Marriage, Equality, and Radical Queer Politics – Part Two

In the first part of this post I gave a sketch of my personal and political background, and enumerated a number of areas where I am in full agreement with many radical queer activists who raise principled objections to the prominence given to to the marriage equality fight by mainstream LGBTQ organizations, and to the way in which the priorities and strategies of the queer movement have changed over the past few decades. Now I wish to explore areas of potential disagreement, in a continuing attempt to clarify my own thoughts through respectful dialogue with those who take a different view. As in part one, I am in close discussion with the pieces in the Against Equality anthology, which again I recommend you buy and read.

The queer movement was bound to change

If you consider what it means to be a sexual and gender minority, and how we are distributed through society, it seems inevitable that the queer movement would shift its political priorities and approach. It makes perfect sense that, initially, the people most engaged in queer activism were those with the most radical social and political viewpoints: people already on the margins of society are likely to hold fewer positions of power within the hierarchies of their time, and thus are more likely to offer critiques of those structures which would, if enacted, tear them down. It’ not precisely that those already marginalized have “less to lose” – frequently people on the edge of society have much more to fear from speaking out than those who can access some form of power – but they are certainly less likely to be invested in maintaining existing oppressive structures.

It was never the case, of course, that the radical politics which characterized much of the early modern queer movement represented the political and social views of all LGBTQ people. How could it? Relatively few people were out, and so the agenda was set by that small fraction of the queer population willing to speak up and be heard at that time. Queer people are not solely members of radical collectives and left-wing social movements, though: we are born into and grow up in wealthy, conservative families just as we are born into poor, socialist ones. As the heroic work of the early queer activists took hold, and it became more acceptable and less risky to come out, it is inevitable that people with a much broader range of political and social perspectives would come to identify as queer.

Because of the sort of dynamics sketched above, it is reasonable to assume that, as more people came out, the queer movement would become progressively more conservative. Those enmeshed and established within the normative structures of society-as-it-is, who draw their power from those structures, would feel increasingly emboldened to come out and, in so doing, would become another voice in the queer family whose priorities differ markedly from those with whom the movement began.

This is not to say that criticism of this shift in the movement is illegitimate – I hope I have been clear above that I welcome and support such criticism. At the same time, it would be wrong to argue that the shifting priorities of the queer movement represent simply the assimilation of queer culture into existing social structures. While that is likely true to some extent, it is also the case that it is a genuine reflection of the changing nature of the queer community itself. Paradoxically, the very success of the initial wave of more radical queer activists helped create the social conditions which have led to the increasing conservatism of queer politics by making it more acceptable for people with more conservative views to identify as queer.

How are organizations like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (described as “conservative” by Yasmin Nair in one article in Against Equality) and the Human Rights Campaign (“ultra-conservative”) to respond to this? If they are to attempt to represent the broadest swathe of the queer community, then they cannot simply hold to the radical politics of the earliest queer activists. Rather, they seem to have chosen to seek out the areas of broadest agreement, with which the vast majority of LGBTQ people agree, and focused on those: equal treatment under the law (including marriage equality and immigration reforms); non-discrimination legislation (in the workplace, accessing goods and services); protecting kids (anti-bullying efforts, youth empowerment) etc.

This is by no means ideal, since many critical issues which should be being addressed are either pushed off the table or given too little prominence. But it is an understandable situation with (in my mind) no obvious solution. The historical cisgenderism and cautious political pandering of organizations like the HRC is unacceptable. The extent to which the most prominent LGBTQ organizations focus on a subset of issues – and not even the most important ones – is deeply disturbing. The simply enormous amount of money running through these organizations makes me queasy – especially when I consider that many local community-based LGBTQ organizations are struggling to get by. But the gradual shift toward a more conservative politics within the queer movement is understandable as a probably inevitable by-product of the expansion of the community.

Progressive change is change

Many disagreements between self-described radicals and self-described progressives will come down, I think, to a difference in view as to how worthwhile social change is accomplished: progressives will tend to view marriage equality (for instance) as a step toward a more thorough renegotiation of the interaction between the state and people’s relationships, while radicals are more likely to view it as reinforcing oppressive social structures through participation in them.

