Why Gay Marriage Matters - A Personal Essay
Dedicated with love to Nicole D’Anna, who yelled her lungs out in the Albany.
So it’s finally over - the long debate, the back-room machination, and the stinging memory of the embarrassing defeat a few years ago when this motion last came before the New York State Senate. Gay marriage is now legal in the State of New York.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, my argument in favor of gay marriage will probably be familiar to you.
It’s fairly simple: oppression consists in privation. As I have noted before, I consider a social group *oppressed* if for any reason members of that group are precluded from or else undergo different consequences as a result of any action to which other social groups have access. If heterosexuals can get married and homosexuals cannot, this is a form of oppression.
In theory, I could stop there; my argument is essentially complete.
But I also support gay marriage for a less philosophical, more selfish reason: I’m not an American citizen.
I have an EU citizenship, and I have Israeli citizenship. But I don’t have American citizenship. I’ve been living in this country for 4 years at this point; I’m here legally, on a visa. But my visa is temporary, and it is contingent on affiliation with an academic institution which can sponsor me to stay here. To say the very least, the academic job market is not particularly strong at the moment. Being a young academic is hardly a position from which to enjoy job security, and the fellowship that I am currently on, which allows me a fantastic degree of freedom to write with extremely minimal teaching responsibilities, ends in a year. Which means that a year from now, next summer, I could find myself in a position of having to leave behind my entire life here - my wonderful friends, my beautiful apartment, and my incredible partner - due to a particular form of oppression, namely, the fact that the federal government in the United States doesn’t recognize same-sex partnerships for immigration purposes. Oppression consists in privation; if my partner and I were a heterosexual couple, this wouldn’t even be an issue. He’s an American citizen, and I would get to stay in the U.S. But we are not a heterosexual couple. We are members of an oppressed group which does not enjoy the same rights and privileges as other groups.
Now, it’s worth taking a second here to look at the reasons that many queer activists and theorists consider gay marriage to be a secondary priority, or else not a priority at all; famously, several major voices in queer theory have come out against the gay marriage agenda. For the purposes of my argument, I’m going to divide the queer-theory opponents of gay marriage into two groups; two groups that are very different from each other, and which follow very different theoretical agendas, coming together primarily on the question of gay marriage and its (un)importance . Any unilateral division of individual theorists into distinct “groups” is a form of reductionism, and thus prone to error, but for the sake of my argument, I believe that the lines of cohesion are clear enough to distinguish between two groups, the Proud White Perverts and the Edgy Homonationalists. These two groups, the members of which would probably see themselves as having significantly distinct concerns and agendas, are nonetheless united in their blind arrogance and their inadequate reasoning. Briefly, these two groups of thinkers cluster as follows: on the one side, we have the Michael Warners and Lee Edelmans of queer theory; those who espouse “non-normativity” for its own sake from a position of significant privilege. On the other side, we have the Jasbir Puars of the world, who understand their work as challenging the regimes of normativity which produce queer subjects, the thinkers who think that they’re invested in queer identity beyond the limit of the family, the limit of the immediate social group, and the limit of the state. Right.
Let’s start with the Proud White Perverts. Those who fail to understand that resistance is futile, as I have pointed out many times, and who instead think of themselves as resisting some abstract, absurd structure they call “heteronormativity.” Thus Lee Edelman in No Future writes that “queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism” (3). As if there were any necessary or automatic link between where I like to stick my cock and how I feel about children. By this logic, presumably, if a gay man’s sibling dies in a car accident and that man and his partner choose to raise the sibling’s orphaned child, they are somehow complicit in the heteronormative agenda. What can I even say about an argument that makes no room for a distinction between complicity and compassion? Meanwhile, radical resistor Michael Warner dismisses the arguments in favor of gay marriage because “[t]hose who advocate gay marriage have not shown how doing so is consistent with [the] tradition” of gay rights advocacy and the battles for legitimacy that followed the Stonewall riots (The Trouble With Normal, 90 and passim). Riiiggghhtt. Because the political, personal, economic, and social position of homosexuals is just the same today as it was nearly 50 years ago. So I’m supposed to give up a genuine struggle to overcome a genuine oppression just because the struggle that I’m fighting doesn’t ring a bell for the veterans of the amyl-nitrate-fuelled heyday of gay pride, in which the most pressing theoretical concern was how many cocks you could get up your ass in one night at the St. Marks’ Baths? The situation of young queer thinkers being told to give up their fight for equality by a tenured professor at Yale who is making an argument on the basis of a 50-year-old sexual agenda which was of value primarily to white males is beyond irony; it crosses the line right into farce.
