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Queer Activism Does Not Mean Gay Marriage

rae's picture

Felice Picano and Gay Marriage
Way back when Felice Picano was in class, all those weeks ago, I tried to make a point about how gay marriage isn’t the only issue that queers face. I’ll admit that I didn’t do a very good job. So I thought about it, and did some research, and thought about it some more, and gathered my thoughts…and then promptly forgot about it for a while. Actually, I just wanted to have a really solid argument, so I kept looking for more articles. But now I’ve decided that it’s not going to be a finished project, and I’m just going to post what I have. My thoughts are in two parts because I’m not actually against gay marriage. It’s not as though I think it should be illegal. I was crushed when Prop 8 passed (even though I’m not from California, so it doesn’t really legally affect me); I actually stayed up until about 4 in the morning November 5th, willing the numbers to change and Prop 8 to fail. It didn’t, as I assume we all know, and I lost some of the hope and optimism I’d gained from Obama being elected president. However, I feel strongly that the emphasis on gay marriage takes attention, support, and money away from a lot of issues that LGBT/queer people face and causes those other issues to become invisible.   

Gay marriage should be legalized.
I think it’s ridiculous that so many people are so against gay marriage. To me, it seems like it should be the easiest problem for the LGBT community to deal with (and given how many issues there are with having gay marriage stick, perhaps that’s saying something about the issues the LGBTQ community is facing). Pass legislation that allows people of the same sex to get married (and the same gender and really, any sex and any gender). Enforce it--make justices, etc, fill out the paperwork. And, for the love of Athena, don’t let people vote on it! You don’t let people vote about whether to take away people’s civil rights. Really, now. (Or, rather, you shouldn’t let people vote about civil rights because apparently, people are being allowed to vote on them.) The US is not a country of majority rule--there are important things in place to protect the rights of the few from the wishes of the many. (I learned that in my philosophy of law class--it was a while ago, though, so I’m not going to go into details.)

I’m not trying to say that legalizing gay marriage is easy, just that it should be. It can be changed with legislation. Other things can’t be--parents disowning their children for being queer or trans, kids bullying other kids for being (or appearing to be) gay or not following gender norms well enough, people being murdered because of their sexual orientation or gender expression--these things can’t be changed with a simple piece of legislation.

Gay marriage is important to a lot of people, both symbolically and practically. As a symbol, it is one more way to bring the queer community a step further from second-class citizenship, and it legitimizes people’s relationships in society’s eyes. That’s powerful. Legally, there are hundreds of rights that married people have and often take for granted. Gay marriage would make many people’s lives better.

I can understand the desire for gay marriage to be legalized. All of my life, I sort of assumed that one day, I’d grow up and get married to the person I loved. I understand the desire to have the rights that straight people have. I understand the desire to have my relationship be recognized. I understand the desire to have all of those rights and legal protections. I understand the desire to not be treated like a second-class citizen.

Gay marriage is not the right goal.
Or perhaps I should say, gay marriage should not be the only goal. Gay marriage--whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing--is not the magic solution. Making gay marriage legal--even on a federal level--will not make things “happily ever after” for all queers. That might be my biggest problem with how much money, energy, and attention is devoted to the gay marriage cause. Gay rights is now synonymous with gay marriage. And while gay marriage is important, it appears to affect a group of people who are relatively privileged to begin with (mainly white, upper/middle-class gay cispeople who express themselves in a way that is gender-normal) the most. I’m not saying that their lives are all sunshine and rainbows to begin with. I’m not saying that the legalization of gay marriage won’t affect queers of color, lower-income queers, transfolk, gender-nonconforming people, etc. I’m just saying that they (the second category) are facing other issues as well, where as (in what I believe to be the words of Felice Picano) gay marriage is the only big issue facing the more privileged group of gays.  

But there are so many other issues that affect other queers’ lives. The facebook group “I Still Think Marriage is the Wrong Goal” state in its description, “We still demand a queer political agenda that centralizes the experiences of prisoners, poor people, immigrants, trans people, and people with disabilities. We reject a gay agenda that pours millions of dollars into campaigns for access to oppressive institutions for a few that stand to benefit.”

