What’s So Radical about Same-Sex Marriage?

Two days ago I wrote about David Blankenhorn, longtime “traditional” marriage proponent who reluctantly announced he will no longer oppose same-sex couples’ freedom to marry. I examined his reasoning, because I believe it’s important to understand the logic of those with whom we disagree. And I took issue with Richard Kim’s response at The Nation, which I took to represent the radical/progressive wing of the LGBT movement, which has long groaned at the focus on marriage equality. I got some heated critiques about that post. So yesterday I dug up my longtime agreement with Blankenhorn that allowing same-sex couples into the institution transforms its meaning, furthering the institution’s philosphical and legal shift toward symbolizing gender equality and the separation of sex and babies. My goal yesterday: explain how progressive this shift actually is.  

But today I’m going to take issue with myself—hey, I’m just talented that way—and argue that there’s a way that Kim, Lisa Duggan, Nancy Polikoff, and other longtime progressive critics of the marriage movement are right: The freedom to marry is not actually a progressive pursuit at all. I’m taking this up because Chris Geidner called my explanation of this “stridently conservative.” I intended to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, realist instead of activist. It’s certainly possible that I’m still arguing with the people I was arguing with back in the 1990s, when there were few intellectual lesbian and gay voices who believed trying to break into marriage was a good idea. So let me explain.

Back in the 1990s, lesbian and gay leaders, either organizationally or intellectually, almost universally had deeply lefty credentials. (I’m explicitly not saying “LGBT” because that would be anachronistic.) And they hated marriage. They just hated it. They thought it was a loser as an issue. They thought it should come after everything else had been won. Or they thought that it was a wrong-headed, false-consciousness pursuit of assimilation, a flat-out contradiction of the movement that they believed they stood for: sexual liberation, or creative ways to recognize alternative family structures.

But I never understood—I still don’t understand—how they could see the the gay and lesbian “us” as a lefty movement. There’s no political entrance exam for being gay. People who discover that they fall in love with, or are attracted to, someone of the same-sex are scattered randomly across the population. They grow up poor and undocumented; or in trailers in Oklahoma, eating government cheese; or going to the “best” New England prep schools and taking legacy spots in the Ivy League; and everywhere else in between. They grow up in families that are Republican, Democrat, and politically illiterate. They were socialized so differently that sometimes they can barely speak across those barriers. They have nothing in common with each other except that attraction. To say that LGBT folks should pursue this or that strategy assumes we have a core political philosophy. But in a Venn diagram, the “us” of lesbians and gay men would overlap only slightly with the “us” of a progressive movement.

So I have always found the radicals’ and academics’ arguments about what we should pursue to be frustratingly … academic. They seemed to believe that ordinary lesbians and gay men should be following some intellectual vanguard, tackling all the pillars of general oppression in one swell foop (as my father used to say). The marriage-equality movement surprised and frustrated them—because it has been a grassroots populist movement, in the most classic sense. It was pushed ferociously by Middle American lesbians and gay men: physicians’ assistants and middle managers, stay-at-home moms who desperately needed to get listed on the health insurance of their state-trooper partners, graphic designers who fell in love and wanted to spend their lives together—and who wanted to launch that with the same social celebration, the same civil sanction that their brothers and sisters had had. They don't have a deep critique of American society. They didn’t want to perform queerness or demonstrate solidarity with all oppressed peoples. They just wanted to be equal. And so I watched as one marriage-averse LGBT leader after another reluctantly came around as they were pushed into the pursuit of marriage by insistent constituents. If they didn’t, they were replaced by more mainstream folks who, because the radicals who had aimed at general liberation had changed the culture enough to accept us, were willing to step forward and get involved in an equality movement.

The radicals have found this assimilation frustrating. I find that frustration a little silly. I just don’t think lesbians and gay men are fundamentally queer. I believe in respecting ordinary hopes and dreams (which is not to say I always achieve it, but I believe in it); I was converted to this political system by Heda Kovaly’s Under a Cruel Star, as I’ve written before. Kovaly showed me, through her beautiful and brilliant memoir of life in Prague between 1941 and 1968, how the idealist pursuit of political perfection helped ravage Europe. I distrust idealism’s authoritarian streak; I believe in incremental change that takes into account what people say they want, and why.

All of which is to say that the frustrated radicals are correct: From one point of view, marriage equality is not radical at all or even necessarily progressive. It is, rather, libertarian, following naturally from the way capitalism’s centrifuge has been transforming the underlying purposes of marriage, in the ways I discussed yesterday.

Here’s what I may not have treated fairly from Richard Kim’s piece: the hope that the United States would find legal ways to recognize the genuine variety of American family forms today. He’s right that marriage has become a minority household structure, and that the United States desperately needs to find a better way to acknowledge human ties and social needs. As you probably know, United States is an outlier in the developed world, both in our either/or legal approach to family structure, and in the way we link social welfare to marriage and employment. We are peculiar, in that here you either are married, and therefore legally linked to a single partner, or you are not, and therefore are legal strangers to anyone who’s not biologically related. Many developed countries have more pluralist recognitions. Canada and Australia, for instance, automatically impose legal ties on any two people who cohabit more than some minimum period (one, two, or three years, depending on the state or province in which you live). Most of Europe offers social-welfare supports to individuals regardless of marital or employment status. I too long for such transformations. I enthusiastically agree with the pursuit of what Kim and Duggan call for: “democratization of household recognition with advocacy of material support for caretaking, as well as for good jobs and adequate benefits (like universal healthcare).” I just don’t believe that this pursuit has much natural overlap with the LGBT movement. And neither wishing nor chastising will make it so.

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