And speaking of white male privilege, it’s worth noting that, virtually across the board, the Proud White Perverts occupy tenured positions at top-tier universities (Warner is at Yale; Edelman is at Tufts). You know what? If I was making 6 figures a year, I probably wouldn’t care about gay marriage, either. But for those of us who have to struggle to make ends meet, those of us who aren’t tenured and who have to work our asses off to afford apartments in Manhattan, gay marriage and its prohibition carries with it distinct and direct economic and social consequences. Like me, my partner is *not* independently wealthy. We live in a great apartment which we pay for together. If I had to leave the country because my visa ran out, my partner would not be able to afford this place on his own; he would have to move. A U.S. citizen would thus face direct, unilateral economic consequences and be forced to lose his home because of a form of oppressive discrimination. Gay marriage isn’t about some abstract egalitarianism or notion of representational equality: it’s about dollars and cents. It’s about the fact that my partner and I can’t file a joint tax return. And while we’re here trying to balance our budget, a tenured Ivy League professor is telling us that our real struggle should be for some ludicrous concept of perverse resistance, as if the “heteronormative” power structures that produce you as an oppressed subject give two shits how many people you’re sleeping with and how much bondage gear you have in your closet. Dear Michael Warner: wake up and smell the Marxism. To the idea that nonmonogamous, polymorphously perverse sexuality in any way challenges normative power structures, I offer a simple counterargument: Silvo Berlusconi.
Speaking of international relations, let’s take a second to think about that other front of queer radicality, the “homonationalism” about which Jasbir Puar continues to warn us so selflessly in her op-ed pieces in the Guardian (I’d quote her book, but I couldn’t manage to stomach more than 2 or 3 pages. Nothing makes me throw up in my mouth faster than closeted pseudo-Hegelianism hiding behind an invocation of Deleuze’s name). From what I can understand of Puar’s muddled arguments, the concept of “homonationalism” refers to the way in which some queer subject are folded into the mainstream of social and discursive practices, but only in order to exclude or else at the expense of other queer subjects, who are largely non-white and non-rich. Thus, she notes in this op-ed that “What is gaining acute force is the anti-Muslim form that such missionary politics are currently taking. From the liberation of burqa-wearing women as a partial rationale for invasion of the Middle East, to gay marriage as a barometer of civilisational aptitude, to Sex and the City 2’s trading in banal, unsophisticated orientalist fantasies, propagating anti-Muslim attitudes is becoming the most expeditious passage to national belonging.” While I’m absolutely not denying that homosexuals can be as racist as anyone and that acquisition of representation and political power inevitably comes at the expense of someone else (there’s only so much of the pie to go around), the idea that the value of gay marriage consists solely of providing a barometer against which to distinguish ourselves from our Arab neighbors is absurd. Let me be perfectly blunt: racism is a deep, all-pervading, profound problem, and racism against Middle Easterners of non-Jewish extraction is a particularly profound and particularly entrenched form of racism. But if you consider the number of centuries during which the West has been producing hideous stereotypes of Arabs and compare that to the number of years during which gay marriage has been a political issue, it becomes quite obvious that gay marriage didn’t come along in order to prove how ass-backwards Arabs are.
