Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Privilege of "Normal-ish" Gays and Lesbians

(This article has also been posted at the Family Equality Council Blog.)

I recently read a thought-provoking essay by a blogger I admire very much. It made me confront and re-examine many of my beliefs. I don't agree with everything this blogger wrote, but the essay added more nuance to my position on marriage equality and my beliefs regarding the implications that the marriage equality movement has for non-traditional families.

In this essay, Angry Brown Butch describes feeling unsettled upon reading a newspaper article about the recent same-sex weddings taking place in California. Basically, the referenced article discussed "gay leaders" warning the LGBT community to "be aware" of the images they would potentially be supplying to the other side- meaning those who opposed marriage equality. In other words, the leaders were essentially saying no dudes in dresses. Why? As Angry Brown Butch writes:
"Because the marriage equality movement is largely predicated on the notion that us queers are just like 'everyone else,' meaning mostly white, mostly middle-class or up, gender conforming monogamists. You know, the non-threatening queers. The rest of us should apparently find a nice closet to go hide in for a while, lest we threaten the rights that are apparently meant for the more upstanding, respectable members of the LGsomeotherlessimportantletters community."

It's true that the marriage equality movement is predicated on this notion that gay people are "normal" and just like straight people. By necessity, due to the nature of the resistance to marriage equality, the marriage movement must predicate itself on this notion in order to make even small civil-union-sized gains. For instance, take but one example of a "marriage defender" who cites several long-term-but-non-monogamous gay couple who want to marry. This "marriage defender" will then argue that monogamy is an essential feature of marriage and will use the fact of these gay couples' non-monogamy to argue that the "gay community" as a whole does not know what marriage is. And further, that prevalent non-monogamy among gays is yet another reason why gay people should not be allowed to marry.

Personally, I think that in the struggle for marriage equality, marriage equality advocates who do value monogamy and who do think the state should sanction marriage are sort of caught in the middle. On the one side, we have often-bigoted "marriage defenders" pointing to drag queens in dresses saying "look at how immoral and confused gay people are." They point to high rates of HIV and STDs among gay men and say "gay people spread disease." In other words, most "marriage defenders" point to people who are not me in order to make generalizations about me, thereby rendering my experience in the world invisible. It's certainly not right for bigots to make moral judgments about members of our community, and it angers me. But what also angers me is that "marriage defenders" refuse to acknowledge that "normal-ish" gay people also exist.

I know, woe is me, right?

Yet, on the other side, we have- for lack of a better term- "non-conforming" members of the LGBT community declaring that marriage equality activists don't care about "non-conforming" queers. Rather, we ignore those "bad" gays, take advantage of our "normalcy" privilege, and selfishly seek equality for ourselves. Admittedly, my first instinct upon hearing such a claim is to become defensive. I do care about and respect all of those in the LGBT community and I hate the anti-gay propaganda that our opponents spread. Yet, upon reflection, I have to agree with Angry Brown Butch's statement about marriage equality, which:

"has never been and can never be about true equality and justice for all people who fall within the LGBT spectrum. That’s because legal marriage is about sanctioning and rewarding certain kinds of relationships while disqualifying and demeaning others."

Confronting our own privileges is not supposed to be comfortable or easy. Yet doing so is something I continually try to do. Personally, I value monogamy and, in spite of my Marxist tendencies (hee-hee), consider myself one of those "normal-ish" gays. Marriage, to me, is generally two loving committed adults in a sexually monogamous relationship. Accordingly, in seeking state-sanctioned marriage equality, I have sought to prove my "normalcy" to "marriage defenders." We're not all like them, I have argued, pointing to non-monogamous gays. But at the same time, I am able to value other people's experiences in life regarding non-monogamy, gender conformity, and family formation.As one who is denied marital rights, I see how strongly society values the marital relationship and how loving-yet-non-marital families and relationships are demeaned and devalued.

I also know that vast amounts of resources are dedicated to opposing the right of people like me to marry and that, therefore, accounts for why the marriage equality movement has, to the chagrin of many,"devoted so much time and attention and resources" to the cause. Yet, just because marriage equality advocates are spending time, money, and resources to the cause it doesn't mean the LGBT community at large is not addressing other important issues the community faces. To suggest otherwise is to make a claim strikingly similar to that of a "marriage defender" whose claims about the "gay community" I have previously addressed. The LGBT community is not monolithic and many of its members of all races, incomes, genders, and identities are trying to address the injustices imposed upon our community and our families. Marriage equality is but one issue our community is facing. But I will not stop advocating for full equality just because our community is also facing other important issues.

That being said, I am willing to reconsider my approach and some of my beliefs. I definitely believe that so long as the state is doling out marriage licenses with a host of attendant privileges, benefits, and rights, it should not do so on a discriminatory basis. Or, it should have really good reasons for doing so. (That's a really big "or," I know). The denial of these rights has very real consequences to families from a legal and financial standpoint. At the same time, I too

"question whether fighting for marriage as a state-run institution is the best strategy for queer liberation more broadly....Instead of linking state benefits like healthcare, housing and welfare to marital privilege, they should be detached from marriage and available to all, regardless of marital or citizenship status. Rather than furthering the norm of two partners acting as a single economic childrearing unit, we argue for a movement that embraces multiple meanings of family, and recognizes that marriage and domestic partnership are not always optimal or desired choices. Finally, we believe we can better serve marginalized communities by fighting against all state regulation of sexual and gender choices, identities and expressions."

Tangibly and practically, I'm still searching for what this means to me. Take away the state's power to say what "marriage" is? Maybe. De-couple the numerous benefits of marriage from the legal status of "marriage"? Perhaps. Law professor Katherine M. Franke has made a strong case similar to Angry Brown Butch's, that "marriage equality for same sex couples must be undertaken, at a minimum, in a way that is compatible with efforts to dislodge marriage from its normatively superior status as compared with other forms of human attachment, commitment and desire.... we must unseat marriage as the measure of all things."

I realize that is a scary statement for many "marriage defenders" to hear. Yet, these are discussions that those on all sides of the marriage debate need to keep having. And, they should take place free from propaganda, free of scare tactics, and free of over-generalizations and simplistic thinking. I will continue seeking knowledge and opposing ideas. And, perhaps most importantly, I give myself permission to change my mind.

The floor is yours.

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