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Issue 32

By Rebecca Hyman

If it’s not enough of an indignity to be resoundingly spanked by the passage of eleven amendments forbidding gay marriage, gay folk are now in the position of reading articles in TheNew York Times announcing that the Human Rights Campaign and other mainstream gay rights organizations are engaged in a “debate over whether they should moderate their goals in the wake of [their] bruising losses.” In the face of such a rout at the national level, the mainstream press seems to expect that queers, tails between their legs, will follow the DNC in castigating themselves for promoting any agenda other than that of corporate interests.

What’s interesting to consider is how it became plausible for the Times and other members of the press to read the success or failure of gay marriage as indicative of the gay rights movement’s relative progress. Or, more precisely, why “gay marriage” has come to stand for gay rights, when historically, many of those involved in the gay rights movement have fought not only to achieve sexual freedom, but also to destroy those larger structures of power — classism, racism, and patriarchy — that contribute to the oppression of those who are different. Given the fact that some progressive queers read marriage as symbolic of the very culture they seek to transform, it is not surprising that they see the quest for marriage rights as inherently problematic.

Yet it can also be said that because the Right so successfully used the threat of gay marriage to galvanize voters in the re-election campaign of President Bush, those working in mainstream gay rights organizations were compelled to respond: the gay community was under attack. And, following the truism that “no publicity is bad publicity,” it made sense for them to re-appropriate the negative attention by demonstrating that gay and lesbian couples deserve the rights granted to their straight married analogs. As stories about gay marriage crowded out reporting on other issues that could have been the central focus of the movement, the debate about marriage, either by default or by choice, appeared to be the main concern of gay people as much as the Christian fundamentalist base. At the pride parade in Atlanta last summer, for example, almost all of the floats focused on marriage, and participants threw intertwined rings to the spectators to remind them of the Christian Coalition’s efforts to pass a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage.

Although it makes sense that mass spectacles, such as Pride Parades, would respond to the dominant depiction of gays through camp and resistance, the very success of the Right in commandeering the rhetoric about marriage served to exacerbate an already existing tension in the gay rights movement. What has happened among the queer community in the last two years is that the question of gay marriage has become attached to a larger debate between radical and assimilationist camps about the political priorities of the movement. Should queers focus their attention on the way they are depicted in mainstream culture, seeking dispensation from the larger straight world, or should they work to achieve rights by transforming American culture as a whole? Books like Jonathan Rauch’s Gay Marriage: Why its Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, for example, argue that “same sex marriage extends and clarifies the mission” of marriage by “shoring up the key values and commitments on which couples and families and society depend.” Others, like Mattilda, aka Matt Bernstein Sycamore, editor of That’s Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation find it “ironic that the central sign of straight conformity is seen as the pre-eminent goal of the gay rights movement.” For radicals like Mattilda, marriage is a signifier of class privilege, a way of dividing a particular version of gay identity from the larger queer community. Among queers, the prospect of gay moms or dads, cheerily waving from the windows of suitably bumper-stickered Volvos, seems to evoke either heartwarming ideas of social progress or the urge to vomit and throw rocks.

What does a gay family look like?

The Human Rights Campaign is a nonpartisan organization devoted to advancing “equality based on sexual orientation and gender expression” and ensuring that GLBT Americans “can be open, honest, and safe at home and at work.” With a membership of nearly 600,000 and an annual budget of 30 million dollars, it is the largest and most wealthy gay rights organization in the nation. Its task is twofold: to lobby the federal government to include the needs of GLBT individuals and families in national legislation, and to support state gay rights organizations in their efforts to lobby the legislature and overturn anti-gay laws and ordinances. Last year, according to Seth Kilbourn, Director of the Marriage Project, the HRC gave 1.7 million dollars to state gay rights organizations and devoted 1.6 million dollars to its education and get out the vote efforts.

When the HRC decided to lobby for marriage rights, therefore, it sent a strong signal to other organizations that gay marriage should be the issue around which the gay movement should coalesce, and many, such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, followed suit. The HRC created an ad campaign as a central component of their lobbying efforts, running the ads in newspapers and periodicals with a readership potentially sympathetic to gay and lesbian rights. 

The ads — black and white photographs of gay couples — are beautiful, and have a visual and textual consistency. One ad depicts a white lesbian couple sitting under a tree with their daughter, another an interracial lesbian couple who stand with their heads resting lightly against one another, and yet another a “senior” white lesbian couple who sit on a park bench holding hands. The text accompanying the photos explains that “Anna and Marion are worried about losing their house,” whereas “Jo and Teresa don’t qualify for full social security survivor benefits even after a lifetime of paying taxes.” Marriage, the ads explain, will save these families from troubles straight couples never have to face. Implicit in this stylized representation of gay families is the argument that gay people deserve marriage rights because they are “just like you,” with the implied receiver of the advertisement a straight, middle-class professional who is either already married or aspires to be. The tacit link between the viewer and the people in the photographs is their shared notion of what it means to be a family — quite literally, of what a family looks like.

Though the ads are attuned to the multicultural spectrum of gay and lesbian couples, they are silent on the issue of class. The message is clear: gays and lesbians work hard, save money, buy houses, have children — in short, want to achieve the American Dream — and they deserve its benefits because they pay their taxes like everyone else. To be fair to the HRC, it’s important to remember that the ad campaign was designed not only to persuade viewers to vote against anti-gay marriage amendments, but also to counter the propaganda put forth by groups like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. When you’re in an image war, it makes sense to fight fire with fire — for every freshly-scrubbed Christian family, HRC substitutes an impeccable pair of gay men, designer pants neatly pressed, beaming proudly at their twins.

What’s lost in all this attention to the politics of representation, however, is the long-term impact these images have on the gay community and the element of the straight world that chooses to valorize them. By arguing that gay couples deserve the recognition and rights conferred on those who are married, HRC and others have also chosen to create a particular image of gay culture, one palatable to straight people because the realm of difference exists in the space of the private. Because most Americans believe in the right to privacy, and because the Supreme Court overturned Bowers v. Hardwick, making sodomy legal, HRC strategically evokes the law of the land to buttress the arguments for gay marriage. Because gay couples differ from straight couples only in the realm of sexual object choice, the campaign implicitly argues, they should not be subject to discrimination.

In this sense, the argument for gay marriage becomes not only a discussion about rights, but also about the distinctiveness of gay people. If to be gay is just about a sex act, and now a legal one at that, then discrimination against gay people becomes merely a matter of sexual prudery. Anyone who is hip enough to realize that sexuality is more than the missionary position, it would seem, should be able to support gay marriage, and by extension, full gay rights.

But it is precisely this argument that denies the radical diversity of queer culture, and the fact that queer identity, for most who embrace it, implies far more than sexuality.

To read the rest of this piece and other great Clamor features, please pick up a copy of the new issue, or subscribe now.

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