This difference in view is tackled directly by Eric A. Stanley in one piece in Against Equality. The piece is structured as a dialogue between a skeptical questioner and Stanley, and at one point the following exchange occurs:

Q: I agree with your argument, but isn’t gay marriage a step in the right direction?

A: This liberal model of “progression” is one of the primary ways many of us are ideologically trapped into a reformist way of thinking…Gay marriage and voting are symbolic gestures that reinforce structures while claiming to reconfigure them.

It is quite possible that I am “ideologically trapped into a reformist way of thinking”. It is also quite possible that Stanley has come to the wrong conclusion as to how social change occurs. Stanley’s ultimate goal is, according to the piece, the “abolishment of State sanctioned coupling in either the hetero or homo incarnation”. Ultimately, this is a goal I share: I would rather see a wholesale renegotiation of the way in which the state interacts with our relationships. The question here posed is whether opening the institution of marriage to same sex couples makes it more or less likely that this goal will be achieved.

In my judgment, I cannot see how the expansion of marriage rights to include relationship configurations which, only a few decades ago, could not conceivably have been so recognized could possibly make it less likely that we will, in the future, be able to argue for further revisions of the interface between the state and our relationships. Whenever a totemic social institution like marriage is redefined through social action (and, ironically, the religious right is correct that we are now redefining marriage) we demonstrate, as a society, that such institutions are, in principle and in practice, malleable. Our activism heats the iron of the constricting structure and then, through enormous effort, reshapes it into a slightly more comfortable configuration.

Certainly, it is likely that the iron will cool again. Many of the activists currently engaged in the marriage equality fight will not continue on to fight for a more radical reshaping of marriage (and nor would they fight for such a reshaping now, were they encouraged to do so). Further changes will not come for a while. But having reshaped an institution once, we remember we are capable of reshaping it, we have proven we have the muscle to do it, and will, in my judgment, be more capable to do so again. Eventually, after many efforts at reheating and reshaping a particular social structure, we can recast it entirely or do away with it.

This is a broad metaphorical sketch at a progressive theory of change, granted, but I think it in line with how major social change has occurred historically. I can think of no great emancipation movement which does not, when investigated in a fine-grained way, take on a “progressive” character, in which small gains are used to generate the fortitude to push for larger ones and in which, over time, small progressive changes add up to something which, seen from the perspective of where the movement began, become radical. After all, the difference between a “radical” and a “conservative” is often a matter of historical moment – many radicals of the past would now sound deeply conservative, precisely because an accumulation of progressive changes has radically changed our world. It is possible that Stanley has a counter-example in mind, but none is provided in the text – perhaps readers can provide one?

Kate and Deeg, also writing in Against Equality (in a piece called Marriage is Still the Opiate of the Queers), argue:

“there is a basic conflict…between those who see the gay movement as a way to gain acceptance in straight society, and lesbians and gay men who are fighting to create a society in our own image…We do not want the crumbs from this society’s table…We want to overturn [it].”

I certainly agree that the desire for acceptance and the desire for social revolution are often at odds. It is one thing to attempt to gain acceptance by conforming to a given norm, quite another to attempt to overturn that norm. I am not arguing that this tension does not exist. Rather, I am suggesting that it is not a necessary tension which is always in play. Rather I see it as more of a dance, a give and take, in which, as we move somewhat toward a given norm the norm (if we plan our steps right) moves some way toward us. It is, after all, easier to overturn a table at which you are sitting than one in another room.

A final quote from Against Equality, this time by Yasmin Nair, illustrates the difference in view here neatly. Nair asks, regarding the push for marriage equality: “Surely the point is not to change an archaic institution but to change, you know, the world?” I here argue that to change an archaic institution in the direction of justice is to change the world – not as much as I would like it changed, but some change nonetheless.

It is extremely difficult to predict future changes in society

Throughout this (absurdly lengthy) article I have tried to remain explicitly open to the possibility that I could be mistaken. Nowhere is this attempt at fallibilism more pertinent than when trying to predict the way our society might change in the future, and what campaigns will ultimately catch on and fire the imagination of a people.

