To read the Advocate or other mainstream gay and lesbian
papers in recent months, one might easily believe every queer person
on the planet had suddenly gone marriage crazy. Since November
2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that banning same-sex
marriage was discriminatory, national LGBT rights organizations
such as the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom To Marry have been
working at a feverish pace to make legal gay marriage a reality.
The decision by the mayors of San Francisco, California and New
Paltz, NewYork to perform same sex marriages — until legal
injunctions ordered them to halt — drove the excitement level
even higher. Now, with a constitutional amendment that would ban
such marriages at the federal level looming darkly on the horizon,
pressure is rising for queer activists and their allies to close
ranks and make an all out push for "marriage equality."
Thousands of same-sex couples packed courthouses in a handful
of cities earlier this year to marry. Yet a sizable contingent
of queer folks aren’t feeling it.
Far from the cut-and-dried moral issue that it’s been portrayed
as, many radical queers question who benefits from the campaign,
whether it disregards and hides others’ needs, and what to
make of its eerie tendency to echo conservative language and policies.
As an effort to sort through the issues myself, I decided to ask
a number of friends and acquaintances to share their thoughts on
the politics of gay marriage.
Nava Etshalom, a recent graduate of Oberlin College who, like
thousands of other young people, grew up in a queer family without
any form of government recognition, reacted to the recent national
debate about gay marriage with considerable ambivalence. "In
some ways, just having some attention focused on the meaning of
queer family has been exciting," she said. "But the
way that that’s functioning to narrow, not expand, meanings
of queer family in the U.S. is scary."
The national LGBT organizations, which have been the most vocal
advocates of gay marriage, consistently portray gay and lesbian
couples as monogamous, permanent, and seeking family structures
that closely resemble "traditional" nuclear models.
"My family is much weirder, much more sprawling, and much
less nuclear than the Human Rights Campaign would have us believe
proper gay families are," Etshalom said. "My core family
is my mother, my sibling Shira, and myself. We also have my father,
his wife, and their four kids in L.A.; my mom’s ex-partner
Julie and her five kids who live down the street; my step-mother
(my mother’s ex) Elisa and her sweetheart Steve down the
other street; and my mom’s girlfriend Davia upstairs. We
are a bunch of queers with a lot of transgressive gender expression
among us, with shifting kinship ties and family friends that raise
us. We have hilarious family trees and a shifting sense of ourselves
and a lot of love."
"At the same time," she said, "I do in fact
know a lot of families who have two parents [of the same sex] and
some kids at their core, and I don’t want to pretend they
don’t exist, or force them out onto margins they might not
want to be on."
This points to one of the most complicated questions surrounding
gay marriage. How does one acknowledge and respect the fact that
many gay or lesbian couples desire, or are now a part of, families
that in many ways resemble straight nuclear families, while also
making it loud and clear that thousands and thousands of others don’t fit
such patterns and have no intention to?
Arguing what’s at stake, Etshalom said, "If marriage
becomes entrenched as a way for queer people to prove they’re
not anti-social extremists and do want to belong to larger communities,
families that don’t choose to marry and in other ways don’t
follow straight models will be separated from families that fit;
and we’ll still have marginalized queer families, they’ll
just be even more invisible and without resources."
Emily Thuma, a New York City-based activist and student, had similar
concerns about the narrow focus of the campaign.
"If the bulk of the resources of these national LGBT organizations
are going towards the fight for same-sex marriage so that marriage
is made into the LGBT issue," she said, "then
issues like job discrimination or police harassment get left out
of the picture."
Critics also contend that the marriage equality campaign has been
forwarded using increasingly conservative arguments and rhetorical
"If you look at the face of the gay marriage campaign, how
it gets narrated, it’s white, it’s middle class, it’s
normalized. It has moral language that animates it," Rich
Blint, a graduate student living in New York, said. He disagreed
with the way organizers of the marriage equality campaign seem
to be saying, "We need to present ourselves in a respectable
"It’s queer uplift!" Blint said. "And
it’s not enough."
Etshalom expressed similar discomfort. "Straight friends
of mine keep offering expressions of solidarity," she said. "I
know they mean well, but what are they expressing solidarity with?
I should be glad that they feel good about queer families looking
neat, tidying up, and fitting in? Of course it’s more complicated
than that — but I do sometimes feel like it’s not a
support that looks me in the face."
Thuma noted further problems with relying on such argumentative
strategies. "Similar to how the right for LGBT people to
serve in the military is couched in the rhetoric of patriotism,
the marriage argument is couched in a rhetoric of family values."
Lisa Duggan, a professor of history at New York University who
has written extensively about gender and sexuality, argues that,
perhaps most problematic of all, the current marriage campaign
is "either non- or anti-feminist … and it has no racial
or class politics." In arguing for the right to marry and
the privileges that accompany marriage, she said the campaign has
ignored the critical analysis of marriage feminists have been making
for decades. A truly progressive movement, she said, would seek
to understand how, in any issue — marriage included — gender
and sexuality are tied to race, economics, and citizenship.
As a case in point she cited the recent efforts of conservative
politicians to launch a well-funded marriage promotion campaign.
Targeted at poor women of color, the campaign would reinforce gendered,
patriarchal marriage as the proper way to live, while at the same
time furthering the neoliberal attack on the welfare state provisions
and the "social safety net."
"While it is being represented as an issue of morality and
in the best interest of children," Duggan said, "the
underlying economic agenda is to transfer social services such
as child care, care for the elderly or people with disabilities,
into private households, where primarily women will do unpaid labor
to take over those functions from any kind of state provision."
