all images for this post come from Adam Bouska‘s No H8 Campaign
As most readers here know, gay marriage is not big on my organizing schedule. While I agree whole-heartedly that consenting adults regardless of identity should have the right to marry, I believe that the amount of money, energy, and effort that has gone into gay marriage and the antagonisms it has created within the queer community speak to a middle class vanilla focus that does not reflect the image or the needs of many of the people I know. At the same time, I think it would be wrong to argue that any effort toward marriage equality should be stopped until we have addressed other pressing issues in the queer community.
For me, marriage equality is one of many reflections of the state sanctioned inequality for queer people. It must be overcome just as surely as the lack of available healthcare for transgender women, rural lesbians, and working class lesbians of color or legal protections for lesbians of color or gay immigrants attacked by homophobes or immigration reform that allows queer people the same legal rights as straight ones. Prop 8 in particular stands out as a critical place to continue organizing precisely because it represents the conflation of conservative religion(s), neo-conservative and supremacist immigrant groups, racial tensions, homophobia and/or heterosexism, and the willingness of a seemingly liberal state to capitulate to fear mongering.
Today, the Federal Court of California overturned the California Supreme Court’s Decision to uphold Prop 8. The lawsuit argued that
- Prop 8 violated the Equal Protections clause of the Constitution (which it so obviously does)
- Proposition 8 violates the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution as an impermissible restriction on the fundamental right of marriage
The first of these two arguments points to the basic issue of equality which is at the heart of the challenges to exclusionary practices in the U.S. toward queer people. Many have tried to get around the symbolic and public issues related to equality by offering legal equality with regards to marriage, ie the right to common property, health care benefits, visitation & decision during health crisis, etc. In so doing, they have hoped to avoid larger discussions of equality by circumventing them with legal rights. Many in the marriage equality movement have countered by pointing out that names and rituals matter. Commitment ceremonies may provide legal rights establishing certain legal equality but they do not afford socio-political equality because they are still separate and Other. The people who have made this challenge then are ensuring that the conflict stays centered on the issue of equality and marginality rather than on marriage as an event. This is particularly important for including people for whom marriage is not their main organizing strategy but also for staying focused on why the marriage debate is important to everyone: ie its import to both real and symbolic equality of queer people in the U.S.
The second issue, about Due Process, relates to the question of rights afforded all citizens of the United States. Marriage as a fundamental right establishes access to citizenship in both symbolic and legal ways. As I’ve said before, family reunification is one of the major ways that immigrants legally enter the U.S. and become citizens. Lack of access to legal marriage then constitutes potential lack of legal access to immigration. Symbolically, lack of access to marriage represents an unspoken condemnation of the sexual choices and relationships of the people who are denied. Often people in the marriage equality movement have compared this situation to the equally offensive ban on interracial marriage in the past. That law was based on eugenicist beliefs that black people were less human than white people and that intermarriage would lead to degeneration of the “white citizenry or race”. Unfortunately, many people pointing to these parallels have taken the issue one step further arguing that “black people would never be banned from marrying”, which ignores multiple recent cases in which interracial couples were refused access to local churches or city halls to get married or ongoing eugenicist thinking in this country in favor of pointing to the law which allows such marriages, and worse that “gay is the new black”, ie that racism is over and that homophobia is worse than racism. These arguments have polarized the discussion in many ways by intentionally or inadvertently centering the focus on the issue of marriage as an institution. For many straight and gay people looking at marriage through this lens, the issue of equality gets lost or at least bogged down in larger discussions about the meaning of marriage, its import across diverse lines, etc. Real issues of how marriage only provides health insurance or inheritance to those with money and jobs with benefits and how activist energy and money is going into the marriage issue instead of fighting for other equality issues that would provide job security and benefits to larger and more diverse groups making up the queer community abound.
At the same time, embedded in the issue of marriage as a fundamental right is the issue of the goals of the State/Nation. Is it the goal of the U.S. government to represent and provide equality for all of its people or is it the goal of the nation to define citizenship according to a distinct set of subjective principles? While we tend to think of the U.S. as a place that does the former, history clearly shows that it is actually engaged in the latter. If we go by the letter of the law, then the State must uphold the right of all consenting citizens to marry one another. To not go by the letter of the law then reveals the bias behind the institution of marriage and renders the bigotry behind dubious arguments about “sanctity” “family” “right/good” visible for everyone.
Today, the court chose to go with the law by declaring Prop 8 unconstitutional. Not only does that represent a win for Californians and marriage equality proponents but it also takes a step in the direction of recognizing the humanity of queer people. This step did not occur because marriage is back on the books as some might argue. Tentative acceptance of marriage in one state is not concrete acceptance of marriage equality there or in the nation as a whole. Rather, the win has to do with how the court made its decision. The court sided with gay marriage based on the testimony of two queer couples who talked about their love for each other, their relationship, commitment, and experiences of both bonded joy and discrimination. In other words, this case was won on the basis of the court’s recognition of the fundamental humanity and citizenry (ie symbolic right to be considered N. American) of same sex couples. The import of that cannot be underestimated.
As such, the HRC has asked that people in the queer community take time out to thank the brave couples involved in the lawsuit for opening up their lives to the court and risking endless shaming and blaming to turn the tide. You can send a pre-written thank you letter by clicking here.
I’ll end by saying this is not the end. Prop 8 supporters have vowed to take the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. As reported here during the Prop 8 debacle, Mormon’s have been using huge donor phone trees and even their own college BYU to amass massive funding dollars to fight marriage equality in California and across the nation. They are aided by communities across race and class lines but particularly conservative Eastern European immigrant communities that are changing the landscape of California and older communities that appear to have less exposure to information about alternative sexuality than other groups. These communities, as well as the many pockets of conservativism , fear, and hatred, everywhere, need more outreach, more non-top-down education and exposure, and more opportunities to be included rather than excluded or scapegoated for who they are rather than what they think. No one is going to be open minded in a discussion in which their basic identity is vilified not queer people excluded from basic rights nor communities taught to hate excluded on the basis of being X rather than thinking or supporting hate. Each of us can make a difference on this front even as we keep our energy focused on larger pushes for equality for everyone in the queer alphabet.
last image co John Elton Creative Studios all others Steve Bouska