It doesn’t need to be legal to be commercialized

Contributed by Miriam Zoila Pérez, Radical Doula
This article in last week’s NY Times brings up some hotly debated issues in the progressive LGBTQ movement. In reaction to the way that mainstream gay political movements have been overtaken by the fight for gay marriage, some radical activists have asked the question: Why marriage?
Activists like Mattilda Bernstein have pointed out that gay marriage is really an issue for mostly upper-class, white and privileged members of the gay community. It’s they who suffer from the tax penalties of not being legally married, and worry about how their inheritances will be passed on to their partners. She asks, shouldn’t we invest our resources in fighting poverty, homelessness and discrimination? She also points out that we shouldn’t be fighting for inclusion in a system that is corrupt and has inherently racist and sexist histories. She makes a similar argument about the fight for LGBTQ inclusion in the military.
The other side of this issue is the increasing commercialization of gay partnerships and ceremonies. Even though LGBTQ people can still only get legally married in MA (and the new civil unions in NJ) businesses all over the country are already catering to the gay wedding market. I went to the Gay Wedding Extravaganza in Philadelphia last year–where traditional wedding vendors came to sell their wares to LGBTQ couples planning ceremonies–even though there is no legal recognition in the state of PA. M any of these businesses had never even worked with gay couples before, but as one chocolate fountain vendor put it, “Money is money.”
The RainbowWeddingNetwork calls these events “Same love, Same rights.” It sounds deceptively political, and although they usually include a speech from an LGBTQ legal rights activist, really it’s about the same rights to waste tons of money on stupid wedding crap, like tuxedos, cakes, chocolate fountains and the like. I’ve never been a fan of wedding ceremonies (gay or straight) because I think they can get overtaken by commercialism and people forget the real purpose: to celebrate the love and commitment of two people. What does that have to do with cakes, bridesmaid dresses, housewares, flowers or food? Especially when the average wedding the US costs close to $30,000. Yikes.
While I understand the desire to commemorate your commitment publicly, with friends and family, I think that LGBTQ people should seize this opportunity to do things differently, rather than replicating a model that hasn’t really worked for straight people either.

Join the Conversation

  • grrrlriot

    I’d have to say I’m with the “radicals” on this. I wouldn’t condemn someone for getting married, but I believe we should question why the mainstream gay rights movement has made marriage their priority. As a lesbian, whether I can get married or not really isn’t my biggest concern. Many members of the heterosexual left latch on to the issue to convince themselves that they are not at all homophobic. I known I might be unpopular for saying that, but I know from personal experience that just because someone supports gay marriage doesn’t mean that they are very accepting of queer people, especially if it’s their child. Also, many conservatives have manipulated the issue to get homophobes to vote for them.

  • EG

    No worries, Chris. I reacted to your comment a bit strongly myself; it’s just that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and learning about marriage today and its history, and while my feelings are pretty much in favor of continuing pro-same-sex marriage activism, I definitely understand criticisms of the institution, so I bridled a bit at the implication.
    In all honesty, it is lousy that necessary life items such as health care are distributed on the basis of marital status; one of the many reasons why I’m in favor of universal health care, etc.

  • Smith

    This is a really interesting post and set of comments. I understand the point made by those who point out the legal and social provisions that marriage makes available, but it seems to me that there’s a strong argument for extending those rights to long-term partners, whether straight or gay. My boyfriend and I are not getting married for many of the reasons discussed above, but we are taking our relationship seriously and investigating non-wedding ways to make clear our commitment and sense of responsibility and sharing — things like writing wills, applying for Enduring Power of Attorney (I don’t know what equivalent there is in the States), adding each other to our pensions, etc. In my view, and in line with the original post, those are the kind of rights we should be fighting for, since they return the marriage choice to the real decision that’s being made, which is about people’s social, religious, moral associations and commitments — commitments I personally think have a very questionable history and continuing problematic connotations.

