By Brandon Kemp
With the Supreme Court’s recent decision to decline to hear cases in five states attempting to uphold bans on gay marriage, the path is set for Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin to join the roster of states hopping aboard the matrimonial bandwagon. What’s more, an additional six states with pending appeals against local bans—Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming—are now assumed to have legal same-sex marriage as well. In other words, for the first time in U.S. history, 30 states plus the District of Columbia will perform same-sex marriages with a majority of the American public expressing support for these unions. The times, they are a-changin’. Still, while there is plenty to celebrate about the very real victories won by the gay rights movement in creating a safer, more open society for (some) queer people, it is important for socialists to also recognize the limitations inherent in the marriage equality project and to make demands that go beyond it.
Yes, of course, given the current state of things, it’s much better that gay couples be able to share health benefits than not—but this means little if you’re one of the 36 million Americans without health insurance or one of the 25 million more who are underinsured. In a tax system as regressive as the U.S.’s, “marital bliss” for rich couples typically comes in the form of a tax break; for those at the bottom or in mixed-income relationships, marriage sometimes means an effective tax penalty. And then there are the well-worn queer critiques of visitation and inheritance rights. Why should only the wedded be able to visit sick loved ones or dispense of their property as they see fit? Why should queer elders, 70-80 percent of whom live alone, be ineligible for certain health care, disability, and survivorship benefits awarded to married partners? What of single queers, those in polyamorous commitments, and gender queer and gender-nonconforming individuals? Gay marriage proponents are always quick to point out that marriage is endowed with some 1,000+ rights and benefits inaccessible to those on the outside. They’re less keen to ask why vital, sometimes life-saving benefits should be tied up with this peculiar institution at all.
Rather than enhancing economic security and human freedom, the cause of marriage equality too often serves to legitimate widespread precarity under neoliberalism by focusing on formal legal inclusion in the status quo rather than equality in the more radical sense of changing it. As Against Equality’s Yasmin Nair has put it, “Nothing that the left, progressives, or liberals have stated in support of gay marriage has ever been anything but a profoundly conservative argument.” Gay marriage itself, like the Heritage Foundation-inspired reforms of ObamaCare, remains a profoundly conservative cause at heart, more a means to maintain and better manage the economic order of the day than alter it in any substantive way. According to the U.S. census, today the “traditional” nuclear family is the demographic minority. Other arrangements—blended families, single-parent homes, same-sex couples, nonconjugal roommates, elderly persons living with caregivers, etc.—make up the majority of households. Unfortunately, in this instance being the majority is not quite the same thing as being the norm. As intergenerational households spike and new forms of collective life rooted in resource-sharing take off at the micro level in the aftermath of the Great Recession, it’s worth noting the irony of the capitalist state’s continued commitment to rewarding and normalizing only those living arrangements with some degree of conformity to hetero-/homonormative standards based around possession, hierarchy, domesticity, and consumption. This is economics managing culture at its worst.
But far from simply not going far enough, the gay marriage movement’s acquiescence in the face of the dispensation of key benefits via the “traditional,” now slightly revamped family actually actively harms and erases the most vulnerable members of our community. Where, after all, is youth homelessness (disproportionately affecting queer youth of color and trans youth), HIV/AIDS, or the plight of undocumented queers (those not coupled with citizens, that is) on the new gay agenda? In its ceaseless insistence that queer (and now trans people) are “normal” too, the nonprofit-industrial complex leading the marriage charge has forgotten the violence inherent in normality under late capitalism, diverting huge amounts of energy, time, and financial resources away from communities that don’t share the gay elite’s privilege of patience. It forgets the long history of complicity between marriage laws and the racial and gender status quo—that marriage, being at bottom about property, is deeply invested in the brutal and rapacious capitalist system. And it refuses to provide the robust universal rights and public goods necessary for the full flourishing of forms of community that challenge rather than reinforce the values of patriarchy, domination, and competition at the level of intimate life.
The U.S.’s first gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society, was founded by Communists in the decades leading up to 1969. During the Stonewall Rebellion, poor queers, dykes, and trans women of color like Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson played a central role in fighting back against police raids and queer and trans criminalization. The most prominent gay rights group to emerge in the immediate aftermath of Stonewall, the Gay Liberation Front, was explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-colonialist. Today, by way of contrast, the face of Gay Inc. is the Human Rights Campaign, an organization funded by drone manufacturers, Republican billionaires, and vulture fund profiteers with a nasty history of throwing trans people, immigrant rights activists, and the poor and elderly under the bus. It spends more time handing out awards to corporate predators like Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein for their service to some nebulous concept of “equality” than actually fighting for the little guy. Of course, the marriage storm will continue to sweep inexorably across the country, and happily it will do at least some good for some. But, like veteran DSAer and author Barbara Ehrenreich, I’m ready for legalization in all 50 states already... so we can get back to critiquing marriage. Integrating a privileged few into legal, economic, and military machines is still no substitute for the long, hard work of transforming society.