What does support for same-sex marriage say about LGBT acceptance?

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.

Graph showing the percentage of Americans opposed to same-sex marriage and in support of it over the years

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.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted March 4, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Well said.

    As a trans woman, I get incredibly frustrated about the “silent T” in LGBT. People rattle off the letters as if all rights won by the LGBT are equally dispersed among it, when in fact, that’s almost never the case. DADT does nothing for trans people. The recent news about DOMA only affects some of us. Ripple effect? I suppose, but that’s small consolation for people who are homeless or victims of violence. Miriam’s post yesterday sent me into a tizzy on my own blog, and I’m glad to see someone step forward to correct what was said.

    As for the homogenization of gay and lesbian culture, it’s difficult for me to comment, since it doesn’t actually affect me. But this isn’t the first frustrated piece I’ve seen on that topic. Just as surely as the T is being erased, there are a whole lot of gay and lesbian and queer people whose lives are being forced to the margins. They’re being told to go away, that they’re holding the greater movement back, and I don’t think there’s ever been a marginalized group that hasn’t eventually regretted that decision.

  2. Posted March 4, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    This is a beautiful piece.

    But I will say that a part of me desires assimilation because being out and alone, even with others, has consistently been far too painful to bear. Every time I was with a man, even sexually, a variety of very contradictory and disquieting feelings were always present. And I recognize I may only be speaking about myself here.

    Queer identity and expression has been sanitized, and things have been lost in the process. Yet, what we are talking about is not necessarily an LGBT issue. We’re confronting a societal notion of what is acceptable and what is not. We can be rebels, and gain as much as we risk. Or we can assimilate, and likely achieve more than we could otherwise.

    The decision is ultimately an individual’s to make. I applaud those who are openly queer and especially those who are openly transgender. But do know that I find it really difficult to join them, and may always feel this way.

  3. Posted March 4, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate and support a lot of what was stated here—that there are many issues in the LGBTQ community (homelessness, hunger, violence, the rights of queer/trans prisoners, etc.) that should be publicized and investigated.

    What I don’t appreciate is the assumption that folks who support marriage equality, or want to get married, are necessarily uninterested or uninvolved in supporting these other issues. It also really, really bugs me when people refer to same-sex marriage as “assimilationist,” as if there were a right and a wrong way to be queer, and by golly if you even get close to looking or acting like those straight folks, you’re doing it wrong.

    I mean, honestly. We’ve established that my very personal choice to get married (which, by the way, could include sex and glam and armpit hair rather than taffeta, but I wouldn’t look down on queers who preferred taffeta) will not destroy my neighbor’s traditional heterosexual marriage. How then will it destroy my other neighbor’s radical queer polyamorous relationship?

    Yes, radical queer culture needs preserving and proliferating (as well as respect). I understand that there are some folks in the pro-marriage camp who genuinely don’t give a damn about the rights of transfolk, homeless queer youth, prisoners, etc…but don’t paint us all that way. And don’t assume that gaining the right to have our monogamous partnerships recognized by the state means we’ll just give up on fighting for the rights of all the other queers who don’t do sex/relationships that way.

  4. Posted March 4, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    I comment occasionally on Feministing posts, usually driven by discontent at some anti-gay or misogynistic story you guys expose. But this is the first time I’m directing my discontent at the Feministing article itself.

    I think the article’s premise is fundamentally flawed Increasing recogniztion of gay relationships and, often, the desire for marriage is nothing but a good thing. It’s important for us to be visible and ever-present like the 10% of the population we are. Int the past, on-the-fence and anti-gay people have been able to stick their heads in the sand and ignore LGBT people entirely if they choose. Now we are everywhere, on TV, in the news, fighting for increased recognition and rights.

    This article says that gay marriage “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.” I think this is incorrect. Not every gay couple can afford a big, extravagant wedding a la Ellen and Portia or the gay men in Sex and the City. Many gay couples getting married are on the poverty line, making little even with combined incomes… Somehow this article implies that it’s only wealthy LGBT people who want to get married. I’ve known many people who went down to the court house and were married by a judge because they couldn’t afford more. It’s about the emotional level of marriage, not about the wedding.

    The article also says, “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.”

    I think issues with butt sex and strap-ons have a lot more to do with America’s Puritanical attitude towards any kind of sex, gay or straight. And how is AIDS no longer being associated with the gay community a bad thing?? Statistically the largest group of people suffering from AIDS is and has been straight women.

    As for the marginalization of parts of gay subculture: I don’t think back with nostalgia for the days where the LGBT community had to hide their desires behind things like the “hanky code.” It’s an important part of our culture and history, yes. But fighting for gay rights in any way is fighting for a world where we don’t have to do things like that any more!

    This article made me feel marginalized for being in a relationship with a woman and wanting to marry her.

