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Did the success of gay marriage erode the radical potential of queer politics?
The Unfinished Queer Agenda After Marriage Equality
Edited by Angela Jones, Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis, and Michael W. Yarbrough
Routledge, $39.95 (paper)
Queer Activism After Marriage Equality
Edited by Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis, Michael W. Yarbrough, and Angela Jones
Routledge, $39.95 (paper)
Queer Families and Relationships After Marriage Equality
Edited by Michael W. Yarbrough, Angela Jones, and Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis
Routledge, $39.95 (paper)
Has the Gay Movement Failed?
University of California Press, $27.95 (cloth)
When I told my mom that I am in a relationship with two men, she responded with three questions in rapid succession: “Do you all sleep in the same bed?”; “Are you all . . . intimate at the same time?”; and “You know this doesn’t get you out of having grandchildren, right?”
(For the record, my answers were “yes,” “yes,” and “Mom!”)
Gay marriage activists won by shifting from arguments emphasizing equality to arguments emphasizing love, but this isolated them from other progressive causes.
Thankfully, this was early in 2011, when same-sex singular marriage was yet a hope in New York, and the only people who spent much time thinking about polyamorous gay marriage were polyamorous gays and right-wing Christian activists with vivid imaginations. My parents had already weathered my coming out as gay some fifteen years before, so I don’t think they harbored many wedding-day dreams for me. But looking back, it was good to preemptively cut the legs out from under any evolving hopes they might have had for matching his-and-his tuxes, as the battle for same-sex marriage was just kicking into high gear. Today we can see that 2012 was a watershed for gay marriage: the NAACP declared it a civil right; Joe Biden bullied Barack Obama into publicly declaring his support for it; and Maine, Maryland, and Washington became the first states to legalize it via popular vote. From there, it avalanched.
My partners and I were not the only queers, though, for whom gay marriage fell short of the Promised Land. More than many realize, a hefty share of the LGBT movement’s radical potential was lost or traded away so that they could say #LoveWon. For instance, in 2012, queer Minnesotans enjoyed a unique success when activists beat back an attempt to ban same-sex marriage in their state constitution, becoming the only state ever to defeat such an initiative at the ballot box. However, queer studies scholar Myrl Beam paints an instructive and troubling picture of the victory.
In his essay “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”, Beam describes what he calls the “love pivot”: in 2012 gay marriage activists across the country shifted from arguments emphasizing equality to arguments emphasizing love. According to focus group research funded by the major national players in the marriage movement (primarily the organizations Freedom to Marry and Third Way), a “focus on discrimination and equality simply did not resonate with straight voters.” Or, in the words of political strategist Richard Carlbom, “when you talk about equality people STOP listening.” Instead, activists were told to play up their life-long dreams of getting married and their desire to fit into the straight marriage mold—regardless of how authentic those desires were.
On the ballot in Minnesota that same year was another constitutional amendment proposed by conservatives, this one requiring a picture ID to vote. Although anti–ID law organizers sought to link the opposition to both initiatives, and gay marriage activists recognized that measures which limit voting tend to work against progressive causes in the long term, the gay marriage lobby made a strategic decision to take no stance on the ID campaign—in Beams words, “in the hopes of attracting some Republicans.” Even without marriage activist support, the ID initiative was defeated, but Beam’s point is that a narrow focus on same-sex marriage isolated queer activists from other progressive causes, while simultaneously requiring that they play down their own (righteous) outrage about the discrimination they face because, as it turned out, few voters cared. And indeed, Minnesotan gay activists discovered that their marriage-rights coalition simply was not interested in giving money or time to other issues of significance to broader matters of LGBT rights, such as safe schools and employment non-discrimination. As Beam puts it, “for movement organizations attempting to shift to other issues in the wake of marriage, many donors did not shift with them.”
• • •
Beam’s essay is one of the many compelling works collected in a trio of books put out this summer by Routledge in its After Marriage Equality series. All three were coedited by scholars Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis, Angela Jones, and Michael W. Yarbrough, the team that also organized the After Marriage conference in 2016, from which these books are drawn. Topics in the books—including immigrant rights, welfare reform, grassroots organizing, and polyamory—are all approached through the lens of how legal same-sex marriage has changed the terrain of the battlefield.
