fun.

  4. 4 kim

    I only wish my state would get with the program, I’d love to go to a wild under the redwoods celebration. Congrats to all in California, congrats to those in NY who will honor the marriage vows of other states, have a blast!

  5. 5 Jack

    @professor what if – thank you!

    @rabi – Glad to give you more to think about. I think it sucks that supporting marriage equality has basically become the mainstream queer movement’s primary goal and that it’s therefore the primary way that folks both inside and outside the community are asked to support queers, despite the major problems with Marriage The Institution.

    @ButchFatale – I think your wedding is gonna rock. 🙂 Glad you liked the post. I had to dust off my own blog to write it. I encourage you to dust off yours!

    @kim – thanks for the comment, though I think it’s important to temper the congrats with acknowledgment of the points I make in this post. Celebrating is great, but recognizing the serious problems and inequity is important.

  6. 6 maggie

    darn it. I hoped that CA would be better at doing marriage without totally pressuring people to assimilate than MA was, it looks like they’re doing even worse!

  7. 7 Nellie

    This post is amoung the reasons that this is probably my favorite blog! Thanks, Jack!

  8. 8 Jack

    @maggie – Yeah, it’s unfortunate. I mean, I don’t know how much we can extrapolate the situation in the entire state from the perspectives in these articles, but they’re bad enough.

    @Nellie – thanks back!

  9. 9 Bq

    i knew all the pics in the newspaper were a bit strange to my eye…

  10. 10 Bq

    (as in, they all looked the same – very conformist)

  11. 11 GallingGalla

    Haven’t had time to read the entire comment thread, so I might be repeating something someone else said. But, thank, *thank*, THANK you, Jack, for saying this, it brings tears to my eyes, b/c I have felt so long that it seems like the white upper-class assimilationist gay/lesbian community has been driving this as the most freakin’ important issue, thus leaving behind 90% or more of the queer community, and also, as you mentioned, many, many groups of people who are non-queer but still ouside the heteronormative ideal (polyamorous, siblings, elderly folks caring for each other, etc).

    I am getting so *sick* of the mainstream LG press pounding this issue over and over, while ignoring or paying lip service to the issues of the *vast* majority of trans people. The ENDA fight drove home for me that mainstream LG orgs don’t give a fuck about most queer people. I am getting *sick* of being afraid to discuss the fact that SSM doesn’t help me, a trans woman, get medical treatment, or keep a job or a roof over my head, for fear that a gazillion people, especially well-off white gay men and not a few straight allies, are going to pile on me for daring to state that lots of people would like to just be able to *survive* and keep their jobs and not be murdered, and how dare I stand in the way of their glorious marriages, and their right to suck up to heteronormative (and racist and classist, dare I say) power structures?

    Sorry for the long rant, but I’m just really angry about this.

    (I left a very similar comment also at Feministe).

  12. 12 Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

    Thanks for this great analysis!

    I would also add that all of this hysteria around what the Christian fundamentalists (defined by gay marriage proponents as “middle America”) will think about gender/sexual/social representations is, well — hysteria. If Christian fundamentalists think that all queers are gonna burn in hell, somehow I think a platinum wedding band from Tiffany and a “proper” gazillion-dollar outfit just isn’t gonna say ya…

    Love —

  13. 13 Jack

    @GallingGala – please don’t apologize for what you wrote. Rather, I thank you for what you wrote. So damn true.

    @Mattilda –

    If Christian fundamentalists think that all queers are gonna burn in hell, somehow I think a platinum wedding band from Tiffany and a “proper” gazillion-dollar outfit just isn’t gonna say ya…


  14. 14 Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

    Thanks, Jack — only I’m embarrassed by my voice activation software typo at the end where I meant “save ya.” But it looks like I got the point across 🙂

  15. 15 Jack

    Heh, yeah, you did. I think my brain just replaced the “say” with “save” of its own accord.

  16. 16 Shev

    Oh my dog yes. Obviously it’s a good thing that gay and straight people have equal rights. But what if those equal rights – well, just aren’t that equal? I kinda feel guilty questioning whether it’s ‘right’ to want civil partnerships (after the looooong time it took to get to this point), but what’s with all these virginity-affirming white dresses, and blood-diamond rings, and getting your friends to spendspendspend (in gaystream-approved shops, obv – no second hand, knit-your-own here please) on your state-sanctioned slice of monogamy, which is based, lest we forget, on a system of *ownership* of women?

    So many free gay zines are filled with ads for CP stuff, and I just wonder whether it is actually fighting for the chance to fight our way up the pyramid of privilege, without actually looking at what we want – which is presumably a non-racist, non-sexist, non-homophobic society. At least that’s what I thought. It’s like gay tories/republicans – sure, we have the right to be total arseholes, but really, why do you want to do that to all of us? Surely the most important issue to us should be the huge number who are getting killed and persecuted, locally and globally, because of who we are, who we shag, and how we shag, rather than wanting the tax breaks that the government uses as bribes to conform?

    And frankly, I’d just got my mum OFF my back about the marriage thing (“Sorry mum, just can’t do it….”).

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  4. 4 Family Equality Council Blog » The Privilege of “Normal-ish” Gays and Lesbians
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