    • Posted March 4, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

      I registered for an account just because I need to correct this erroneous statement: “Statistically the largest group of people suffering from AIDS is and has been straight women”

      This is incorrect, in the US, the largest group affected by HIV/AIDS has historically been, and is currently, men who have sex with men.
      CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/surveillance/incidence.htm

      • Posted March 7, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

        Kate, I should have clarified in my comment. I was using worldwide statistics, not those just from the USA:
        http://www.avert.org/worldstats.htm

        • Posted March 7, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

          you know, i had a feeling as i was typing my original response that that might have been the case. :) thank you for clarifying!

  5. Posted March 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    I agree that same-gender marriage is focused on in the movement largely because marriage is most typical of the middle and upper socioeconomic classes. However you want to define a ‘radical change’ though, I see same-gender marriage as being radically transformative of the institution of marriage and its associated gendered phenomena.

    If the act of incorporation in a preexisting institution redefines that institution and threatens assumptions held about it, I don’t see it as assimilationist. So, while I agree that marriage reform is more pressing an issue for class-privileged queers, I don’t think that means that it’s a bad thing. The fact that the movement’s interests are skewed toward the interests of variously privileged queers is horrible, but that doesn’t make those interests ‘bad’.

    I also have to disagree that the graph “shows a clear, steady victory for those who have been organizing for decades for gay marriage.” Just as much of americans’ attitudinal shifts regarding queer issues comes from the demographic change of older, more homophobic generations dying off as it comes from individuals being influenced to change their beliefs. So, it’s an equal parts victory for marriage organizers and the grim reaper.

  6. Posted March 5, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    @Rebecca,

    I think I get the author’s point, one that you are missing – it’s not that you should feel marginalized because you (or I and my male partner) are going to enjoy the joy of marriage (if and when it comes) but that it, as a kind of corporatization of the the idea of what constitutes as the fight for LGBTQ rights it has become highly problematic. For example, take your planned marriage vs. mine. I’m gay, white, educated – and male. Um, that last piece is pretty important in terms of the power and privilege I have vs. lesbians same sex couples. My ‘whiteness’ allows me to wade into the the whole “marriage as celebration” as some kind of normalcy of my own culture. My partner, African American, baptist parents not so much (Black Nationalism has some serious issues with boys taking it up the butt and not pro-creating for the Black culture). And I’m educated and articulate (I like to think anyways) which means when I go to the marriage expo I’ll be able to bargain down that photographer, be likely better received and liked because I’m a homo and not a dyke, a white guy instead of latino (and never mind able-bodied vs. disabled, trans etc.).

    Look, the point the author is making is to not lose sight of the larger picture. But shithole corporate “rights” groups like HRC – Human Rights Campaign (and remember their el Presidente is the same woman who championed the Recording Industry Association of America’s lawsuit against Napster and all those dangerous copyright-infringing students – yes, they sure are all about the “little people” when they pick people like “Lance Bass” – closeted and now out – as a champion of queerness…) have their noses SO far up the asses of the politicos about gay marriage that they’ve largely dumped any semblance of equality issues WITHIN the LGBTQ community as worth paying attention to or worth solving. Lesbian and Latina in the Mission District? Too bad! The homos are marrying in the Castro!!! Black and badly off in Bennington, VT? Too bad the white gay guys in Gaysville, VT (really, there is a place called that) are negotiating nupitals!

    No, the piece is not advocating for a return to “hanky code” days of closeted signaling of furtive interests and intentions. But it is, correctly and rather ruthlessly I think, shining the spot light on the idea that some “logo” on a t-shirt, or a band of gold on your finger sure as hell isn’t the solution to OTHER issues and these same, basically truly joyous symbols could enslave us more than help us.

  7. Posted March 6, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    I do think it’s important to keep class politics complicated here. Yes, the poorest same-sex couples will not benefit from marriage because they don’t even have jobs or housing, let alone jobs with health insurance they could extend to their partner, or housing they own and can pass on as property. However, many poor and working class couples stand to gain a hell of a lot more from marriage benefits in terms of actual cash/survival value than the richest same-sex couples for whom this seems to be a kind of token victory of acceptance.

    @Rebecca, what I think you’re missing here is the essential problem that all of these things apply to only couples. Culturally, there are a lot of things we can say about assimilating into straight culture or punishing each other for not maintaining Queer Cred, etc. But politically, I don’t think there’s any way you can deny that the marriage strategy sold out the fight for individual liberation and community liberation, since marriage is inherently about couples. Marriage rights are NOT queer rights, since “queer” does not mean “in a single, committed sexual relationship with someone.” This is about making marriage gay-friendly, and nothing more.

    The only evidence you need is right on Jos’ main point, which isn’t that marriage is evil and wrong, but just that every movement for marginalized people can and will be co-opted by people in power, whether inside of our outside of that group. For evidence of that in the gay rights movement, we need look no further than to the fact that monogamous gay marriage makes straight people suddenly want to be our friends, while gay pride parades and open expressions of trans* genders and sexualities still get us called freaks.

  8. Posted March 7, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    This is going to show my age, but: this post made me really happy, because it sounded so much like Mo. I have missed DTWoF like crazy since Alison Bechdel stopped doing it and this reminded me of one of Mo’s rants. I don’t have time to go through my books and find Mo’s original, but…this had the spirit. Preach on, sister!

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