Homonormative politics argue that queers deserve rights because they are similar to heterosexuals, rather than challenging how rights and privileges are doled out in society generally.
Although many of the collected pieces are critical of gay marriage—at least as an end in itself—there is no party line the contributors are asked to toe. Beam’s argument about the limits of love as an organizing strategy contrasts with an article by sociologist Mignon Moore that examines how same-sex marriage can, in certain contexts, be used to advance more radical queer issues. Moore and her wife were central to the 2012 “love pivot,” as one of the carefully selected same-sex couples in Freedom to Marry’s national advertising campaign. While Moore shares some of the broader progressive concerns about the marriage equality movement, she sees it as “a vehicle through which people, and particularly people of color, could begin to talk about LGBTQ issues with their family members and individuals in their racial and ethnic and cultural communities”—a start, in other words, rather than a conclusion.
Moore goes on to explain that she was raised in the Apostolic Holiness faith, “a particularly conservative form of Black Pentecostalism.” Her uncle is the pastor at the church where she, her wife (who is “left of center in her gender presentation”), and their two children attend services. To those who see her participation in a conservative faith as an act of assimilation, Moore rejoins:
I am sure the parishioners do not see us as conforming. . . . I believe the visible participation of our little LGBT-parent family in this storefront Holiness church in Queens, New York, is radical, even revolutionary behavior. . . . Those who say this is conformist have not experienced this type of participation in conservative institutions.
Moore’s point is a critique of (or perhaps an elaboration on) the idea of “homonormativity,” a word that wends its way through After Marriage Equality. Homonormative political strategies argue that queer people deserve rights because they are similar to heterosexuals, rather than challenging how rights and privileges are doled out in society generally. Both the “love pivot” and the quest for same-sex marriage as a whole could be called homonormative, as both focus on being “like” straight people. But what is considered normal in the United States has racial overtones—“normal” being something like a straight white suburban couple with a home and children—so Moore’s visibility as a married black lesbian mother is difficult to caricature as homonormative, even if she is making something of a bid for mainstream acceptance.
Full disclosure: I also have an article in the After Marriage series, a transcript of a panel I led on polyamory and family diversity. As a committed pervert, I cannot say that the movement for same-sex marriage has done much for me, other than transform many free summer weekends into jacket-and-tie obligations. But snark as I may, marriage has offered many people I know the opportunity to celebrate their love, start their families, protect their investments, adopt their partner’s children, get citizenship, and receive myriad other benefits, tangible and intangible, that come with offering up your most intimate relationships to the state. Still, I remain unconvinced that doling out tax privileges based on whom we screw adds up to good governance. Even if we accept at face value that the neoliberal state has an interest in promoting relationships of care—because these absorb the greatest costs of child rearing and help keep us off the streets, out of hospitals, and generally less dependent on government services—it can only be explained by recourse to tradition that these relationships must be heterosexual, romantic/sexual, and limited to two individuals. Otherwise, the state’s interests can be equally satisfied by: an opposite-sex couple, a same-sex couple, three elderly adult siblings, or eight adults and three children living in an old Connecticut mansion. I am not against marriage, I just see it as an inefficient, lazy, and unnecessarily limiting definition of the kind of relationships that the government has a vested interest in supporting. As a religious institution, it seems like a hoot; as a civil institution, it is a relic of a time when all people were expected to live one way, worship one god, and die young.
• • •
The LGBT movement was not always united behind a banner of achieving modest, fundamentally conservative improvements to social standing. Jim Downs’s Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation focuses on how some gay men in the 1960s and ’70 were invested in founding gay churches and reforming the prison system. Cleve Jones’s When We Rise: My Life in the Movement recalls the authors involvement in protesting the Vietnam War and fighting for the fair treatment of immigrant workers. And Verso Books has recently reissued several foundational texts for queer Marxism, including Jeffrey Escoffier’s American Homo, Come Together (edited by Aubrey Walter), Homosexuality (edited by The Gay Left Collective), and Pink Triangles (edited by Pam Mitchell).
