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Andrew Cornell

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 strategies. 

"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 fashion." 

"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 marriage. 

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 marriage!" 

"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.’" 

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