Today is a hard day to rain on people’s marriage parades. I’m doing it anyway because my stomach is turning to lead and my heart wants to throw up and silence will make it worse. This issue is far from over and my silence, I feel, is the problem to begin with.
I’ll start with an introduction: I am — first and foremost — a queer activist for economic justice. I support a radical redistribution of wealth, and I stand against capitalism and what it does to people’s bodies. As for marriage equality, I am not just unenthusiastic or reserved about this as a goal for the LGBT rights movement — I actively boycott it, and would like to see it abolished as soon as possible.
In my work, I have three priorities for queer economic justice: Prison and the criminal justice system, physical safety (health care, freedom from violence), and poverty (housing/homelessness, income/wages, etc.). Perhaps it doesn’t go without saying that queer and trans people are disproportionately impacted by these issues, particularly trans people and/or people of color, and also that my work in these areas is not limited to the impact on queer and trans people. And it definitely doesn’t go without saying that I think marriage is a totally inappropriate way to deal with any of these issues.
With that, I have two main problems with the marriage equality movement: 1. That its operation takes a tremendous amount of money, energy, and attention away from far more pressing issues. (Sometimes this is clear and direct, such as California spending $43 million on Prop 8 while $85 million was being cut from HIV/AIDS services. Sometimes this is more subtle, the successes of which can be measured when every single straight person I know uses their approval for same-sex marriage to demonstrate their allyship to me.) 2. That its strategies actively work against movements for queer economic justice, by removing capitalism, meaningful immigration reform, and gender/sexual deviance from the discussion entirely.
Let’s strip away the sentimentality for a moment and consider that legal marriage is intended as a site for hoarding your wealth. In fact this is one of its primary historical purposes. This is why in modern times you get rewarded with tax breaks and shared benefits (or stand to lose them if you’re very poor) and, regardless of income, you are encouraged by our government (and society in general) to lock down into a nuclear family unit and not share any of your shit with people you don’t like. (No really, I mean it — stop thinking about love for a second and think about that.)
It’s true that the promises of marriage are very, very real — especially for people who are just barely hanging onto the next highest class rung. Of course it can help some of them keep their hold on it — it is designed to do that. I will never deny that marriage can provide concrete, material benefits to some poor, working class, and lower-middle class people, and I’m not passing judgment on individual choices about whether to take advantage of those benefits when your life would kind of suck otherwise. I am generally in favor of people having shit they need, and of short-term solutions for short-term problems.
The problem is that the marriage equality movement, which is the real subject here, is not about individuals and it is not interested in other solutions. The marriage equality movement, like the institution of marriage itself, is a major distraction from the fact that our government refuses to sustain social services and public benefits in the first place — a process the marriage equality movement is now mimicking by stealing all the money. This is where I find myself so frustrated with the majority of Democrats/liberals/progressives on this issue, who claim we are walking in the same direction with different steps. Just because some people will get more money from something does not mean that a national fight for that thing is an economic justice project. It’s a trap of linear logic that so many have fallen into, and following it is like building condos in the middle of a housing crisis — as it turns out, most things have more than one opposite, and the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend.
It is not a coincidence that the rhetoric, imagery, and marketing of the marriage equality movement is so utterly assimilationist, and this is where my problems extend to issues of personal safety. This movement intentionally and maliciously erases and excludes so many queer people and cultures, particularly trans and gender non-conforming people, poor queer people, and queer people in non-traditional families. This movement whitewashes, breeder-izes, and cis-sexxifies the criteria for acceptance and civil rights, ignoring the most extreme threat to queer and trans people’s civil liberties: That if we cannot pass for straight and cissexual, we are deemed worthy of violence, detention, and death. In recent (and predictable) developments, conservatives who have joined the same-sex marriage bandwagon are using it as a wedge against single parents, immigrant families, and others. (Sometimes, the enemy of your new friend… is the person you should actually be friends with.)
So, to recap why I’m against it: Marriage promotes hoarding in a time of class war; marriage thinks non-married people are deviant and not truly deserving of civil rights; marriage doesn’t even know that 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated.
Last, I’d like to respond to the common statement that marriage is an important vehicle for raising awareness of all kinds of other LGBT issues, promoting acceptance of LGBT people, getting all LGBT people a pony and an espresso machine, etc.
For one thing, it’s really not. This movement targets a ton of queer and trans people for exclusion when it markets such narrow inclusion, and there is no inherent connection between “I think those two dudes who look like Anders should be able to get gay married” and “I think that chronically homeless trans woman should be given $2000 so she can come live next door to me.” In fact, I would argue that acceptance of the former strengthens rejection of the latter.
For another, the promise to “come back for” queer economic justice issues after marriage is squared away is pretty insulting to those of us already working in those movements, or to people in dire straits whom marriage cannot help. It’s also a pretty little lie, because it will absolutely never be convenient for people with class privilege to prioritize poverty issues. And, as it turns out, the powers of gentrification only grow stronger when your white picket fence is legally installed. If your excuse is that you’ve just got a few other things on your list right now, at the very least I would like you to acknowledge that we are not on the same page at all. Honestly. The most disappointing aspect of this divide for me, on days like today, is that marriage equality people don’t seem to see that there is one. This is far more troubling to me, and much harder to interrupt. It is more than a question of political projects, it is also a question of philosophy and analysis, without which political projects are irrelevant at best.
I’d say that I’m open to talking about this with people who support marriage equality, and of course in the end I will. But “open” is the wrong word today. I feel resigned to this conversation, and rather cheerless about its prospects. But I suppose, being the truth, it’s as good a beginning as any.