Down with Legitimacy: Why Marriage Mania Is a Threat to Queer Struggle

"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, September 2008

What might have been possible

Back when I first started doing radical queer direct action (in the early ‘90s), universal health care was almost a mainstream gay issue. So many people had seen a dramatic percentage of their friends die quickly and painfully of AIDS, and wondered: if more of my friends had health care, maybe they would still be alive. As part of the 1993 national “March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights” (I believe that was the official title), ACT UP planned a national civil disobedience for universal health care at the Capitol. This was a few years after the big actions they gave ACT UP national attention, but I think we were still hoping for hundreds of arrests. Indeed, a million people attended the main March (and assimilation spectacle if there ever was one), but I think ACT UP ended up with under a hundred people for our arrest-oriented action, 41 is the number in my head, but it could've been closer to a hundred. I do remember that it was easy to get arrested, all you needed to do was to step onto federal property, which was a driveway, and boom. Although I wonder if you can even get that far, now.

But universal health care did not gain the attention we wanted it to (when I say universal health care, I don't mean the current scams perpetuated by Clinton/Obama that strengthen the corporate, profits-first system instead of providing a single-payer solution). Indeed, gays in the military became the banner issue for the gay mainstream, followed within a few years by the big M. With all of the current focus on the holy institution of matrimony, I sometimes wonder what might have been possible if, over the past 15 years, as much attention had been brought to bear on universal health care -- all of the energy, resources, engagement, movement building, rhetoric, strategizing... I think we would be so much closer to universal health care, and perhaps even a broad-based social justice movement that included a radical queer politic. Instead, people now look at single-payer health care in this country as nothing but a crazy dream, and somehow marriage is considered "gay," but not the right to health.

Why I'm not toasting

Though I am a queer person living in San Francisco, I will not be celebrating the California Supreme Court decision overturning the ban on same-sex marriage. Nor will I join those who say, “I would never choose to get married, but I think everyone should have the right.” Sorry, honey -- marriage is depressing, period. That means gay marriage, too. And here's why.

Gay marriage does nothing to address fundamental problems of inequality. What is needed is universal access to basic necessities like housing, healthcare, food, and the benefits now obtained through citizenship (like the right to stay in this country). Legalized gay marriage means only that certain people in a specific type of long-term, monogamous relationship sanctioned by a state contract might be able to access benefits. While marriage could confer inclusion under a spouse’s healthcare policy, it does nothing to provide such a policy. Marriage might ensure hospital visitation rights, but not for anyone without a spouse. Marriage may allow for inheritance rights between spouses, but what if there is nothing to inherit?

For a long time, queers have married straight friends for citizenship or healthcare, but this has never been enshrined as "progress." The majority of queers -- single or coupled (but not desiring marriage), monogamous or polyamorous, jobless or marginally employed -- would remain excluded from the much-touted benefits of legalized gay marriage.

And let's not forget the history of marriage as a legal method for keeping property within specific dynasties (property that originally included women and slaves). In fact, marriage still exists as a central venue for spousal and child abuse -- there's a reason divorce is so popular, and suicide attempts among queer teens so prevalent. If social change is on the agenda, then the privileges associated with marriage need to be challenged, not embraced.

In fact, the push for gay marriage has shifted advocacy away from essential services like HIV education, AIDS healthcare, drug treatment, domestic violence prevention, youth programs, trans health, and homeless care -- all crucial needs for far more queers than marriage could ever be. Sure, for wealthy gays and lesbians with bulging stock portfolios, gay marriage might just be that last thing standing in the way of "full citizenship." For everyone else, it's a reallocation of resources in the wrong direction, as local, state, and national nonprofits that used to serve a variety of needs now focus the majority of their attention on marriage. And this pattern will undoubtedly continue, as millions of dollars will be spent fighting an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment proposed for the November ballot, at a time when social services are being scrapped across the country, and especially in California.

Gay marriage is part of a larger agenda of assimilation that sees the dominant markers of straight conformity -- marriage, military service, adoption, ordination into the priesthood, gentrification and consumerism as the ultimate signs of gay success. Forget about the original goals of gay liberation -- forging sexual self-determination, challenging police brutality, destroying hierarchies, and ending all forms of oppression -- the gay marriage "movement" declares that the pinnacle of achievement is to access straight privilege.

The spectacle around gay marriage draws attention away from critical issues -- like ending US 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. While many straight people are reaping the benefits of gay liberation and discovering new ways of loving, lusting for and caring for one another, the gay marriage movement is busy fighting for a 1950s model of white-picket fence "we're just like you" normalcy. And that's no reason to celebrate.

Down with Legitimacy

San Francisco residents probably remember big money candidate Gavin Newsom’s big stunt four years ago, when he emerged victorious from a tight mayoral race with the progressive Matt Gonzalez, and promptly "legalized" gay marriage, sending his approval ratings soaring and guaranteeed him a second term. Back then, 80-somethings Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon became the first smiling gay couple to “marry” in honor of La Newsom, before then a politician known mostly for cynical anti-poor rhetoric (remember “Care Not Cash”?)

