The linguistic shift from gay marriage to marriage equality is interesting, like all politically motivated discursive choices. Adding the gay label to marriage “spotlights” same-sex marriage, emphasizing its abnormality. Spotlighting, or using marked language, highlights what is notably outside the norm and establishes the unmarked category as neutral, making it the default setting or normal. Male nurse is to nurse as gay marriage is to marriage. Marked language, then, reifies heterosexual marriage as standard.
“Marriage equality” makes sense, then, as the phrase of choice. The language of equality locates gay marriage in the venerable tradition of civil rights, and it makes gays more palatable because people who might be squicked by homosexuality certainly cannot be opposed to equality. I use homosexual intentionally because LGBT people have rejected the word due to its derogatory connotations. In short, marriage equality neutralizes the gay in gay marriage.
I don’t like that.
Queer politics has great potential to challenge the nuclear family, but marriage equality erases everything gay and diminishes the queering power of being gay. Rather than queering marriage, the concept of “marriage equality” firmly establishes same-sex marriage in the terrain of the nuclear family. (Well, of course it does..)
The heteronormal nuclear family is an intensely oppressive institution. Valerie Lehr outlined the issues extensively in Queer Family Values: Debunking the Myth of the Nuclear Family. When I read this book almost fifteen years ago, it changed my thinking on “gay marriage.” Just about every leftist, progressive concern is striated through the institutions of family and marriage. For family configurations that do not fit the norm, the neoliberal rights discourse that empowers and is empowered by heteronormal family values creates multiple disparities. Marriage equality is funded by an expansionist rhetoric – that is, we need to expand access to rights and privileges to include everyone. That logic never changes the institutionalized disparities, it just provides access to the institutions to a larger number of people, and within the larger pool, people of privilege will experience the new benefits, and people without privilege will not. All the families and couples without privilege will get their problems swept under the carpet as we wave the HRC flag. A brief summary of points from Lehr:
* Marriage equality provides economic parity (taxes, inheritance, insurance). Well, economic disparity should be solved for all, period, and not through the institution of marriage. Marriage does not solve the problem of economic disparity across racial, class, gender, or other lines.
* Issues of reproduction, child-rearing, adoption, parenting, and custody are disparate for LGBT people. Yes, as they are for other non-dominant families; marriage equality will not solve those problems. Marriage equality will not solve the institutional disparities regarding offspring that single parents or parents of color face.
* People cannot help who they are, so they shouldn’t be denied access to a fundamental right to marriage. This argument depends on a fixed identity that marginalizes bisexual and transgender people, for instance. Not to mention, it opens up a can of worms in which rights or entitlements should be premised on things you cannot choose (like choosing to have children, or adopt, or whatever…)
Equally important, the erotic politics of everything queer is now locked and barred in the closet. After all, we aren’t calling this “same-gender marriage,” are we? Ok, there’s some slippery poetic license there. Nonetheless, let’s be frank, being queer is about fucking, romantic affiliation, emotional attachment, and what is done or is potentially done in the bedroom. If one accepts the feminist mantra, “The personal is political,” then what one does in the bedroom indeed matters. True, lots of straight people don’t have sex and lots of gay people don’t have sex. But, the potentiality for fucking is there, and avoiding this discussion is Puritanical. While we don’t want to reduce LGBT people to sex and sexuality, eliminating sex from the equation is closeting it. LGBT sexuality should be celebrated. Listen to Audre Lorde, who believed that the erotic is the very definition of lesbian:
Part of the lesbian consciousness is an absolute recognition of the erotic within our lives and, taking that a step further, dealing with the erotic not only in sexual terms.
Who wants to give that force back to the closet? (Well, we know who does…)
What does marriage equality do for us? It gives a certain class of people – people like the beautiful HRC poster couple Edie and Thea – access to normalcy. Edie, of course, is the plaintiff we are all standing with in the DOMA case before the Supreme Court. I do not want to diminish Edie and Thea’s lives, political work, or lifelong relationship; their story is beautiful, empowering, and deeply meaningful. Nonetheless, just as it symbolizes advancement to many, it also represents the difficulties we face with marriage equality. Edie and Thea’s story, beautifully rendered in “A Very Long Engagement,” says it all. The documentary recounts the couple’s meeting, their forty year relationship, and their eventual marriage. In other words, Edie and Thea’s lives are squarely framed by the marriage plot, the longstanding narrative device of romance novels, biographies, and life trajectories for women. The documentary culminates with the traditional romance novel HEA (happily ever after) ending, as 80-year-old Thea marvels she had no idea “this thing was going to go on and on.”
When I first saw the picture of Edie and Thea, my immediate thought was they were a strikingly happy counter to Ann Bannon’s lesbian pulp novel covers. In that, Edie and Thea are remarkably transgressive figures and deserve to be celebrated. They remind me of the gay Fire Island 50s, so I was not surprised that the Hamptons figured prominently in their story. Still, Edie’s initial distaste and then acceptance for drag queens during Stonewall as part of the gay rights movement (around 33:55 in the documentary) is a telling comment on the “country squire” coupledom that the gay marriage plot illustrates.
Sadly, the telos of gay rights is fast becoming marriage equality, and nothing more, which leaves out a whole lot of everything else. Some see this as a stepping stone, and that is the logic of liberal rights discourse – the rhetoric of expansion and inclusion. That logic is ultimately flawed because it never changes the foundation on which oppression rests.
In the end, I have to be “for” gay marriage because I cannot be against equality in today’s political context. I just want it all to remain gay.