In a May 28, 2008, article titled “Why One Queer Person Is Not Celebrating California's Historic Gay Marriage Decision,” Mattilda Berstein Sycamore writes, “the push for gay marriage has shifted advocacy away from essential services like HIV education, AIDS health care, drug treatment, domestic violence prevention, and homeless care -- all crucial needs for far more queers than marriage could ever be” (

Berstein also writes, “the gay marriage movement is busy fighting for a 1950s model of white-picket fence "we're just like you" normalcy. And that's no reason to celebrate” ( In Queer Theory, Gender Theory, Riki Wilchins writes, “gay activists have continued to fight for mainstream acceptance by pointedly comparing gayness to straightness--by arguing that gay people also are monogamous, raise families, and look gender-normal. While this has been politically affective, it has also made fidelity to sexual and romantic norms the basis for demanding social recognition” (126-127). In a way, the message it’s sending is that only the queers who want to be like straight people (except, y’know, for the whole same-sex love/attraction thing)--only the ones who want to fit into the happy family model and blend in with everyone else, only the ones who are cisgendered/cissexual and don’t make waves--deserve to have equal rights. Everyone else doesn’t matter. Trannies and genderqueers and queers who don’t buy into the mainstream ideal, and queers who don’t want to get married, and queers who are polyamorous (because it’s still all about marriage to one person), and everyone else--they’re all left out of the gay rights movement (or, if you want to be more politically correct and also possibly less accurate, the LGBT movement) when the movement focuses so exclusively on gay marriage.  

And anyway, legalizing gay marriage won’t automatically make life better for people--maybe those who want to get married. But those who don’t want to get married, queer kids whose parents have kicked them out, kids who are bullied and beat up for being/looking gay, victims of hate crimes, gender-nonconforming people (including, by the way, butch lesbians and flamboyant gay men) who are harassed on a daily basis, transfolk who can’t get adequate health care, etc, etc--gay marriage won’t do a damn thing for them.

A few related links:

I found this website on Ignacio Rivera’s facebook group page.

Queers for Economic Justice is a progressive non-profit organization committed to promoting economic justice in a context of sexual and gender liberation.

And this is a really (I think) thought-provoking article/essay. I began trying to pull out the important quotes, but frankly, I gave up part-way through because there was too much I wanted to quote. I think the whole thing is really worth reading.

Resist the Gay Marriage Agenda!
By queerkidssaynomarriage

“Thousands are losing their homes, and gays want a day named after Harvey Milk. The U.S. military is continuing its path of destruction, and gays want to be allowed to fight. Cops are still killing unarmed black men and bashing queers, and gays want more policing. More and more Americans are suffering and dying because they can’t get decent health care, and gays want weddings.”

“As young queer people raised in queer families and communities, we reject the liberal gay agenda that gives top priority to the fight for marriage equality. The queer families and communities we are proud to have been raised in are nothing like the ones transformed by marriage equality. This agenda fractures our communities, pits us against natural allies, supports unequal power structures, obscures urgent queer concerns, abandons struggle for mutual sustainability inside queer communities and disregards our awesomely fabulous queer history.”

“Marriage is an institution used primarily to consolidate privilege, and we think real change will only come from getting rid of a system that continually doles out privilege to a few more, rather than trying to reform it. We know that most families, straight or gay, don’t fit in with the standards for marriage, and see many straight families being penalized for not conforming to the standard the government has set: single moms trying to get on welfare, extended family members trying to gain custody, friends kept from being each other’s legal representatives. We have far more in common with those straight families than we do with the kinds of gay families that would benefit from marriage.  We are seeing a gay political agenda become single-issue to focus on marriage and leave behind many very serious issues such as social, economic, and racial justice.”

“We’re seeing the marriage equality agenda turn its back on a tradition of queer activism that began with Stonewall and other fierce queer revolts and that continued through the AIDS crisis.  Equality California keeps on sending us videos of big, happy, gay families, and they’re making us sick: gay parents pushing kids on swings, gay parents making their kids’ lunches, the whole gay family safe inside the walls of their own homes. Wait a second, is it true?  It’s as if they’ve found some sort of magical formula: once you have children, your life instantly transforms into a scene of domestic bliss, straight out of a 1950’s movie. The message is clear. Instead of dancing, instead of having casual sex, instead of rioting, all of the “responsible” gays have gone and had children. And now that they’ve had children, they won’t be bothering you at all anymore. There’s an implicit promise that once gays get their rights, they’ll disappear again. Once they can be at home with the kids, there’s no reason for them to be political, after all!”

