ban marriage!

Craig Willse
a talk delivered at Sarah Lawrence on March 6, 2004

As a queer person who personally does not wish to ever get married and who politically is opposed to state regulation of families and sexual relationships, Bush’s current campaign puts me in something of an awkward position. How can I help organize to oppose his planned amendment while also maintaining my own critique of and position on marriage?

For me, that requires forming a queer politics that is not simply identity-based, but which is based rather on a broad commitment to social and economic justice issues. Such a commitment means a couple of things. It means seeing queer politics as necessarily working in coalition with a wide set of contemporary struggles – against the occupations in Iraq and Palestine, against police brutality and mass incarceration in the united states, for access to safe and affordable means of birth control including abortion, for living wages and universal healthcare. It also means challenging a gay political agenda that focuses on the needs of racially and economically privileged people at the expense of, for example, queers of color, poor queers, and immigrants.

I recognize that people support marriage for a lot of different reasons and that people wish to get married for lots of reasons – including symbolic, emotional and material reasons. I want to think about marriage at a systemic level, not at a level of individual experience and benefits. I realize this means talking in terms that don’ t always account for how wide the range of experiences might be, but that systemic focus is important and is more complex than a lot of media coverage of this issue suggests.

I won’t spend too much time going over the critique of marriage offered by feminists, queers and sex radicals, among others, but at the level of individuals we should remember everyone who is left out of the benefits of marriage – non monogamous couples, people whose homes and families are not constituted out of sexual relationships, etc. Many perverts, polyamourous people, sex workers, s/m practitioners and activists have rejected the normative institution of marriage because of the violence it enacts on people who don’t fit and don’t want to.

We only need look at how the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund discusses marriage to see evidence of this:

Gay people are very much like everyone else. They grow up, fall in love, form families and have children. They mow their lawns, shop for groceries and worry about making ends meet. They want good schools for their children, and security for their families as a whole.

Not to go on about the obvious, but who is this “everyone else”? What gays fit this model and what does it mean to suggest that all gay people are like this? What about people who don’t own homes with lawns to mow? What about people who mow other people’s lawns for their living? People with no money to buy groceries? People who don’t want children?

Similarly, while marriage has offered access to resources for some, advocates have pointed out how through welfare reform marriage operates as a coercive institution which punishes women whose families do not fit a family ideal. The money Bush wants to divert to “promoting” marriage is a burden that will be inordinately carried by poor women and women of color.

We should also remember that queer and trans people do not only face oppression in terms of gender and sexuality, but along other lines as well. The ability to access some of the very important material privileges of marriage would not be the same for all people. So for example: A working class gay person who has a job without health coverage will not be able to extend their nonexistent benefits to their new gay spouse. Gay people of color in prison will still lose custody rights to their children. Queer immigrants, particularly those whose sex lives do not fit the model of marriage (for example, non-monogamous queers), will still be subjected to anti-immigrant violence, laws, and deportation. Trans parents will still have their children taken away by judges who think trans homes are inappropriate and unsafe.

So, putting aside Bush’s ban, and thinking about advocating for gay marriage, I want to ask if concerns like hospital visitation rights, healthcare, and custody are best secured through marriage or if other political battles – for universal healthcare for example – would be a more effective front. Because aside from the wide range of people who might seek out same sex marriages, I think that we will see that gay marriage will primarily benefit the same people that straight marriage benefits – those will property to protect and economic entitlements to share. This is not to say that other individuals will not seek gay marriage or benefit from it. But I’d argue that those benefits are secondary, and that systemically, the strengthening of things like inheritance laws (for example) is bad for low-income populations. When we say “I know there are problems with marriage, or I know gay marriage won’t fix everything, but it’s what we can do right now,” I worry that we are justifying the gains of racially and economically privileged people at the costs of a broad spectrum poor people, people of color, immigrants and their political struggles. As a white queer, I feel a responsibility to reject political gains that I can access through privilege. I also worry that if decide that a battle like this is practical in the short term, and that today universal healthcare is impractical, wishful thinking and a battle that belongs to the future – well, if that day is always only in the future, it will never come.

A story that might help clarify what I’m thinking about: A few years ago, two propositions came up for vote in California: Prop 21 and 22. Prop 22 said something like, “In the state of California, only marriage between a man and a woman is legal.” It was a preemptive strike following from talk in Hawaii, Vermont, etc. Prop 21 was a “juvenile justice” bill that lowered the age at which children can be tried as adults, added time to prison sentences for youth affiliated with gangs, and redefined gangs in such a broad way that any youth of color just hanging out together could be defined as such. Many organizations in LA campaigned simultaneously against both propositions, recognizing links in these battles as being about social and economic justice. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center only campaigned against Prop 22. They did nothing on Prop 21. At the time I worked at a shelter run by the Center. For the homeless youth living there, Prop 21 would have immediate and disastrous consequences. Many of them had already in their short lives been targets of the criminal injustice system, and the conditions of poverty and racism meant they often worked in illegal economies for survival. Also, as visibly trans and queer youth, often of color, they were frequent targets of police harassment and violence; walking around Hollywood carried the danger of an arrest for solicitation.

When the Center decided to do no work on Prop 21, they decided that youth incarceration is not a gay issue. They effectively positioned the needs of the youth with whom I worked outside of gay politics. The Center’s work was a crystallizing moment of defining who constitutes a legitimate glbt community, and whose needs our organizations will represent.

I think we can also look another legal battle that’s instructive – gay hate crimes laws. When gay mainstream organizations fought for tougher hate-crime laws, what they in effect accomplished was a strengthening of a racist legal and police system that disproportionately targets poor people of color. People are not going to stop gay bashing because there are longer sentences for hate crimes; but people will spend more of their lives in jail because of these laws.

It’s important to recognize that it was mostly large national organizations (such as HRC), which we know are often primarily determined by white people, who fought for these laws. Many small community based groups of immigrant and queers of color, such as the Audre Lorde Project in Brooklyn, opposed this legislation.

So part of my concern is: how do we determine what is a legitimate and supported lgbtq movement? And who gets left out of those movements? It is obviously imperative that we organize against Bush’s marriage plans. I hope that we can find ways of doing so that allow for the diversity of political opinions about gay marriage. So we don’t wind up arguing that to be anti-Bush we must be pro-marriage. I think this requires developing a politics that sees the importance of legal battles such as this one and also sees the costs of a liberal model of politics represented in this fight. Centering anti-racism, anti-capitalism and feminism in queer politics means that all the issues addressed in other panels today – the patriot act, reproductive rights, unions – are queer issues. It also means being cognizant of the fact that current movements that advocate gay marriage take place in a context in which institutions of white supremacy and capitalism play an enormous role in determining political agendas and controlling resources. What if everybody who right now was spending money buying flowers and sending them to SF city hall, instead sent that money to local organizations that fight police brutality? A fight against police brutality is one that directly serves queer and trans people who are of color, are poor, or are homeless people; it directly serves the sex workers, immigrants and youth within our communities.

Queer and transgender movements that seek real liberation and freedom for everyone might turn out to be movements that don’t look like what we call “gay rights” movements. Despite whatever benefits might accrue to some people, broad economic justice will not be served by re-enforcing the government’s power to determine what families or sexual relationships are legitimate and hence deserve access to social and economic resources.