Amidst all the news coverage of yesterday’s ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that California’s November 2008 Proposition 8 is unconstitutional as well as Washington State’s passage of a marriage equality bill, I wish to nuance the excitement of these events with a critique of the narrow focus of the LGBTQ movement in recent years. I have personally participated in marriage equality activism through organizing voter phone banking against Prop 8 as well as the 13LoveStories project. In addition, as someone who works with queer youth, I think that this is an important decision that will impact LGBTQ youth self-esteem and self-acceptance. However, there are many other civil rights issues affecting LGBTQ folks that have been completely usurped by the marriage debate. By focusing so narrowly on this one issues, activists have created a mainstream agenda for queer rights that does not address the root issues of inequality.
The institution of marriage as maintained by the state is a means of enforcing private property, wealth inheritance, and individual, rather than societal, safety nets. The money and energy that has been dedicated to this narrow civil rights fight has compromised LGBTQ activism as whole by channeling the bulk of community resources towards an issue that will largely benefit affluent, mostly white, gay and lesbian folks. For queer folks who are poor, immigrants, gender variant, and/or people of color, civil rights issues around educational access, housing, criminal justice reform, and health care are much more pressing than the right to marry. All of these issues also lend themselves to coalition building with many other diverse groups, while marriage equality does not.
In addition to channeling community resources away from more basic survival issues that affect queer folks, the focus on marriage equality has served to only further enshrine the notion of the nuclear family, which in today’s society is largely a myth rather than a reality. With 50% of marriages ending in divorce, and a clear breakdown in our society of the nuclear family, why do we as queer folks wish to partake in a broken institution? While I am married and feel blessed to have had my ceremony during the months that all marriages were legal in California, I do not believe that the state should play a role in marriage, or that there should be rights and privileges for married folks. Queer communities have pioneered alternative family formations through our history of caring for one another in times of need outside of traditional, state sanctioned familial relationships. For example, the queer community’s response to the AIDS crisis is a demonstration of our ability to form alternative family structures that function effectively to support and care for each other. If the amount of funding, focus, and political will that has been dedicated to marriage equality were funneled into redefining the state’s notion of what makes a family and who is considered a caretaker, we would see a much larger coalition of groups involved including immigrant rights activists and health care activists. No one should have her or his immigration or healthcare status depend on being married, for example. Continuing to use narrowly defined identity politics as a basis for organizing leaves us more vulnerable to backlash, to being defeated by the majority, and to overlooking the root causes of our oppression.
I do believe, however, that this ruling and the marriage debate in general has created a much larger space to discuss LGBTQ issues in the mainstream media, in the classroom, and in families. This has had a significant and noticeable impact on the comfort level of many people when discussing queer rights, because being seen as loving family members humanizes us. I am grateful for the significant change that has occurred in peoples’ attitudes towards LGBTQ individuals in recent years, and I think that this ruling will continue moving us forward in the right direction. At the same time, it is important to temper our elation with an analysis of the pieces that are currently missing from the puzzle. If we do not address the root causes of LGBTQ oppression, the issue of marriage equality is likely to suffer the same fate as that of legalized abortion – a right that is continuously being challenged and restricted through legal action.
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