BOTH / AND THINKING ON SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
I always straddle a line in presidential elections. Voting democrat usually feels like endorsing a failed, corrupt two-party system. So I’ve voted Green Party more than once. But I never did it when I lived in a swing state and knew the election would be close. I abhor Obama’s complicity in the killing of innocents in Pakistan. But not voting for him and potentially sending Iowa into Romney’s column didn’t seem like a better option.
Still, I deeply respect those who consistently vote their pure conscience—even if they too live in a swing state! It was obscene when Ralph Nadar voters were accused of bringing us George Bush. And even as I cast my vote for Obama the second time, I understood why some friends interpreted this as my apathetic support for his drones.
It’s the ever-present tension between revolution and reform. My heart is always with revolution but, for better or worse, my actions sometimes endorse the incomplete, imperfect but more immediate improvements reform can bring in the meantime. Our world so rarely offers clear-cut moral choices.
Which brings me to same-sex marriage.
There are important critiques out there of this week’s same-sex marriage euphoria. Marriage co-mingles religion and state in ways we should reject. Marriage does not create structural change. Limited resources and political capital in lgbt worlds would be better spent challenging poverty, racism, inadequate access to healthcare, mass incarceration, homelessness among youth, sexual assault. All of these social fractures affect queers more than others in ways marriage rights can’t touch. This is especially true for queers who are trans, of color, female, poor, disabled and the list could go on.
Disclosure: I wanted and had a non-legal marriage ceremony to ritualize and publicly affirm my relationship in the presence of my community. But, I was frustrated when the wealthier and whiter lgbt organizations made marriage the focus, furious when white queers in California appropriated Civil Rights Movement rhetoric for it and still lament the use of resources that would have been better spent on deeper systemic change.
I can go on:
Everyone deserves healthcare regardless of relational status;
Every child deserves a public safety net regardless of her parent(s) relational status;
Every queer deserves to be recognized as inherently worthy, regardless of relational status;
Marriage does not liberate us or mean we’ve realized freedom.
If marriage rights become the lgbt-version of an opiate we are all in a lot of trouble.
Having said all of this, how can I possibly publicly admit my euphoria about this week’s Supreme Court happenings?
Well here it is. My cautious, but insistent euphoria began when I ambivalently went to the Iowa courthouse the day our state court ruled for marriage equality. There I encountered anything but a white, middle-class group of queers rushing in in the hopes they would finally be seen as “normal.” There I encountered a motley group of diversely raced, gendered, classed and beauteous queers, laughing together in a sterile civic building as we insisted those who represent us deal with us as we were. None of us seemed deluded into thinking we would wake up the next day liberated from all oppression. My own giddiness that day had less to do with being legally married and everything to do with disrupting business as usual.
My euphoria has continued to grow in the places where other critiques of same-sex marriage fall short.
Marriage is not an essentially conservative institution. As a humanly created, political institution it is, like all other institutions, unstable and open to change as the result of human challenge.
Marriage does not mean queers have bought in to traditional gender. This claim can only be made by those who have not witnessed representatives of the state frantically scribbling out “groom” and “bride” or of two butch lesbians kissing in the middle of a County Clerk’s office in the Midwest.
More complicated, some of the functions now shorthanded through marriage can’t just be thrown out. For example, we need some infrastructures to protect women who give birth as well as parents and caretakers who do not and the children for whom they are all responsible. Marriage is definitely not the best way to achieve this. It obviously fails queers as so many of our families (like many non-queer families) don’t have a two-parent arrangement. But I get really frustrated when voices castigating the same-sex marriage euphoria ignore complex questions of parental rights and responsibilities and spin off into abstract calls to just abolish the entire project altogether. (A notable exception to this silence can be found at beyondmarriage.org, which articulates an agenda I think is fantastic).
Marriage is not liberation. But I don’t actually think that’s what the euphoria is all about.
I think the same-sex marriage euphoria is less about marriage and more about what this moment represents in terms of the achievement of public recognition. Marriage has been one of the most public symbols of a broader cultural and political disparagement of and hostility towards queer people. Same-sex marriage critics worry that the logic now goes like this: you get to be a “worthy” queer now if and only if you get married. But I think the logic just might go the other direction: namely, “oh we’re finally getting it that queers too have the same worth and dignity as heterosexual citizens therefore even this most ‘hallowed’ institution cannot and should not leave them out.”
To my mind, that’s not an argument for marriage (bring on the church/state challenge—I’m there). It’s certainly not a claim that it’s our most important achievement, that we should all run out and get one, or that we shouldn’t advocate better ways of supporting diverse kinship structures and family protections (thank you Mohan Sikka).
But it is an argument that a certain kind of euphoria is warranted right now. Public recognition does matter—even when it comes packaged by way of a flawed institution (the same packaging in which all of our political progress has come). Public recognition doesn’t change everything but it has a place in a larger vision of social transformation and it’s historic when achieved against such seemingly outrageous odds.
If we can exercise both/and thinking in the voting booth, I don’t see why we can’t do it at the courthouse too. I hope it doesn’t make me a sellout, but this week I intend to keep my critique and have my euphoria too. Reformers and revolutionaries need each other. In fact, sometimes they exist in the same person at the same time.
Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.