“We’re fed up with the way that the gay marriage movement has tried to assimilate us, to swallow up our families, our lives, and our lovers into its clean-cut standards for what queer love, responsibility, and commitment should look like. We reject the idea that we should strive to see straight family configurations reflected in our families. We’re offended by the idea that white, middle-class gays – rather than genderqueers, poor people, single moms, prisoners, people of color, immigrants without papers, or anyone whose life falls outside of the norm that the state has set – should be our “natural” allies.”



breast cancer surgery's picture

I understand your point, but

I understand your point, but I do believe that a federal recognition of same sex marriage would influence notions of gender normativity. the state is one of the pirmary ideological apparatuses, and although its acceptance by the "mainstream" population will be very slow (just like it was/is with women and black rights to vote), I think that it will eventually establish a notion of homonormativity. although surely not all gyas will want to subscribe to a set notion of homonormativity, just like not all straight guys want to subscribe to a set notion of heteronormativity, i think its presence will be a sort of foot in the door for mainstream acceptance.

rae's picture

 First of all, I'm sorry that

 First of all, I'm sorry that it's taken me so long to respond -- I actually wrote this for a class that I took last fall, so I haven't really been keeping up with that. 

That said, I'm a little confused by your response. Or perhaps I'm confused by your concept of "normativity." First of all, I think that federal recognition of "same sex" marriage would reinforce societal norms that value marriage (between two people) over other relationships. 

I absolutely don't believe that it would, as you call it, "establish a notion of homonormativity" -- going off the definition of "heternormative," I imagine "homonormative" would mean establishing gayness/homosexuality/same sex relationships as the norm and standard. I doubt that would ever happen (and frankly, I don't believe it should happen), and I don't believe that allowing "same sex" marriage would do it.  

The last bit of your comment might be the trickiest. While I agree that granting federal recognition of "same sex" marriage would help forward mainstream acceptance for some gay people, I still don't believe that it would help all of the queer community. Yes, it would help acceptance of gay people who want to get married and fit in with mainstream society. But it wouldn't do anything about the ways in which varying forms of oppression intersect -- for queer people of color and poor queer people, for example, homophobia is tied into racism and classism.

Acceptance for gay marriage would say "we're okay with two men, or two women, getting married to each other." That kind of acceptance would be great, but it doesn't go far enough. It doesn't say "we're okay with our kids being queer, with our students' teachers being queer, with queer people living next to me, with with our politicians being queer, with people 'acting' queer." 

Actually, there's not really any point in me continuing in this vein. My last two paragraphs pretty much sum up this argument, and you have presumably read them. The one change I'd make is to my last sentence -- I'd change it from "won't do a damn thing for them" to "won't do a damn thing about those problems."

By the way, to the best of my knowledge, "heteronormative" doesn't mean "the norms and standards for heterosexual people" (like getting married): it refers to the idea that being heterosexual is the norm, the standard, how it should be. I'm just not sure what you mean about the straight guys not wanting to "subscribe to a set notion of heteronormativity." Definitely, there are people out there (straight guys included) who don't believe that being straight should be the standard expectation (and thus how one "should" be) and in that sense don't want to subscribe to a set notion of heteronormativity. It seems to me that you meant it more as "don't want to subscribe to a set notion of how straight people should act (i.e. get married)." Do you get what I'm saying? What exactly did you mean? I'm aware that I could be totally wrong about your take on this. 

Anonymous's picture

great post!!!

I could not agree more.

But you forgot to mention the most famous statement about this topic of all: BEYOND MARRIAGE (
It was written by over a dozen leaders in the LGBT movement who were fed up with the current state of marriage politics.

rae's picture

Absolutely right

Hi! First of all, I don't know if you'll read this, since it's been so long, so sorry about that. 

You are absolutely right: Beyond Marriage's statement is hugely important, and I should have included it. I did, at least, include a rather circuitous route to it, though. The larger statement for the facebook group "I Still Think Marriage is the Wrong Goal" is at Dean Spade and Craig Willse's zine Make under "no to state regulation of families!" and includes a link to Beyond Marriage. 

Thank you, though, for pointing that out. I'm glad you liked the post.