Making Our Own Movements: Queer Activism in the Gay Marriage Era

Fine by you? We don’t care.

Recently reemerging debates in mainstream media about gay marriage have had me thinking about the state of my own identity in our current political moment. As a queer person of color invested in the transformation of oppressive orders, gay marriage is not an issue I feel strongly about one way or another. I’ve heard it defended and critiqued convincingly by all different kinds of parties, but none of them in a way that made me feel I had a stake in the issue, either for or against it. This may have to do with my young age, lack of experience in navigating the various apparatuses of the state, or the fact that I have yet to be in a longterm relationship with one partner. I think it has more to do, however, with who is left out of the issue. Certainly the marriage question makes trans, gender queer/nonconforming folks, and those whose relationships challenge traditional models of marriage and monogamy invisible in political spheres in which they were once central catalysts. But just as much, gay marriage as a political platform erases queers for whom housing, employment, education, police brutality and the prison system are all much larger issues than how the state chooses to recognize their relationship status. The result of gay marriage taking a political fore is not only the fracturing of communities which have been struggling for unification for decades, but a shift in the focus of queers and their supposed allies.

What the issue of gay marriage appears to have become is a litmus test for tolerance. Debates on marriage are coded conversations about an inherently queerphobic state’s ability to absorb gays and lesbians–and only gays and lesbians–into its machinery. The conversation often involves only straight representatives of the government’s various branches, who duke it out to determine who is a bigot and who is not, who has traditional values and who does not, who is cosmopolitan and enlightened and who is backward. Gay marriage as a ticket is not really about queer people, or our basic human rights. Rather, it represents the appropriation of our identities, our histories and our struggles by a state which has always detested them, so that it might decide for itself whether it is ready to passively accept our subversive existence or not. The belief that it is about “equality” misleads not only straight folks who pat themselves on the back for acting on our behalf. It also forces us to imagine marriage as the central issue of our own communities and their struggles for justice. Ultimately, we are all made to navigate a political environment in which the only way we can express our commitment and support of our communities, our allies and ourselves is by blindly supporting a political campaign which was created by a few of us in the interests of even fewer.

I’m tired of my life, my identity and my political voice being confined, reduced to and determined by a singularly minor political question, one which was never raised by myself or any of the oppressed people I am closest to. I am tired of young and recently-out queers feeling that the best or even the only way to become politically involved in their communities is to become gay marriage advocates. I am tired of poor, brown, unemployed and homeless queers supporting political parties and figures who deny them basic rights every day, simply because they have “come out” in support of gay marriage. I am tired of the universal silencing of trans voices, more and more by other queer people who see a space for themselves in mainstream discourses, and understand whom they must distance themselves from to get there. I am tired of people who have never asked me what I want or need calling themselves my allies. I am tired of movements being designed and galvanized by the ultra-wealthy, supported by private sponsors, and carried out by the people whose degradation is required to generate the excesses of an inequitable society. I am tired of gay marriage being treated as the primary issue around which any one of us ought to be organizing or acting.

I’m sure there are queer people who can tell me the important communal and economic gains that might come from the universal passing of gay marriage, just as I know there are queers who can outline the conservative and divisive political turns it is leading us towards. But more than being swayed by any or all of these arguments, I wish more than anything that some different topics were on the table. I don’t want to be tolerated, and frankly, I don’t care whether I am or not. What I want are inclusive movements which strive to meet the needs of all oppressed people, not just the ones who happen to have enough money and clout to squeeze their voices into mainstream arenas. I want our communities to have the space they need to ask themselves what they want, which political questions matter to them, and how they wish to proceed in advocating for them. I want activism and organizing which unite disparate communities in challenging power, instead of renting them apart for the political sanctification of a few. And it is imagining, outlining and bringing into fruition all of those movements which excites me, not queer marriage nor circular critiques of it.

