Miriam posted yesterday about a number of recent gay rights wins on the marriage front, including that more Americans now support same-sex marriage than oppose it.
This graph shows a clear, steady victory for those who have been organizing for decades for gay marriage. I’m happy for their wins, but I’m ambivalent about what it means for broader social acceptance of queer and transgender folks.
Gay marriage is not the issue I would choose to focus on as the center of the gay political agenda. It directly benefits more privileged members of the gay community, those for whom access to the legal rights of marriage is the big deal — not homelessness, hunger or violence. It’s trickle down social justice: organize for the needs of the most privileged in the group and everyone will benefit. I do believe that all wins for justice have ripple effects — the apology from black religious leaders that Perez wrote about is a big fucking deal. But I question how far the ripples spread when it comes to marriage.
I do think social acceptance of gay folks is on the rise. But gay marriage isn’t actually about accepting all queer (forget about trans) folks — it’s about accepting gays into the institution of marriage. We’ve swapped butt sex and AIDS for rings and wedding cakes as signifiers of gay. I don’t think acceptance of two ladies marrying represents acceptance of strap-ons. What’s people are OK with is a sanitized, de-sexualized version of gay folks. We’ve buried all the scary, dangerous bits of queer culture, all the sex and glam and armpit hair, under heaps of taffeta.
Gay marriage is an assimilationist approach to gaining rights and acceptance. I’ll never forget Hampshire professor Margaret Cerullo talking about her bewilderment at the gay marriage agenda my first year of college. “We were going to smash marriage! Smash the state!” Instead of working to make the rights associated with marriage accessible to everyone, some gay organizers decided to work for access to the institution of marriage itself. Marriage is an undeniable boon for many queer families. But now, like in every marginalized community that’s struggled with assimilation, it threatens to form rifts. Mike and Tim down the street are happily married with 2.5 kids, straight mom and dad say, so why does Suzie have to raise kids in a collective? We’re working hard to change things for gay people, says the gay corporate lawyer, why is that faggy flaming kid begging on the sidewalk and trying to destroy all our hard work to be accepted?
In short, the people for whom marriage isn’t the answer are now the bad gays, the ones who failed to assimilate and are holding back progress. Of course the gender rebels, those of us who don’t fit into the boy or girl boxes we were assigned at birth, are big time assimilation failures. As a trans woman, I’m always a potential aberration – so trans folks continue to represent the contrasting bad seed in the LGBT family.
These tropes and more about gay marriage are already showing up in pop culture (I’ve seen a lot of normal gay over flaming gay on TV, with the usually problematic Glee being one of the few interventions). As my friend Malissa pointed out to me, in The Kids Are All Right, the gay married couple represents relative stability and socioeconomic success within a fairly typical marriage, while the straight sperm donor is the social failure, the stinky composting farmer with a gaping hole in his life because he doesn’t have a family and therefore brings trouble wherever he goes. We’ve swapped who’s gay and who’s straight, but it’s still a movie about how marriage is good and normal and what grown ups should want and people who aren’t married have problems.
I also wonder about what we’re losing as a community. In just our recent history, queer and trans folks have and continue to experience the ramifications of marginalization, from the HIV epidemic to queer suicides. I certainly don’t want to paint over this with the brush of nostalgia. Amazing interventions and acts of radical love are often born from the worst experiences of being pushed to the margins, though. Act Up, the direct action organization that fought for AIDS research and treatment, was absolutely necessary when it was formed – people were dying and knew they had to do whatever it took to combat the epidemic. Strategies and tactics may look very different, but this is the same passion that’s needed (and that can be found in some amazing local queer youth organizations) to respond to homelessness among queer and trans youth today. Then there’s less political parts of our queer heritage like flagging, where handkerchiefs worn in ass pockets signaled what someone was looking for sexually. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with friends my age about flagging. Born from oppression, from having to keep sex hidden, flagging is a beautiful way to communicate desire, but it’s being lost as gay hook ups move out from underground. What else could we lose?
I want to celebrate, critique, and learn from the struggle and vision of the generations before me – to honor their fight (and too often untimely deaths) and grow from it, not paint over it with the straight brush. Visionary ideas are born out of struggling for justice, and queer and trans folks have proposed and lived so many alternatives to broadly accepted life path norms. Now we face the struggle of how to win against oppression and marginalization without losing our radicalism, our drive to find justice outside the beaten path.