  • roymacIII

    It sounds like maybe changing legal marriages into “civil unions” for everyone might be a good solution, then. I’d, personally, be fine with that, if that were the case for everyone. I don’t have any problem with the intellectual seperation of “legal marriage” and “religious marriage”, but it seems like that’s a point that people get hung up on. If I ever get married, it will be a legal marriage, not a religious marriage. I’m not religious, and have no interest in the religious aspects of a marriage. If I get married, it will be for the social and legal reasons.
    I think that everyone should have access to those rights, regardless of their sexual orientation or their choice of partner. If you’re in a relationship with someone, and you want them to have the legal benefits that come from a long-term commitment (power of attorney, inheritance, custody rights, etc), then you should be able to.

  • mariek

    Just chiming in here because I haven’t seen anyone here mention immigration, which I think is a huge reason why the LGBTQ community should care about legalizing marriage. The easiest way to immigrate is usually through marriage and I have known more than one couple struggling to find a way to live in the same country because they are gay and denied the right to marry.

  • Depressed-Single-Mother

    “Getting worked up over same-sex marriage directly contradicts the whole concept of “queerness”, of going against social norms and refusing to be assimilated.”
    My being a lesbian isn’t a political statement. I didn’t choose to be gay, and I resent the hell out of the fact that I don’t have the same rights as everybody else because of something I can’t help being.
    Here in the UK we’ve got civil partnerships. While that’s a start, imho it isn’t good enough. We still can’t get married and while we can’t, we don’t have equality. I’m not saying there aren’t many other issues of equal importance, but this one winds me up. My own mother refers to gay marriages as ‘Ahem, “married”.’ ‘So and so’s “wife”.’etc, and she’s very supportive of me. I realise in part this is a language issue that will hopefully ease up as people get used to the idea, but at the end of the day while we can’t marry we’re still second class citizens.
    For straight folk to say, ‘Oh well marriage is a poor institution for this, that and the next reason and lgbtq people should be pleased they can’t do it’ is a real smack in the face.

  • EG

    Getting worked up over same-sex marriage directly contradicts the whole concept of “queerness”, of going against social norms and refusing to be assimilated.
    Well, the problem with this statement is that it assumes that all gay/lesbian people identify as “queer” in this way. If that was the case, we wouldn’t need the LGBTQ abbreviation–we could just say TQ. But many gay and lesbian people do not identify themselves with this concept of queerness. I’m bisexual, and I do not identify as queer–for me, bisexuality doesn’t mark me has having in inherently counter-culture identity; I do not understand my sexuality to be constantly fluid and in opposition to categorization; I don’t really have any problem with being “assimilated” because I don’t feel particularly counter-culture to begin with. So while this is a good reason for queer people to decide not not marry, it’s not a good reason for gay/lesbian people and their allies to stop agitating for same-sex marriage.

  • Chari

    It’s easy to suggest that we not fight for the rights we should already have by virtue of being American citizens — especially easy when it’s suggested by someone who has never had to worry about not having those rights.
    That’s like when progressive men tell feminist women to stop focusing so much on the legal abortion issue — as there are so many other issues out there that need progressives’ attention.
    I call BS on both.