One thing which strikes me about some of the writing from radical queer quarters in recent years, and particularly some of the essays in Against Equality, is a seeming surety about the course of future events, or about the course the past would have taken had certain individuals or organizations made different decisions. One stunning example comes from John D’Emilio in Against Equality. D’Emilio’s 2006 essay The Marriage Fight is Setting Us Back argues throughout that “the campaign for same-sex marriage has been an unmitigated disaster”, creating “a vast body of antigay law.” He argues (with some justification at the time) that the legal reaffirmations of marriage as being only between one man and one woman that were then being passed in large numbers would be extremely difficult to overturn, and that the push for marriage equality had no chance of success.

Marriage equality advocates are pilloried: “this disaster should surprise only those activists and ideologues who are utterly convinced of their own rectitude and wisdom.”; “Their determination to get married has blinded them to the glaring flaws in the strategy of making marriage equality the prime goal of the gay and lesbian movement.”; “Did anyone really believe the courts in this era would lead the way on marriage equality?” Marriage equality activists are berated for their “tactical stupidity” and are exhorted to change course and focus instead on other priorities.

Reading D’Emilio’s article in 2014, I found I repeatedly had to check the date on which it was written to confirm that it was indeed a relatively recent document. It’s not that the article is foolish or poorly-argued – indeed, I think it one of the most thoughtful and well-written of the essays in Against Equality, with a very strong account of how changing social dynamics have affected queer politics. But it must be recognized that, not even a decade after its initial publication D’Emilio’s article seems completely mistaken in its judgment of the future prospects of the marriage equality fight. It turns out that the legal prohibitions to same sex marriage were not that difficult to overturn, and that the refusal of marriage equality advocates to “course correct” and focus on the deestablishment of marriage has been vindicated as one of the most stunning political reversals of contemporary history.

I note this to stress the importance of humility, particularly when it comes to attempts to predict the future (or alternate futures stemming from a different imagined past). We could all be fantastically mistaken.

Many queer people actually want to get married

This is a point that seems so obvious as to not need stating, but it is not inconsequential that very many queer people clearly see great value in marriage and wish to get married themselves. This is not determinative – it is possible that very many people could want to do something truly abominable, and the simple fact that they wanted to do it in great numbers would not make that thing something to support. But it seems to me much more difficult to maintain the view that marriage is simply an oppressive institution in which we should not partake when surrounded by overwhelming numbers of images of people getting married and experiencing it as liberatory and emancipating. I suppose it is possible that all or a great many of these people have been “assimilated” or “normalized” by mainstream culture – it is certainly the case that all our desires are shaped to a great degree by our cultural context – but I am unwilling to pass judgment on such a large number of people clearly expressing their desires.

On balance, if so great a number of people express their wish to gain the legal right to marry, and if their experience of that moment is joyous and profound, I am strongly inclined to bow to the most parsimonious explanation of that phenomenon: that those people genuinely desire to get married and do not experience it as oppressive to them. This should, I argue, have some weight in our deliberation as social critics, alongside all the ways that marriage as an institution can be harmful.

Responsible activism requires a coherent theory of change

I believe it is the responsibility of those who advocate for any sort of change in society justified on ethical grounds to develop, in the fullness of time, a plausible mechanism by which to bring about that change. One of my criticisms of Against Equality is that it outlines very few such mechanisms, leading even this sympathetic reader to be skeptical as to the plausibility of the proposals offered.

The editors of the anthology preempt this criticism in the books introduction, written by Ryan Conrad, Karma Chavez, Yasmin Nair, and Deena Loeffler, saying:

“Since our inception, AE has been criticized for our critiques, and accused of not providing alternatives. Our continued response is that the structures of assimilation are so tenacious that they need, first and foremost, hard and insistent critiques in order to dismantle the authority and power they have accrued over the years. Additionally, every contributor to this anthology and every member of the small Against Equality collective is connected to project which radically alter the political landscape…action is – or can be – a form of analysis.”

