Despite all of the legalese, from what I can see, the California Supreme Court just swallowed the "separate but equal" logic that fuels the idea of civil unions. The justices argued that in their original ruling, they only ruled that same-sex couples have the equal rights of marriage, but that Proposition 8 is merely a "narrow exception" to these constitutional rights--a "designation" that has "limited effects" and does not "fundamentally alter" the rights of same-sex couples. In other words, it's a long-winded rationalization for the very "separate-but-equal" rhetoric that same-sex couples have been fighting across the country.

Now that we have some clear victories in some states and clear setbacks in others, I think it's time to step back and evaluate strategy. Yasmin Nair has posted an essay at that raises some good points and questions, but that ultimately frames those questions in a very problematic way. Nevertheless, I appreciate her contribution and welcome the debate it has sparked. This is an important and constructive debate.

In sum, Nair argues that because the marriage equality movement is a single-issue movement with profound contradictions, that queers should "dump" same-sex marriage as a major issue. My argument can be summed as follows: The same-sex marriage train has left the station, the question has been called and there is a mass mobilization around it. As a result, I believe that progressive issues can get far more traction if the queer Left relates to the marriage movement, in spite of its problems and flaws, rather than abstaining from it. I share most of the same goals as Nair, Polikoff, Sycamore and other critics of the marriage movement from the Left. But I think it is wrong to undermine a mass mobilization of queer people. Furthermore, our arguments need to use more "both/and" language, and less of the "either/or" rhetoric.

As far as I'm concerned the principle is quite simple: When large numbers of the oppressed start mobilizing around an issue, it behooves the Left to support said mobilization in whatever way possible--regardless of whether or not it's the ideal issue we would like to see them rally around or whether or not there are criticisms to be had about the framing of the issue.

When thousands of people participate in rallies and civil disobedience, when you see militance and widespread anger from a historically oppressed people the likes of which hasn't been seen for almost two decades you better have a really, really good reason to turn your nose up at what's going down. "It doesn't solve all the problems" is not a good reason. As we have seen, more than forty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, "Civil Rights" (and think about how problematic that formulation was!) did not solve the myriad of problems black people face. "It's being led by the elite" is not a good reason, either--especially since the debacle in California has caused a widespread reevaluation of the LGBT movement's tactics and leadership (more on that later). If this is, indeed, a mass mobilization of queer people--and I think this is pretty hard to deny--then it really should be a no-brainer about our participation and support for it. The debate on the Left should be over how we relate to the marriage movement.

First I need to acknowledge the good points that Nair and other queer radicals make:

1. There are other very pressing issues that face queer people that get neither the press coverage nor the funding that same-sex marriage gets. Resources are limited and the amount of money that goes into same-sex marriage is very disproportionate to the needs of the community.

2. Not all queer people accept the level of prioritization same-sex marriage receives.

3. There is a question about whether or not the same-sex marriage movement contradicts other important principles that people on the Left should support. In some instances, same-sex marriage has led to the evaporation of state recognition for other kinds of families (such as domestic partner benefits) and it may actually reinforce right-wing ideologies. In other instances, such as New Hampshire, same-sex marriage was passed but trans protections were (vehemently) rejected. This is a serious charge and one that is rarely addressed by those who attack left-wing critiques of the marriage movement.

These are all good points but there are many people participating in the marriage movement that are sympathetic to these arguments. The question is how are we going to win these arguments? Are we going to win these arguments by telling people to drop an issue around which a mass mobilization of queer people has formed, or will they be won by appealing to those who are already moving?

For those who think that the marriage movement is a hopelessly reactionary cause, aside from the fact that thousands of queer people have taken to the streets, please consider the following:

1. The Prop 8 disaster has lead to widespread anger at the traditional leadership of "LGBT" politics and LGBT politics as usual. No-on-8, a focus-group directed campaign that didn't even have the guts to put same-sex couples on the damn TV, which did little outreach to minorities, that spoke in code and euphemisms, has been widely derided as incompetent, arrogant, short-sighted and culturally insensitive. While the Prop 8 aftermath also led to an outburst of racism, many others have also taken it as a wake-up call for addressing homophobia in communities of color and for more explicit outreach to communities of color. The Prop 8 disaster raised the issue of framing and the angry reaction against the conservative, timid framing of LGBT rights is a good thing. Shouldn't we acknowledge and then participate in this moment of introspection? The lobbyist bureaucracies are certainly capitalizing on the mood (e.g. Joe Solmonese's bombastic "We Won't Back Down!"), why shouldn't we?