  • Harris

    My friend Miriam (the author) directed me to this post, and as someone who attended the GWE (and made a student documentary) about it with her, I’m really interested in this conversation! There are a few things that I wanted to throw out:
    I think a lot of us who may self-identify as “queer” (in a political/ anti-assimilationist sense) also tend to assume that others share our goals or vision of a more socially just society, which often involves an elimination of forms of oppression, as well as an equitable distribution of resources. I think that’s where a lot of our “queers should” etc. statements and politics begin from. So I’ll be up front that that’s where my following thoughts come from.
    Another thing that I’m hearing is that this is about “equality,” but equality tends to be framed solely in a heterosexual vs. LGBTQ framework (someone posted an interesting line: as long as there’s some law out there that says “These two human beings can do x, but those two can’t”, I’ll continue to say, “Why the hell not?” ). What many of us “queers” are interrogating are concepts AND legal definitions of “love,” “commitment,” and monogamy. For example, as someone stated, why does someone need to be married to receive healthcare or the ability to select someone to inherit their home or care for their children? Why is it “these two,” and not “this person takes care of this,” and “this person takes care of that?” Why are these rights being tied to sex (since marriage/commitment is assumed to be formed around love AND sexual relations)? What about other types of relationships that may be “close” or “committed” in different ways (siblings, other family members, neighbors, close friends)? My best friend (a straight woman) and I (the faggiest of fags) often “joke” about how we should do something to spiritually/socially recognize our relationship. At the same time, as two early-twenty-somethings living on the opposite coast from our families, I would love to be able to easily designate her to have certain legal relationships to me (ie. to make medical decisions if that came to it, or even to share health insurance, or rent a car together) without being married (and we don’t even live together). Another hypothetical situation is two single mothers (of whatever sexuality), who share a duplex or live down the hall from each other, and who watch out for each others’ kids: wouldn’t it be great if they could file their taxes together?
    So what I’m saying (and I think others are too) is not that “other issues” are necessarily more important, but that there are other ways of framing questions about rights that can perhaps build broader alliances, and not rely on ideas of “monogamy,” thus discriminating against individuals or alternative types of communities. And this is something that I would argue that the mainstream “gay and lesbian” organizations have failed to do. Yes, they may just be watching out for their own rights, but in that case, they must realize the limitations of their movements and accept the fact that the “change” they are making simply redefines who is in the categories of “haves” and “have nots,” rather than making structural changes to abolish these categories entirely. Some folks have mentioned healthcare, which is a great example. What would the LGBTQ movement look like if, instead of saying “we want marriage so our partners can have healthcare,” it said, “we want to work in a coalition to ensure that all Americans have affordable healthcare?”
    I realize I’m writing a lot, so this will be my last thought: I think that the issue here is not so much whether commercialism as a whole is good or bad, or to what extent a $30K wedding is valid/useful or demonstrates a commitment, but rather about a) the efficacy of using “gays/lesbian weddings are a huge market” as an argument for activism, and b) the use of political activism/rhetoric as a marketing tactic (ie. “same love, same rights” as a marketing slogan, as well as a political one). I think these are dangerous in ways that aren’t about individual choices people make regarding their own weddings, but the co-optation of movement rhetoric for personal profit, in ways that do not necessarily create social change, or perhaps not benefit LGBTQ communities. A related example (tho not weddings) is the 12th St. Gym in Philadelphia, which was in the heart of the gayborhood and was a predominantly gay-male gym; but it was owned by a huge homophobe who took fags’ dues and then donated to Rick Santorum’s campaign. Just because a business owner is willing to deal with us doesn’t mean they support us (in myriad ways).
    I’ll also just throw out two excellent articles from the Nation, (co-)written by Lisa Duggan who is a brilliant professor of American Studies at NYU: and

  • EG

    I agree with almost everything you say Harris; I just don’t see how any of the points you make or the society to which you aspire is in conflict with expanding the definition of marriage. I don’t think anyone here doesn’t think that access to health care shouldn’t be determined by sexual congress; but the fact is that in this country it is. I think that we, as leftists, can have both long-range and short-range goals, and that a long-range goal of universal healthcare does not preclude a short-range goal of equal marriage rights.
    I may just be cynical and pessimistic (that’s always a good possibility), but when you ask “What would the LGBTQ movement look like if…it said, ‘we want to work in a coalition to ensure that all Americans have affordable healthcare?'” my gut response is that it would be consideraby more marginalized that it already is. I would also ask how that question would be of particular service to the LGBTQ community.
    When it comes to purchasing/financial power, though, I agree that a willingness to sell things does not mean that a business is gay-friendly; I’m always in favor of people doing their homework before shopping and trying to direct their dollars toward businesses with a modicum of moral backbone.
    I would also be in favor of a system like the French PACS, which allows any two people to register a partnership, regardless of sexual relationship–I certainly would have trusted my best friend with making major medical decisions on my behalf before any of the people I slept with (of course, if there were same-sex marriage, she and I could have been married). But none of this, as far as I can see, is an argument against agitating for same-sex marriage. It’s pointing out that same-sex marriage isn’t a universal panacea. Well, nobody has argued that it is (or, nobody should argue that it is). Getting the vote for women did not do away with all, or even most forms of sexism, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a worthwhile and important thing to do.