Marriage, Equality, and Radical Queer Politics – Part One

This is a two-part post. The second part can be found here.

It seems every day brings news of a new victory for marriage equality advocates: yesterday Kentucky joined Indiana and Utah as the most recent state to find same sex marriage bans unconstitutional. Every day also seems to bring a new article penned by a radical queer activist arguing that, in the great rush to marriage equality, something important about the LGBTQ movement is being lost. They worry that queer people are being normalized, marriage “straightening” them rather than them “queering” marriage; they fear that the LGBTQ movement has lost sight of more radical goals, like the abolition of the family (or at least the radical rethinking of human relationships); they ask where issue like access to healthcare and queer homelessness are being addressed, as the major LGBTQ activist organizations focus on marriage; they point to the way trans people have frequently been overlooked and marginalized by those same organizations; ultimately they wonder if the queer community is selling out, betraying the principles which set the Stonewall riots in motion in favor of accepting an equal place at an unjust table. A good collection of such critiques is the recently-published book Against Equality, an anthology of essays, speeches, interviews and other writings by a collective of radical queer and trans activists – much of this post is written in dialogue with the pieces about marriage equality collected there, and I strongly recommend it.

I want to explore some of those concerns here, partly because I share many of them, and partly because I fear the ways some of these issues are discussed are insufficiently nuanced, historically unsure, and (sometimes) unnecessarily vituperative. Also, I wish to clarify my own views on these matters, and I find writing a useful way to do that. Please excuse me, then, if this is not the punchiest of blog posts – I’m thinking this through as I write. Because these topics are deeply personal – to me and to many commenting on these issues – and because I want to keep these aspects of my identity forefront in my mind as I write, I want to begin by outlining where I’m coming from personally and politically.

A bit about me

I write as a white, able-bodied, economically comfortable, gender-conforming, gay man from a privileged educational background. I experienced anti-gay bullying as a child (though not nearly as extreme as many face), and negative messaging from my private religious school, which played into my not coming out of the closet until I was 27 years old. I have been an activist since I started volunteering with the Liberal Democrat party as a teenager, and was involved in student activism at university (working against tuition fees, mainly). My whole professional life has been spent working in education: as a high school teacher, as a theatre educator in prisons, and as an educational researcher. My most recent activism has been on behalf of the Humanist movement, a non-religious movement dedicated to ensuring the dignity of all people.

Politically, I am committed to what I think of as a “radical pragmatism”: I think we should enact the policies which will, as a matter of fact, improve wellbeing for the greatest number of people without infringing on the dignity of the individual. My position is inherently anti-conservative in the sense that I hold tradition and the longevity of a particular social practice to have no inherent value in determining whether such a practice should continue. In my view, social structures should be developed with the sole goal of improving human welfare and freedom. This is “radical” because it would lead to the wholesale reformation of many of the current structures of society. It is “pragmatic” because it does not pre-judge the nature of the resulting structures in accordance with any given political ideology. I want to judge political and social arrangements by their effects, not by their provenance, history, or labels. If an idea labelled “conservative” turns out to enhance human freedom and welfare then it should be supported despite the label – likewise an idea labelled “communist”. It is partly for this reason (and partly due to disgust at some of the Liberal Democrats’ recent decisions) that I currently hold no party political allegiance.

There is another aspect to my political pragmatism: I am committed in my activism to an honest appraisal of what it is in fact possible to achieve. In the area of social theorizing, the most far-out and outrageous ideas have value, because they can expand our understanding of what sort of social arrangements might be open to us. The generation of ideas can itself be a form of activism, since we cannot work toward a future we haven’t yet envisaged. At the same time, all activists and movements have limited resources, and there is always competition for those resources among different worthwhile goals. Spending those resources wisely on campaigns which might actually have a beneficial effect is part of the responsibility activists take on: wasting people’s time on unachievable campaigns is, in my view, unethical. It is possible to err in both directions here: one can believe, falsely, that more is achievable than can actually be achieved given current social conditions, and one can believe, falsely, that less is achievable than can actually be achieved. Generally I think most people err in the latter way (believing they are less powerful than they actually could be) – but sometimes activists (particularly self-described radicals) err in the former way as well.

So that’s me. No surprise, then, that I find many of the critiques currently offered by radical queer activists to be compelling, and some to be problematic. Here I wish to outline my main areas of agreement:

Marriage equality has taken on too much prominence in the LGBTQ movement

It is certainly the case that the fight for legal recognition of same sex marriages has taken on a prominence within the LGBTQ movement disproportionate to its importance as a political issue. If we were to make a list of all the campaigns likely to improve the lives of LGBTQ people, marriage equality would not be near the top: it affects only those who wish and choose to be married, in ways far less dramatic than would, for instance, the development of a genuine public healthcare program, comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system, proper reform of schools to prevent bullying, better campaigns to prevent violence against women, or significant redistribution of wealth. The current prominence of marriage equality in the LGBTQ movement probably owes more to the potent symbolism of marriage as an institution, and to its alignment with current social norms (equal marriage is relatively easy to “sell”) than to the concrete benefits of reform to the legal institution to LGBTQ people, and we must question the impact the focus on marriage equality has had on other issues.

