This post was published at the excellent Jacobin Magazine blog.
Are we done yet? Do we have to endure another full day of self-congratulation at Obama’s personal endorsement of same-sex marriage? His announcement was heralded with as much praise as last summer’s legalization of gay marriage in New York. And that was, you know, actual legislation.
This is hardly surprising given the fact that marriage equality is designed to distract liberal consciences and give Democrats political cover to gut social services. While the passage of gay marriage enjoyed the support of prominent campaign donors, it was directly preceded by cuts to homeless shelters for queer youth. It’s a campaign season bait-and-switch — winning votes without making real concessions.
Case in point: Bloomberg commended Obama for joining a legacy of “courageous stands that so many Americans have taken over the years on behalf of equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans, stretching back to the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.” This days after slashing youth homeless shelter funding by $7 million, in a city where 40% of homeless youth are LGBT.
Looked at from this vantage point, the chief beneficiaries of gay marriage will be Crate & Barrel, not the queer folks with the most desperate needs. There is an obvious disconnect between the desires of politically connected, wealthy gay people and the needs of queer youth, and yet the major gay rights organizations have all rallied around gay marriage as if it will solve the problems of gay people everywhere, regardless of race or class.
Gay marriage proponents feed us two flavors of justification for their crusade. For the romantics they supply fantasy — the notion that legal inclusion brings social justice; for the cynics, they tout the thousand individual rights that a marriage certificate bestows.
These arguments should raise serious red flags for the Jacobin rank-and-file, and indeed, neither holds water. You’d think in the “age of the 99%,” we teeming masses would be able to see that what’s good for the few isn’t good for us all. It’s true that marriage comes with material advantages — healthcare, citizenship, and inheritance chief among them — but therein also lies the problem. Marriage consolidates privilege by creating a legal basis for denying access to those thousand rights; it literally sanctions discrimination. Instead of bestowing rights based on relationship status, the state should guarantee those rights for all people. Instead we attach basic rights to an institution with a 50% failure rate.
The obsession with marriage also sanitizes the history of queer struggle. Stonewall was not a wedding, it was a riot, led by the very queers who are now erased from the public image of gay equality. Drag queens, trans people of color, young queers, and butch dykes fought systematic violence and in Sarah Schulman’s words, “[…] arose to change society, to expand rigid gender roles, to break down confining social mores of privatized families and to defy the consumerism that accompanies monogamy and nuclear family lifestyle in the United States.” That transformative vision has been sidelined by the marriage crowd, who are content to bestow rights only on the deserving few. Are there really members of our society undeserving of health care?
Only the most privileged among us could possibly see the fight for the right to party as a movement for social justice. Proponents tout the implications for healthcare and immigration status while members of our queer and trans communities are denied basic treatment in prison, while they are harassed and ejected by ICE. Loving couples making a public commitment to one another is a beautiful thing, but it is erroneously touted by gay rights groups as the single most pressing justice issue facing queer people. Issues of access to healthcare, education, and housing go unmentioned.
Look no further than Argentina for real leadership in queer politics. While we were busy patting ourselves on the back, the Argentine legislature passed the Gender Identity Law, arguably the most gender-affirming bill in any country, to date. Argentineans can now change their legal genders without having to demonstrate any medical treatment, and the public and private healthcare systems in the country are banned from charging extra for gender-related therapies or procedures. These changes may not have the comforting ring of wedding bells, but they address administrative inequalities that present huge obstacles to trans people in accessing basic services. And it teaches us that by building power for vulnerable communities, legislative reform can be an important part of movements for social justice.