7 responses to “Making Our Own Movements: Queer Activism in the Gay Marriage Era

  1. Ahh, you write so beautifully! I disagree somewhat, but I probably can’t state my case anywhere near so eloquently. When I’ve heard a few positive court verdicts on the radio, I’ve cried. Although I’m not in a relationship, I am a parent. I think that the acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships as equal (through marriage) will help us out so much in our quest for equal parenting rights.

    When I was working on the marriage rights issue (years ago), I’d tell people that after we got marriage equality for same-sex couples, we’d still have to fight for the right for 3 people to marry, and the right for medical care for all, regardless of marriage or job status, and the right to have any close friend visit in the hospital, etc.

    • Thank you for your feedback and honest response. You bring up some of the exact questions and considerations I have never had to make in my own life as a young queer person. Yet I still wonder what the factors are which have created gay marriage as such a central political topic, at the expense, I believe, of so many others. If gay marriage really is about acceptance and equality, who are we hoping will accept us, and why? Who will gay marriage make us equal to, and is that really what we want? Is there a way to advocate gay marriage which can include and encompass the entire queer community, linking it to struggles against the state and for economic justice for all people? I’m not sure I believe that there is.

      • Until we are at a point where communities can work together to take care of the people in them (seems like a distant dream right now), taxation for social services is a ‘power of the state’ I’d like to support. And so I’d like alternative families to be recognized.

        I adopted my son. I had to move to California to do that. In my home state of Michigan, in the working class town of Muskegon, I was not going to be able to adopt as a single pagan lesbian.

        >If gay marriage really is about acceptance and equality, who are we hoping will accept us, and why?

        I don’t want to be the same as the straight people, but I sure want to have equal rights in terms of parenting. And I don’t want my son to feel like an outsider. I live in an amazingly diverse area, and my son (at 10) seems to think having a lesbian mom is perfectly normal. Me being pagan probably seems odder to him. Being adopted also seems pretty normal to him. The Bay Area may be the only place in the world we could be that ‘normal’. (I have never wanted to be ‘normal’ myself, but kids do want that.)

        Being a single parent has made me pull in, with taking good care of my son my first priority. (I find myself much less flamboyant these days – any radicalism I offer the world is much quieter.) I look forward to being a support for young queerfolk again, once my son is grown.

  2. Hi, Rad Fag. I am extremely interested in hearing what you think about “who are we hoping will accept us, and why?” in more detail. I’ve only recently started to read your work — and I have to say thank you for your beautiful and true words — but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
    As you’ve stated in your blog, it is such a pity that the mainstream queer movement has become just white male gay liberals saddling up with the “straight” hegemony of power, asking the “straight representatives of the government’s various branches” to let them be the same as their straight counterparts. I guess I’m wondering what you think about how realistic moving the mainstream queer agenda toward a more inclusive and relevant direction /without/ trying to or worrying whether the “straights” are happy with it. Thanks!

    • Thank you for reading! I’d like to hear more about your thoughts and what that kind of a question means to you, too. I suppose I raised it because activism which advocates acceptance tends to trouble me. I hope to be a part of movements which work to include the efforts and desires of all people in transforming oppressive systems–including white, straight, male-identified, and other people with privilege. I don’t think acceptance is about building that kind of a movement, though, but rather is about asking acknowledgement from the orders which are already in place. To truly work together and learn to belong to collective movements, we all have to be ready to make changes and sacrifices on each other’s behalf in order to find our common ground. And despite all the controversy around it, I don’t believe gay marriage does this. It does not represent the fundamental changing of an oppressive order, but rather a slight widening in terms of who that order may include. As a queer person who is oppressed in more than one way, this kind of a movement does not appeal to me, does not meet my needs, and is not what I wish for my community. Even so, Sue from above makes some really important and powerful points about the transformative changes she does see coming from gay marriage, so while I do maintain some of my strong feelings, I recognize that it is not a simple or straightforward issue. What are your thoughts?

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