2. Large numbers of queer people are hopping mad at the Obama Administration and the Democrats. Those of us who have been paying attention to other issues, know that queer people are in a long list of people betrayed by the Obama Administration (Iraqis, Afghanis, torture victims, immigrants, people concerned about civil liberties, people who want universal health care, etc.). The argument that says we need to give Obama "time" is just nonsense. Obama is moving backwards, and not just on this issue. What happens when the lobbyist bureaucracies start their bi-annual handwringing around the elections in 2010? What conclusions will people draw? That we should have nominated Hillary (and yes, some people have actually taken this preposterous position)? That we should vote for the Republicans (even more preposterous)?

3. Some people are experimenting with civil disobedience. A confrontation with the criminal "justice" system like this can do more for a person's understanding of the State and its treacherous mechanics than all the lectures about the "prison industrial complex" and the "erosion of civil liberties" in the world. Patricia Nell Warren has a post about this, and she argues that people should not participate in civil disobedience because the State has become so contemptuous of civil liberties and people could get in big trouble. I think she is right to warn people and her view that people should participate in civil disobedience with a full understanding of the consequences of their actions is well taken. However, I still believe that people will participate in civil disobedience despite the consequences (which could have always been extreme, whether we are talking about Alabama or India).

All three of these "fault lines" open the door for discussions about broader issues and topics.

My argument has nothing to do with "gradualism"--as if the same-sex marriage movement will "automatically" cause people to broaden their viewpoints or that same-sex marriage will "inevitably" lead to more advancement on other issues like trans rights. There is nothing gradual or inevitable about same-sex marriage being a "stepping stone" to larger issues as some suggest. But it has the potential to be such a stepping stone because of the fault lines that emerge whenever an oppressed group starts moving.

This is about the queer Left's relationship to a mass mobilization of queer people at this present moment in time--which I don't think anyone can deny is taking place. Whether or not large numbers of the mobilized will shift perspective will depend on a variety of factors, not least of which will be how queer radicals make their arguments and how they position themselves in relation to this mass mobilization. Even though I do not accept the idea that the marriage movement will automatically lead to a perspective that is more inclusive of the broader issues all of us care about, I would bet money that the movement won't radicalize through large numbers of the queer Left dismissing the marriage movement as too conservative for them.

I think it would be a far, far better use of our intellectual abilities and creativity to find a way to make a contribution to these already existing debates that the struggle for same-sex marriage has raised, than to tell people to abandon same-sex marriage as a goal.

Views: 21

Comment by Mark Daniel Snyder on May 28, 2009 at 5:17pm
Your logic is exactly why I have been both critical of, and participating in the marriage movement, thus confusing people on both sides with my stance. Thanks for articulating!
Comment by Mark Barnes on May 28, 2009 at 5:42pm
Thanks for this post. It has been very hard for me to get behind state sanctioning of our relationships much less to prioritize it. However, the train has indeed left the station. These other issues have come up which is great. Whether it comes to a stop at a little house with white picket fence with health insurance for the wealthy couple inside or picks up steam and becomes a vehicle for more is, well, up to us.
Comment by Mark Daniel Snyder on May 28, 2009 at 6:32pm
One thing, however, is that the train left the station because of the leaders at the top of our most well funded most white organizations who continue to push the issue without much input or feedback from the broader community.
Comment by Brian on May 28, 2009 at 10:59pm
Mark, that is so true. There is little democratic about how priorities for the community are set. I think a lot of people see this intuitively and the bungled anti-Prop 8 campaign also makes the case for us (undemocratic, contemptuous of its constituents' opinions, etc). But, fortunately, just because they control the priorities now, doesn't mean they will in the future. They cannot foresee the future any more than we can. One of the things we need to make sure of if we get involved is that everyone has the right to contribute to this fight with the political messaging they choose and not be forced to tailor their message to the political dictates of certain organizations.


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