Now that the California Supreme Court has struck down the ban on same-sex marriage, everywhere we hear couples who've been together 10, 20 or 30 years (or six months), rushing to tie the knot and proclaim: "finally... it's... legitimate!" It's hard to imagine a more whole-hearted rejection of queer struggles to create defiant ways of living and loving, lusting for and caring for one another -- methods not dependent on inclusion in the dominant institutions of straight privilege.

Gay marriage proponents now declare that finally gays and lesbians are “full citizens” -- as opposed to "half citizens," one imagines, or -- gasp -- non-citizens! As Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducts the biggest raids in history, the gay establishment celebrates its newfound legitimacy. Sure, for a few of the most privileged, the right to get gay married might be the last thing standing in the way of full citizenship, but there are certainly a legion of impediments for the rest of us.

And let's step back for a moment and imagine what it means to be a "full citizen" of the foremost colonial power, bombing rogue states to smithereens, exploiting the world's resources, and ensuring the downfall of the planet. As gay marriage fetishists rush to stake their claim to straight privilege, who gets left behind? Oh, right -- anyone who doesn't want to follow an outdated, tacky, oppressive model of long-term monogamy sanctioned by a state seal. Want healthcare? Get married (to someone with a good health plan). Need a place to live? Better get working on a spouse with a house. Need to visit your friend in the hospital? Forget it (unless you're ready and able to tie the knot). Need to stay in this country, but you're about to get deported? Should've gotten married while you had the chance!

Want to define love, commitment, family and sexual merrymaking on your own terms? Honey, that's so last century -- this year it's all about matching platinum Tiffany wedding bands, the Macy's bridal registry, and a prime spot on the Bechtel float in the pride parade – now, that's progress! While San Francisco has a long history of sheltering dissident queer cultures of incendiary splendor, the rush for status within the status quo threatens to delegitimize everyone who isn't ready for the Leave It to Beaver lifestyle.

Shutting gay marriage down?

Walking uphill the other day I ran into a friend a block from my house and we had an interesting conversation about the book launch for That's Revolting!, which I thought was totally incredible because people were so engaged, and my friend said he was disturbed. Why disturbed? He said he wasn't sure about the strategy of shutting gay marriage down. Shutting gay marriage down? What on earth do you mean?

I think this happens a lot, where there's this reversal about who is doing the shutting down. There's no question in my mind that gay marriage proponents have systematically shut anti-marriage and anti-assimilationist queers out of the conversation. It's much easier for them to argue with Christian fundamentalists who think all gay people are gonna burn in hell. And it's a symbiotic relationship -- they both fund each other's organizations. I mean the fear of the gays fills fundamentalist coffers and the fear of the Bible thumpers funnels money into marriage fundamentalist gay organizations.

What was so amazing about the launch is that no one was backing down, no one said why yes, gay marriage is a beginning -- I hate that shit, when every queer who opposes marriage feels obliged to say that it's okay for people to want marriage, it's just that we need a broader movement also. But the problem is that the marriage movement has replaced the broader movement! I guess I always think it's contradictory when people say yes, but marriage is a beginning -- sure, it's a beginning, but it's the wrong beginning! There's this hesitancy for people to voice scathing critiques, and I think a lot of that has to do with this fear that my friend was talking about. That, somehow, if we articulate our opposition to marriage with all our passion and eloquence and glamour, then somehow we’re shutting other people out of the conversation. When, in fact, other people are certainly free to respond with passion and eloquence and glamour. Gay marriage proponents are the ones dominating media representations of what it means to be queer I mean gay I mean straight-gay. They are the ones ensuring that the conversation remains a ridiculous one between foaming-at-the-mouth homophobes and the gays who just want the homophobes to accept them on homophobe’s terms -- we're just like you we’re just like you we’re just like you.

Oh -- so do you also think that all queers are gonna burn in Hell?

I just love that strategy -- convincing Christian fundamentalists to accept us on their terms and now gay marriage proponents even wants to decide what people look like and how they dress and how they represent themselves at their own weddings (nothing too flamboyant or gender-transgressive, okay?). I mean really -- it's not enough to embrace the dominant institution of straight privilege like it's the holy grail, you gotta buy into the whole package! Soon they're gonna make the gay wives show up with their bruises covered by Dermablend, right?

Gay marriage is a dead end. Sure, if we want cultural erasure, bring it on! I believe in an oppositional culture that celebrates resistance, encourages defiance, and engages in complicated, critical conversations about accountability at all times. If that furthers the divide, bring it on! Wishy-washy pragmatism only helps the people with the most power -- in this case, um, that means the (Christian) fundamentalists.