Historian Martin Duberman’s newest book, the provocatively titled Has the Gay Movement Failed?, takes up many of these themes. Duberman’s book asks whether Gay Liberation, the radical-leaning movement that arose from the Stonewall Riots, offered a better vision for a just society than does its descendant, the gay rights movement. For Duberman, the answer is clear: the gay rights movement has failed by betraying its radical roots in favor of an assimilationist agenda—one which, he grants, has been demanded by the majority of gay Americans, and which is exemplified by the Human Rights Campaign, the biggest mainstream gay political nonprofit.
Lesbian and gay politics have always trended toward incrementalism rather than revolution—while, in contrast, queer and trans people have done nothing less than upend the gender binary.
While I share Duberman’s disappointment over the course that LGBT politics has traveled since Stonewall, I am not convinced that the movement has “reversed course” or abandoned its radical roots—mainly because it seems a historical error to say it had radical roots to begin with. In a larger historical frame, the post-Stonewall heyday of radical politicking exemplified by the Gay Liberation Front looks more like an anomalous blip. It was, after all, long preceded by the courageous and principled—but incredibly straight-laced—gay and lesbian organizing of the 1950s and ’60s. Groups such as The Mattachine Society (for gay men) and The Daughters of Bilitis (for lesbians) made a gambit for the decriminalization of homosexual acts mainly by arguing that, in every other respect, they were mainline, patriotic Americans. The Mattachine Society even encouraged founding member Harry Hay to leave when public attention was brought to his communist politics. Going even further back, the early queer history of Brooklyn, described in my book When Brooklyn Was Queer, provides a salient example of how sexual minorities in the United States have always had a diverse range of politics, from assimilationist to separatist, and everything in between. It is probably safe to say, though, that most gay and lesbian Americans across all times, and certainly avant la lettre, have had in common the desire to be seen as utterly unremarkable, at least so far as their sexuality was concerned.
Moreover, we tend to confuse aims with methods when we assign post-Stonewall activism with the label “radical.” Even AIDS organizers who embraced confrontational direct-action tactics, such as ACT UP, mainly sought, as Duberman notes, to force the government to provide equal treatment to all ill Americans, a major shift from when Gay Liberation “fought to remove hostile government agencies from their lives.”
In short, lesbian and gay politics in this country have always trended toward incrementalism rather than revolution—while, in contrast, the cultural changes wrought by queer and trans people have done nothing less than upend the entire gender binary. To be clear, just because Gay Liberation was a 1970s fad—a middle chapter in the history of gay politics rather than its radical origins—I don’t think today’s movement is a priori doomed to regress to homonormativity. In weighing the queer left of the past against the queer left of the present, one thing rapidly becomes obvious: despite the clarity of vision that gay liberationists had around issues of race, class, and gender, they mostly failed to grapple with those issues internally. This set the stage for the situation we are in today, in which (mostly) cis white middle-class men are writing books congratulating organizations that were (mostly) cis white middle-class men about how radical their thoughts were on race, gender, and class.
By contrast, the After Marriage Equality series has a diverse set of contributors, as measured by race, gender, nationality, immigration status, and age (though with an overabundance of academics). Celebrating “diversity” for its own sake is a recipe for tokenism, but creating a movement composed of people affected by the issues is just good organizing. It does not guarantee sustained radicalism, by any means, but it does become harder to jettison more challenging issues when those who care about them are at the table, setting the agenda, and keeping notes.
Whether the After Marriage Equality series will be a roadmap for queer politics going forward—or an interesting historical eddy for future researchers to study—is unknowable. But the big tent of its authors, and the fierceness of their political visions, suggests that it will have the ability to engage the full spectrum of queer activists—even a bitter poly boy such as me. If we can learn from the struggles of those who came before us, perhaps this time, radical queer politics will have some staying power.
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