Rather than uniting to address all the problems with marriage
by creating an alliance with the community organizations and feminist
groups mobilizing to oppose marriage coercion, LGBT organizations
have often echoed right-wing sentiments, reasserting the sanctity
of marriage as they organize for inclusion within it.
So what is the alternative? Mainstream organizations such as Marriage
Equality and the Human Rights Campaign argue that only marriage
will provide real equality. But Blint, Thuma, and Duggan all agreed
that the potential for a much further reaching politics exists
in efforts to expand and diversify the assortment of alternate
statuses such as civil unions, reciprocal beneficiaries, and domestic
partnerships that exist or have been proposed in numerous states.
Progressive and radical activists, they insisted, should argue
for the separation of church and state, that marriage should be
a private and religious institution, and that the state should
offer a flexible range of benefits and recognitions for various
kinds of households. Furthermore, access to resources such as health
care and retirement benefits should not be tied to households or
partnerships at all, but should be universal provisions instead.
"That would be so substantially more progressive a move," Duggan
said. "It would undermine the gendering of marriage, it would
undermine the privatization of care-taking, and it would undermine
the privileging of the conjugal couple. It would do so much; and
actually it isn’t all that radical of a move. We already
have domestic partnerships, civil unions, and reciprocal beneficiaries."
Duggan noted that expanding access to these other options could
also help to meet the specific material needs of many kinds of
families beyond the LGBT community. "Reciprocal Beneficiary
status in Vermont and Hawaii, for example, is available for people
who are related," she said. "It has a lot of potential
when it’s made clear that you and your grandmother could
file joint taxes because you live with her or you could co-parent
and co-adopt with your sister. So to argue for marriage as the
only right and good thing is reactionary in the sense that it wipes
out these other options."
A movement fighting for an expanded "menu of options" that
provide benefits and partnership rights in a flexible manner could
work in unison with, rather than against, feminist organizations
promoting policies that protect women from necessary dependency
on men. If successful, it also could provide a host of benefits
to queer families that, like Etshalom’s, don’t fit
nuclear models, or don’t care to "express [their] family-ness" through
So, why aren’t the national LGBT organizations arguing for
such policies now?
Duggan argued one reason lies with the desire to be recognized
as "just like everybody else." "Marriage means
to people a combination of state, kinship, symbolic, and religious
sanctioning where all of these things are one big mosh," she
said. "You get the stamp of approval from the state, your
family accepts you, and it’s performed at the church — there
is just this giant crescendo of social acceptance that surrounds
"Civil unions can’t carry that weight," she
continued, "so the argument has to be that that weight shouldn’t
be carried by the state. The state should not be in the business
of endorsing some, and not endorsing other forms of partnership
and household arrangements based on any kind of moral or identity
based criteria. That was a central argument of gay liberation and
lesbian feminism from the 1970s on. Suddenly lesbian and gay organizations
are asking for sexual-based regulation from the state, are asking
for an institution that is based on romantic and sexual partnership.
That is such a turn around."
Despite their criticisms of the marriage equality campaign, everyone
I spoke to adamantly agreed on the need to aggressively fight Bush’s
proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Duggan,
for example, said, "The constitutional amendment is terrifying
because it can wipe out not only the possibility of gay marriage
but also all the alternative statuses as well, depending on the
wording and the interpretation of those amendments. Then all there
will be is heterosexual marriage. That would be a tremendous step
in a reactionary direction. So of course everyone needs to unite
to make sure those kinds of amendments don’t go forward."
The question then becomes: How does one fight fiercely to defeat
the proposed amendments and forward a broad queer liberation agenda,
while avoiding the pitfalls of the current marriage equality campaign?
"One of the things that is desperately needed is an actual
relationship and alliance between LGBT organizations and feminists
who have developed critical analyses of the institution of marriage
and the use of marriage promotion by the government," Duggan
said. In terms of media strategy, she thinks "a strong advocacy
for separation of church and state … is the kind of argument
that might get out of our own left ghetto."
Blint said, "There are tons of local radical queers of color
organizations already existing — Audre Lorde Project, APICHA
[the Asian & Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS], FIERCE!
[Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment] — who
don’t only do queer organizing, but also do anti-war, anti-poverty,
and anti-racist work. That’s a platform that should be adopted
nationally. Losing the connection to other struggles dooms the
project, because we are all in this shit together."
Some individuals have turned to art and cultural projects to reinsert
their positions in the debate and articulate different needs and
desires. Etshalom is collaborating on a documentary project called The
Queerspawn Diaries, a collection of audio commentaries from
young people who have grown up in diverse queer family configurations,
that she hopes will be broadcast on progressive radio stations
and used as an educational resource. Expressing the reaction of
many young queers to the marriage campaign, Philadelphia-based
artist Courtney Daily recently began printing T-shirts and posters
with sardonic messages like, "Ban Marriage — Let’s
Make it Up as We Go Along!" and "Monogamy is Theft."
While acknowledging the importance of such playful contributions
to specific communities, Duggan stressed the importance of focusing
on the political and economic functions of marriage and alternate
institutions. She questions the merit of criticism that indicts
domestic partnerships as being bland or boring. "As much
as some of us personally might feel that way, it’s not politics," she
said. Instead, activists should focus on increasing people’s
options, rather than confining them to a "one-size-fits-all institution," she
said. "That’s Just somthing people can hear without
feeling like, ‘Oh this is just a bunch of whiny leftists
screaming about their personal tastes.’"