According to this interview with Puar, there’s a fundamental “liberal” correlation between the movement for gay marriage and the embracing of “reproductive kinship” (the linkages with the Proud White Perverts become apparent). Now, let’s stop and ask ourselves the following basic question: if the task at hand is to resist the “heteronormative” imperative of “reproductive kinship,” how the fuck are we supposed to do that if we are legally prohibited from establishing alternative, governmentally recognized forms of queer affiliation? Because at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to. Let me be perfectly explicit - I could give a rat’s ass what the straight people across the hall think, or what the religious right thinks, or what people in the subway think who stare at me and my partner think when we take the A train downtown (the idea that Mahattan is a gay-friendly homo-paradise ends very quickly when you start going too far uptown, and we happen to live in Washington Heights). I don’t need gay marriage because I want recognition from straight people. I need gay marriage because I want equality before the law. Because if my partner has an accident, I need to be legally entitled to make medical decisions for him. Because if straight people get tax breaks for cohabiting, I want them too. Shit’s expensive. Because if I’m paying for a health care plan under which my partner would be eligible for coverage if my partner was a woman, I should be able to get coverage for my partner despite his having a penis. But most importantly, because the movement of exclusion that Puar seems so concerned about - the acceptance of a certain kind of queer subject at the expense of the queer huddled masses - can ONLY be rectified by increasing the mobility of bodies, that is, the power of queer bodies to act. By making them not only upwardly mobile, but laterally mobile - that is, by allowing queer subjects to cross national and social boundaries without having to become, in exchange, those particular kinds of queer subjects that are included in contemporary social organizations. And that involves eliminating draconian measures like the prohibition on immigration for HIV+ individuals, and the gross injustice which makes it possible for heterosexual foreigners to build a life in this country with their partners but impossible for homosexual ones to do so.
Let me be perfectly explicit - if you consider yourself a queer theorist, your primary theoretical task is to understand and struggle to improve the lived material existence of queer subjects. I’m a queer subject. I’m a Middle-Eastern queer subject, in fact (though Puar’s racism is simplistic enough to draw a unilateral divide between Israeli queer subjects and Arabic queer subjects, so she might not consider me to be the kind of subject she’s talking about. Wait, I guess that makes me a queer subject that doesn’t fit into the categories expressed by those queers who speak from a position of authority and privilege, like, say a Rutgers professor who publishes an op-ed piece in a newspaper with an international audience). And the absence of gay marriage on a federal level in this country is an issue that has direct, explicit, oppressive impact on my lived reality.
Yes, it’s true that there are many queer concerns which are NOT addressed by the struggle for gay marriage. And we need to be cognizant of those concerns, and try to create conceptual and political solutions for them. But at the end of the day it boils down to this. You have two choices: to act or to be act upon. To be active, or to be passive. And doing nothing because the little that you can do doesn’t answer all the questions or fix all the problems isn’t a high-minded form of theoretical purity - it’s reactionary cowardice, pure and simple. It’s true that we can’t do everything. But we can do something, or we can do nothing. And between those two choices, my answer is obvious. Maybe you are a fellow queer subject, and maybe your struggle doesn’t coincide with mine. Maybe you have other priorities, and that’s totally fine. Fight your fight, sister, and I hope you win. But for me, in my subjective, personal reality, gay marriage is not simply an important question but an urgently pressing one, one which affects my daily life on a social, economic, and legal basis. And that is why at the same time as I congratulate the State Senate of New York for their bravery, especially those Republicans who voted their conscience across party lines, I also issue a challenge to President Obama. You courted us during your election. You made promises to us during your campaign. You mobilized us into believing in your change and we voted for you overwhelmingly, except that since you took office you have done nothing significant for the queer communities who helped put you in the White House. There is a social justice issue here that is gaining traction, a fight that is gaining momentum and which now needs to be expanded to the national level. Gay marriage is not an ideological issue. It is not a question of fairness, or equality, or representation. It’s a question of economic, legal, social, systemic oppression. And the time has come to make things right.
(Addendum - I’m publishing essay [‘“Why Gay Marriage Matters - A Personal Essay” by Fuck Theory] under Creative Commons. You may copy, distribute, reproduce, and otherwise circulate this essay (you may even remove the picture at the top) provided that you keep its title in place and do not revise, edit, or otherwise alter its text, including shortening or rearranging its sections, and provided that every reproduction of this text is clearly accompanied by a link to this blog as an attribution of authorship)
I want to recommend this essay to everyone, on every side of the marriage issue.
