I always thought the privilege of being gay is that we didn't have to get married or go in the army.
- John Waters
Gay marriage seems to be making the news nearly every day as state after state is conquered in our march towards enforced equality. This is hardly the most pressing issue for LGBTQ people, but it's at the forefront of the HRC and GLAAD's agenda as they continue to focus on the interests of their predominantly white, middle-to-upper class, fairly moderate to conservative patrons.
It seems rather incongruent that a people once so overwhelmingly anti-heteronormative everything should now be fighting this vehemently for access to a dated, patriarchal institution. Granted, straight people have put a lot of effort into redefining marriage (even as they accuse of us of trying to do the same) – introducing no fault divorce, decoupling matrimony from religion, allowing medically aided family planning – essentially changing marriage from a lifelong property exchange to something a bit more contemporary, but still rigid in essence and questionable at best in outcome.
Marriage remains the best social engineering avenue at our disposal – if it weren't, the government wouldn't be so hell bent on quietly pushing it. Certainly those 1,138 federal benefits it confers aren't being granted out of sheer generosity, a nice little congratulatory gift from Uncle Sam for tying the knot. Those benefits are there to entice entry into the "traditional" family unit the government has deemed most advantageous to society, and one they correspondingly wish to privilege and perpetuate above all others.
Marriage consolidates and protects power and wealth through inheritances and tax law. Marriage may provide health benefits to those lucky enough to marry a partner who has access, but does nothing to address the larger goal of universal care. It provides a space that all too often contains and obscures domestic violence by walling the "family unit" off as a private sphere. It imprisons queer kids in frequently oppressive situations where decisions can be made on how best to "deal with" their "problem" absent intervention from more well-meaning, informed members of the community. The very concept of marriage creates a hierarchy where one familial arrangement is the de facto standard against which all others fall short, and in setting that standard, it invites scrutiny and judgment towards those who choose not to play along – not to mention prevents them from obtaining those 1000+ benefits only awarded to those who do (benefits our tax dollars subsidize even as some of us remain staunchly opposed to the government financially goading people into a particular relationship model.) Marriage powers a ridiculous industrial complex of wedding planning, clothing, gifts, ceremonies, parties, cakes, and other expensive add ons. It creates fodder for society pages meant to celebrate "status" and reinforce social hierarchy while simultaneously providing the plot for reality TV that revels in the schadenfreude of it all. It is a late capitalist field day that routinely overshadows the very love and human connection it's supposed to celebrate and cement.
Fuck that noise!
So why do so many queers now want a piece of this heteronormativity even as its core institution is losing [some] steam? Enforced equality, of course! Equality to whom and to what end is not to be questioned, although we all know the answer – equal to their straight counterparts most likely to access marriage and all the benefits it confers: middle-to-upper class, white, and college educated1. The goal? Assimilation, the current rallying cry of the LGBTQ rights movement being "we swear, we're just like you!"
And why is the government rather suddenly onboard? Legal arguments aside (let's admit it's rather tricky to uphold the ban constitutionally) if legislators can stomach the conservative backlash at the polls (which is often offset by the opportunity to display their liberal street cred) it just makes good business sense. Keeping gay middle America pacified is also the best way to ensure the radical queer element – the ones who once belonged to Act Up and other militant groups – don't hold any sway with their ideas of the wholesale elimination of marriage, true universal health care, comprehensive immigration reform, and a whole host of other inconvenient, socialist leaning ideas. Not to mention, if the gays want to fight imperialist wars, buy homes in nice suburban areas and gentrify the less desirable ones all while adopting kids in droves, it's kind of a social win for maintaining the status quo. If you can't beat the pesky homos, let 'em join. Or as a few well-meaning comics who've already (unintentionally) made my point for me have said, let 'em be miserable like the rest of us.
Yet we still know that the disproportionate distribution of marriage benefits won't really help already marginalized groups, including queer POC and queer people who are economically disadvantaged, demographics far more prevalent in our community than the HRC's sanitized image of attractive, upwardly mobile, masculine-presenting white gay men would have you believe. There are exponentially more homeless queer kids than their straight counterparts, frequently tossed out of the house for their "deviance," forced to start life with limited education and zero economic advantage. Trans* unemployment numbers continue to be abysmal.
And we also know assimilation doesn't breed acceptance. When, in 2014, a newly drafted gay NFL player is getting shit for chastely-but-publicly kissing his partner in celebration, that's all the proof we should need. No matter how good we are at killing America's "enemies," how proficient we are at sportsball, or how much our dating habits, sexual mores, and family arrangements mirror those of straight America, we will continue to be the other who can only be accepted if we veil our difference. Since elimination of queer people is no longer a publicly palatable policy goal, invisibility will just have to do.
This is the danger of assimilationist politics: By playing the game and following all the rules, the assimilated population becomes so heavily integrated as to be virtually invisible, ceding any revolutionary power they had in the process – and invisibility plus the powerlessness that comes with it is exactly what anti-queer people want for us. Granted, maybe it's not happening exactly the way they wanted – providing us access to their hallowed institutions hardly sits well with them – but if it shuts us the hell up and gets us to stop throwing condoms around during their church services, well, whatever… This a tolerance of queer people so long as they don't display actual queerness, a tolerance of "I don't care if they're gay so long as they don't shove it in my face."
The conundrum for queer people, however, is that conformance is succeeding in making us invisible, yet we remain alienated, assimilated into society but still regarded as the unequal, icky other. Anti-queer people are winning the end game, and we're colluding with them in a desperate bid for a pat on the head from our cishet masters and access to an institution that perpetuates the very norms that allowed us to be labeled deviant in the first place. We're gaining ground in the war to enter the mainstream while forgetting that the mainstream is really fucked up, and the primary way society differentiates between accepted and "other." We're foreclosing on the potential benefits true queer revolution offers to all people in an attempt to get the privileged among us into the proverbial country club. And in the process we're pushing our own "fringe" back into the closet for political expediency, co-opting a whitewashed heteronormative image (and all the associated ideals) with no regard for how that impacts the less passable and nonconformist members of our community — those that aren't readily assimilable — those that have always had the least agency and support. Is that really a trade off we're willing to make?
Courting cultural approval is a bullshit game. The reality is we are different: no amount of conformity will erase that in the minds of the very people from whom we're now begging for acceptance. Our core difference may be small in the grand scheme of things, but it is huge in their minds. So, rather than become the invisible, powerless other so many wish we would, let's be visible and let's be fucking heard. Let's remember our roots, celebrate diversity and difference for the wondrous possibilities they offer, and remember the promise of substantive, meaningful change for all we once fought so hard to achieve.
Postscript: I'm aware that there are some benefits associated with gay marriage, both specifically those granted to the people who choose to get married, as well as some positive elements of the message it sends to queer youth. I'm also not averse to lifelong, monogamous commitment, though I disagree with it being prized above other arrangements and believe that community, not the government, is the best resource for supporting healthy relationships and families. My arguments are not limited to gay marriage, rather apply to all. Yet I realize, too, that some of my points may come from a rather idealized vision, and there is a reality on the ground today; understanding that, as long as marriage continues to be a defining arrangement in this country that offers tangible benefits, I really have no choice but to endorse equal access. I won't contribute to campaigns for it or demonstrate in its favor, believing that money and time could be better spent on issues that will have wider impact in the community, but I begrudgingly provide my support to those who wish to see it happen and who access it when it inevitably does.
1 See embedded link in same paragraph for substantiating data