Legal marriage is an inherently problematic legal and historic institution

There are many problems with the history of marriage as an institution. The idea of marriage as a simple love-match between two people ignores history: marriage has been used to establish alliances between families (frequently without consent of either party), to trade women for political favors, to ensure the continuation of a lineage etc. Marriage has an oppressive history which should not be ignored. Kate Bornstein, in an Open Letter to LGBT Leaders Who Are Pushing Marriage Equality, writes:

Marriage is a privileging institution. It has privileged, and continues to privilege people along lines of not only religion, sexuality, and gender, but also along the oppressive vectors of race, class, age, looks, ability, citizenship, family status, and language.

Bornstein is not wrong. However, history is not destiny (this I will return to later), and I want to focus here more on the principle of legally-sanctioned marriages which confer rights on the couple.

The principle that some relationships should be offered special legal rights and protections which are not available to people in different types of relationships is inherently problematic: why should people have to get married – to have the state sanction their relationship – to be able to enjoy certain legal rights? Surely there is a way to open such rights (like the right to decent healthcare) to all people, regardless of the structure of their relationships? Why should the state sanction and prefer one limited form of relationship (pair bonding) over all the other forms of relationship human beings can pursue? I see no reason why it should (the reason “to support childrearing” doesn’t work, because we could always attach certain social supports to childrearing relationships without the legal institution of marriage if we wished to do that).

It is clear to me – particularly after reviewing rates of divorce in all segments of society – that the existence of marriage as a legal institution in its current form owes more to its hold on society as a historic institution rather than to the value it offers to 21st Century people. Seen from this perspective, the enthusiasm on the part of some queer people to engage in the legal institution of marriage requires investigation.

Other forms of relationships should be promoted

Marriage is by no means the only form of relationship capable of contributing to a person’s happiness, and indeed there is plenty of evidence that the “traditional” notion of marriage – a union in which two people make a commitment to lifelong sexual exclusivity with each other – hardly works for anyone at all. While the human animal does often seem to make deep romantic and sexual connections with another, single person, lifelong sexual exclusivity does not seem to be either achievable or desirable for most people (people’s recorded sexual behavior makes this abundantly clear).

At the same time, other forms of relationship – some radically different to marriage – prove for some just as life-affirming as marriage is for others. Polyamorous relationships, monogamish relationships, open relationships, remaining single, undefined relationships – there is a huge array of possible ways for people to build romantic and sexual relationships with others which look nothing like marriage, and everything should be done to open up those possibilities. To the extent that the focus on and promotion of equal marriage rights pushes the message that marriage is the optimal form of relationship, and that other relational forms are less-than, it is doing harm to people’s happiness and should be opposed.

Marriage rights were not a historic priority of the queer movement

It is true, too, as many writers have recently been reminding us, that marriage rights have only recently come to the fore in the LGBTQ movement. Not long ago marriage was simply not on the agenda – and not just because it was thought impossible to achieve (though, I submit, it is likely this played some role). Rather, the LGBTQ movement we know today has its roots in much more comprehensive critique of society than the one offered by today’s major mainstream LGBTQ organizations. If you read the manifestos, essays, and rally speeches from the early queer movement you will find demands to establish real universal healthcare, demands to radically reform the criminal justice system, demands for the wholesale redefinition of the families – but not, generally, demands to be able to get married. Those demands have come to prominence only in recent decades.

The queer movement has changed

This is perhaps at the heart of the matter, and the source of much of the criticism levelled at marriage equality from some radical quarters: the queer movement has changed significantly since it emerged as an identifiable political and social force. There is no doubt that the political aims and sensibilities of something like the Gay Liberation Front’s famous Manifesto of 1971 are markedly different from the mission statement of, for instance, today’s Human Right’s Campaign. While the Manifesto offers a genuinely radical critique of social structures writ-large, the HRC works “merely” for equal rights in society structured as it is. Crudely put, the GLF wanted to radically change society, while the HRC wants the full inclusion and participation of LGBTQ people in society as currently constituted (though past decisions raise big questions as to the extent to which participation and equality of trans people is a priority for them) – the fact that this is a crude characterization is important, and something I will return to later.

This is certainly a drastic shift. The change from a movement which explicitly sought to dismantle oppressive power structures in society through an approach which built alliances with other disempowered groups (poor people, people of color, etc.) to one which seeks inclusion in (assimilation into?) those same structures is dramatic, involving not only a shift in tactics (from grass roots organizing to standard political lobbying) but also a shift in fundamental values and goals. What are those who cut their teeth as activists working with a pacifist Gay Liberation Front (which actively opposed militarization) to think of the recent drive to allow queer people to serve openly in the armed forces? The values of today’s mainstream LGBTQ movement seem often to be at odds with those of the earliest queer activists, a desire to achieve “normal” having replaced a desire to change “normal” – or to eradicate it altogether. It must seem unfortunate at best, a betrayal at worst.

So there are many reasons to be opposed to the current push for marriage rights for LGBTQ people, and I sympathize with all of them. Indeed, in the process of typing out this post I have become more and more saddened and frustrated by the turn queer activism has taken. Nonetheless, I cannot fully endorse the critiques being offered recently by radical queer activists. I find some of them, if not equally problematic as the mainstream movement, then at least problematic in different ways – ways which are worth spelling-out. So in that spirit I offer what I hope will be received as a friendly critique by those with whom I shall, in part two of this post, disagree.


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