I have a tendency to be flippantly reductionist when it comes to writing pithy, humorous things about politics on the internet, and in fact specifically wrote about focusing on “things that matter” now that NY has legalized same sex marriage.
We must be critical of political goals AND critical of the critique and opposition to political goals. While “I still think marriage is the wrong goal,” I very much agree with fucktheory on many of the points made in this essay.
Not only is there nothing inherently radical about homosexuality, there is nothing radical about advocating for non-normativity purely for the sake of it. A queer political perspective is not about reifying a dichotomy between privileged Norms and perverted Others by championing whatever is the least straight and white and male and wealthy and just oh so suave and subversive, but rather, at least in my opinion, organizing around ways to make living a less dehumanizing ordeal for everybody.
When people invoke the revolutionary fervor of Stonewall to counter the conservative agenda of Gay Rights today, it is important to remember that assimilation has been, like, a thing for just as long as “gay” as a category for subjectivity has been a thing. (Homophile organizations fell apart because of conflicts between moderates and radicals.) So to critique marriage on the grounds that queers are losing touch with some inherently revolutionary quality is weak at best, as is articulated better here.
You have two choices: to act or to be act upon. To be active, or to be passive. And doing nothing because the little that you can do doesn’t answer all the questions or fix all the problems isn’t a high-minded form of theoretical purity - it’s reactionary cowardice, pure and simple.
I want to furiously nod my head in a agreement with this part. Here is where I would like to clarify my debbie downer stance on gay marriage: fighting for the rights people obtain through marriage is NOT mutually exclusive with fighting for, uh, everyone else. Much of the writing I have read “against equality” can be very black and white on this front. By no means do I advocate an “all or nothing” approach to politics.
Here is the thing: What makes the bile swell to the back of my throat and spill out of me in pithy, reductive textbites is the exclusionary way in which larger organizations (Humongous Raging Cocks, I am looking you) have gone about the fight for “lgbt rights” via marriage. The perspective I embrace here is that if we work toward the rights of homeless youth, HIV+ folks, immigrants, low-income folks, people without healthcare, people who are transgender, people of color, people who are all of the above, etc, we are also simultaneously working on obtaining and protecting the rights of the same-sex couples who are middle class and beyond. Whereas, if we fight only for same-sex marriage, marriage remains a gatekeeper for these benefits, or runs completely tangent to the struggles of a huge sector of the queer “community.” For people whose priorities are a bed to sleep in tonight or getting off an ADAP waiting list, as opposed to wedded bliss, those little yellow equal signs are a goddamn slap in the face.
I’m not saying, “Fuck marriage because it is normative and I am ever so transgressive, can’t you see how covered in glitter and radical politics my giant dildo that fucks THE MAN is?” What I want to preserve about the radical queer history behind the struggle for gay liberation is what we lose when we forget. What I want to resist with everything I have is forgetting.
I remember singing but I haven’t overcome a damn thing. I’m not even in the back of the bus. My community is being pulled by a rope around our neck by the bumper of the damn bus that stays in the front. Gay liberation but transgender nothing!
Sylvia Rivera is a prime example of someone kept to the margins of “LGBT” organizing, despite that she and many like her built the foundation for “gay rights” by basically trying not to get killed and standing up for themselves as low-income queers of color. To liberal, gay, white men, excluding transgender rights was a “small compromise” to getting the Gay Rights Bill passed. When people with the least power are always doing the most compromising, it gets to the point where these lines about “incremental steps” start to smell suspiciously like bullshit. After supposedly larger battles are won, these “small concessions” are suddenly forgotten. This is why marriage has been a bigger priority for self-serving groups like HRC than say, I don’t know, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
I want legal, social, and economic rights for, well, everyone. Married, not married, engaged to their kitchen sink, don’t even have a kitchen sink, whatever. Same-sex marriage is not an obstacle to that, so for me to say it “doesn’t matter” is simply false, because, clearly, it will benefit a group of people in tangible ways. But what is essential is rethinking the ways in which we go about obtaining legal, social, and economic rights, and to examine who we are fighting for, and who we are consistently throwing under the bus.
(full disclosure: I am a 20 year old undergrad and I reserve the right to be embarrassed about my political naivete in ten years)