A blog about same-sex marriage was in the queue, but given the recent developments in New York it’s suddenly extra timely . . . so here it is now ahead of schedule.
I find that the straight people I know are way more excited about gay marriage than the people I know who might actually enter into one. Maybe it’s just the very queer lot I hang out with, and maybe I should just speak for myself: I am decidedly ambivalent about same-sex marriage.
“It must be admitted from the outset that there is something unfashionable, and perhaps untimely, about any questioning of marriage as a goal in gay politics.” After all, “at this point the only public arguing against gay marriage, it seems, are those homophobic dinosaurs,” the usual, selective-Leviticus-reading suspects, so “why join them?”
Michael Warner wrote this in 1999 (on pages 119-120 of his “Normal and Normaller: Beyond Gay Marriage“), but it’s still quite true. Robert McRuer points out in Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability that, “according to the liberal consensus,” gay marriage “is not only ‘progressive’ but unequivocally a Good thing” (p. 79).
Despite the current gay marriage cheer fest, however, there are ways in which it’s not such “a Good thing.” After all, as Warner notes, “there were cogent reasons that the gay movement for decades refused to take the path on which it is now hell-bent,” and it’s not like these have gone away (p. 123). Warner lists a dozen reasons, but here are my two:
One, battling this one issue out in legislatures and courts is absolutely the wrong thing to be expending the entirety of activist energy and funding on. Achieving same-sex marriage seems to be eclipsing activism around AIDS and healthcare and repealing laws that criminalize consensual sex. These latter are far more important things than helping white, middle class people access the white, middle class privilege of property ownership and other financial benefits.
As McRuer points out, “most of the complaints about lesbian and gay partners not being able to get health insurance through their spouse have not included an acknowledgement of how many people in general don’t have adequate health insurance, let alone a broader critique of the corporate health insurance industry” (p. 82-3).
This sort of privilege tunnel vision didn’t have to happen. “The mere posing of the issue was a jolt. It made the heterosexuality of marriage visible, to many people, for the first time. It drew attention to the exclusions entailed by marriage, through provisions for inheritance, wrongful death actions, tax rates, and the like” (Warner p. 122).
That is, the discussion about gay marriage had great potential to really interrogate what this institution ought to mean, but ultimately the way it has gone down it “fails to challenge the bundling of privileges that have no necessary connection one to another, or to marriage; indeed, if successful, it will leave that bundling further entrenched in law” (Warner p. 143).
The fact is that the way we attach immigration benefits and health care access and all kinds of miscellaneous financial benefits to this institution has exactly nothing to do with whether people love each other and have a commitment, and this would have been a great time to hash out what we want marriage to be, but we didn’t.
Instead, the cry has been: We just want to be able to have the same private (but state-ratified) contract as anybody else, why must the state intervene to prevent us? Or, put differently: This heteronormative institution is great! It works! Let us in!
This, of course, begins to get at the second reason I’m not ready to board the Gay Marriage Express. I’m really not comfortable with perpetuating the state legitimation of relationships.
Among those dozen reasons Warner lists for not pursuing gay marriage are two that are relevant here: “queer thought both before and after Stonewall centered on the need to resist state regulation of sexuality”; “it especially resisted the notion that the state should be allowed to grant legitimacy to some kinds of consensual sex but not others or to confer respectability on some people’s sexuality but not others’” (123).
Contrary to these positions, pursuing gay marriage insists that it is exactly the state’s job to regulate and legitimate and make respectable people’s sexuality. The argument is that without state recognition couples are subject to deprivation, such that that recognition must be extended if there is to be equal protection under the law—and never you mind the fact that formal equality rarely translates into substantive equality unless you are those white, middle class, resource-having folks.
But here’s the problem: “squeezing gay couples into the legal sorting machine will only confirm the relevance of spousal status and leave unmarried queers”—or unmarried people in any other category—“looking more deviant before a legal system that can claim broader legitimacy” because it is inclusive of more and more people (Warner 143).
That is, “even though people think that marriage gives them validation, legitimacy, and recognition, they somehow think that it does so without invalidating, delegitimating, or stigmatizing other relations, needs, and desires” (Warner 133)—which clearly isn’t true.
Same-sex marriage perpetuates the privilege of a very narrow set of relationship configurations as legitimate and as having access to resources. That’s a problem. Also, by increasing the legitimacy of that position, it means that not participating is deviance by choice rather than normativity being denied to you.
However, there’s a flip side to this, which is among the some reasons I’m not ready to totally condemn same-sex marriage. If gay marriage is legal, refusal, on one hand, makes you deviant, but on the other it now means something, politically, to not get married. The same argument looks different when you look at it from this direction.
I’m not the only one to notice this. As RichardKimNYC tweeted (which came to me through an indeterminate chain of retweets): “Yay! Now my decision to never ever get married is a choice reflecting my belief in marriage’s banality. #NYM”
Or, also, Warner: “introducing the mere possibility of marriage would vastly broaden the meaning of gay couples’ refusal to marry. In fact, it would make gays’ rejection of marriage a more significant possibility than it is now, by making it a free act” (157-8). I think that this is compelling. Not compelling enough that this should be all we work toward, but compelling enough not to condemn the attempt altogether.
And then there’s the fourth reason. Though I don’t think trying to secure the rights was the best thing, and though other people are excluded, I’m not sure whether that means I should forego the rights on principle. Hospital visitation or social security or health insurance would be pretty nice. Everybody should have them, but given how they’re apportioned right now should I turn my back on them in a gesture that nobody will even be able to see?
In the end, I’m not going to rush out and get married (or civil unioned). I’m not going to march for it or throw money at it. But if it came down to it and I needed the resources state recognition provides, I think I’d do it. I’d feel a little guilty, but I’d do it.