I wholly accept that critique is a form of social action, and an essential first step in any program of change. Understanding the structures which oppress us is essential if we are to overthrow them. Nonetheless, I find this response inadequate. Critique itself is strengthened when it includes a theory as to how change can be made: a theory of change is part of your theory. A critique which offers, as part of its analysis of structural conditions, no critical appraisal of how those conditions might be altered is an incomplete critique, and quite insufficient for the purpose of informing a social change movement.

Against Equality’s preemptive statement above implicitly recognizes that critique which does not offer adequate appraisal of mechanisms of change is incomplete when it says that critique is needed “first and foremost”. To say something is of first importance is to recognize that there are other things which are also important, and in this instance one such thing – genuine, achievable alternatives along with strategies to achieve them – is missing from most of the analyses of marriage equality presented in the anthology. This omission is all the more regrettable given that, according to the introduction, all the authors in the anthology are engaged in social change efforts they clearly consider to be of value. Why the authors do not tell us something about some of these activities, and how they play into achieving the goals they eloquently outline, I do not know.

There is one final reason why it is critical that all activists, regardless of political persuasion, develop a detailed theory of change and concrete proposals: the process of doing so hones our ideas. Thinking deeply about how we aim to achieve the goals we set helps us check the plausibility of those goals, get a handle on the amount and type of resources we will need to achieve them, develop more nuanced strategies for each stage of our campaign, etc. There are innumerable intellectual and practical benefits to developing a cogent theory of change, and in my reading the preemptive statement offered by Against Equality in response to (predictable) criticisms of the lack of alternatives and strategies offered in the text does not do enough to defray these concerns. In my judgment it would be better, both for the reader and for the authors themselves, for more writing on this specific topic to be presented.

Respecting the dignity of those we disagree with is part of our ethical responsibility as activists

Finally (phew!), I want to address something which is likely to be a divisive matter amongst my readers and activists in general. By far the most persuasive and compelling of the critiques of the marriage equality agenda offered in Against Equality is, in my mind, Queer kids of Queer Parents Against Gay Marriage, by MH Kaufman and Katie Miles. Kaufman and Miles offer a passionate and personal critique of the prominence of marriage equality as a goal for the queer movement, exposing much of the political hypocrisy and misplaced energy which has characterized the struggle for marriage rights for same sex couples. It’s a truly epic piece – a tour de force of polemical writing, which offers a few concrete suggestions as to how people could make a different sort of change along the way (partially addressing my criticism above).

But what makes it so compelling for me, and what I want to focus on as I close, is how without sacrificing an iota of righteous anger or indignation Kaufman and Miles hold on to the dignity of people who disagree with them on the issue of marriage. “It is easy to understand”, they write, “how marriage has become an instant cure-all for some…we understand where the desire for the security promised by marriage comes from.” This small recognition that those who actually want to get married might have good reasons to desire it goes an awfully long way to making their broader critique seem more persuasive, because it is not so one-sided as some of the others in the anthology.

This generosity toward those who disagree is continued in the postscript to the piece, in which Kaufman thanks critics for “smart and honest criticism”, and recognizes the extent to which (completely justified anger) led, at the time of writing, to “language [which] could alienate people [they] wanted to convince.”

Likewise, Miles writes:

“Since we shared this essay, we’ve heard a lot of generous and smart feedback from people who see gay marriage as very important for their families, emotionally and otherwise. We know that for many people, marriage, and the benefits it can give, can be a form of survival. We believe that people can experience an immediate need for the benefits marriage would provide and a simultaneous hope for more expansive solutions.”

In the heat of argument over issues of greatest import – human freedom, dignity, and liberation from oppression – it is easy to speak or write in a way which disrespects and demeans those with whom we have good faith disagreements. In my honest judgment, a couple of the pieces in Against Equality, and some of the commentary which has recently been written on marriage equality, does this. I believe if we seek the liberation of all people then we must strive to honor all people as we fight, and I offer this critique in that spirit. On the issue of same sex marriage, Kaufman writes:

“I see the impulse to ask the state to validate your family and the impulse to ask for a more expansive solution as two sides of the same coin”

I agree. I am for equality, and for radical change.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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