Save Us from Our Saviors: Marriage Equality & its (Queer) Discontents
Posted by unavitavagabonda
When the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage-equality decision in Obergefell v. Hodges came down on the morning of June 26th, we didn’t get so much as 24 hours to celebrate before the dissents began. Actually, we didn’t even get 24 minutes.
No, I’m not referring to the dissents by Justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Scalia. And no, not even to the bileful, venomous denunciations by such pillars of democratic thought as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who promised to refuse to recognize marriage equality in his state, or Ted Cruz and his seditious, treasonous call to abolish the Supreme Court.
Nor do I mean the few, scattered mayors and county clerks across the nation who, like coked-up Chihuahuas, couldn’t stop yipping about how they’d stop issuing marriage licenses altogether rather than grant them to same-sex couples.
All of that was as predictable as a Donald Trump presidential candidacy.
And all of it is ultimately just as pointless. Recall, for example, that Alabama took 33 grudge-filled years to repeal its anti-miscegenation law after the Supreme Court struck them down across the country in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, and that Louisiana judge Keith Bardwell actually refused to marry a mixed-race couple in 2010. In the meantime, mixed-race couples continued to get married, including in Alabama and Louisiana. (It’s worth noting that, at the time when the Supreme Court legalized mixed-race marriage, 72% of Americans opposed it; when Alabama repealed its law, there were “at least” 1,600 married mixed-race couples in the state./1/
No, I mean the dissents written by soi-disant “progressive” activists, those eternally choleric, permanently aggrieved neoradical opponents of marriage (or of marriage equality or of queer people who get married, or of anybody’s getting married, or of political agendas that are not precisely identical to their own, or of anyone who cannot understand why every good thing is actually a bad thing, or some combination of all of the above), who had apparently been keeping their screeds on thumb drives so they could unleash them the moment the Obergefell decision became official.
Now, there are all kinds of reasons to be skeptical of marriage—as an institution, as a cultural meme, as a trope which, like “family” and “country,” can be deployed to mean whatever the user wants it to mean (usually nothing good).
And I’ll be among the first to say that Justice Kennedy’s barfy, sentimental, overblown definition of marriage in his majority opinion (“the keystone of our social order”) didn’t exactly help those of us trying to keep (you should pardon the expression) a straight face.
Whipped into a Hallmarkian frenzy, Kennedy went on to declare that: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”
Well … unless those people are Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian, Dennis Rodman, Lisa Marie Presley, Mario Lopez, Eddie Murphy, Tom Cruise, Newt Gingrich, Dakota Meyer (who almost married Bristol Palin, except that he was probably still married to another woman at the time), or Marcus Bachmann, who is now divorcing his beard wife Michele Bachmann after 37 years, or even the million or so people who legally end their “profound unions” each year.
In other words, once you get that piece of paper, marriage can be anything you want it to be, including a total farce, and the state can’t say a thing about it.
Fortunately, however, neither can neoradical, anti-marriage queers. At least not yet.
It would be tough to pick which of the anti-queer queer commentaries of the last few days is the most birdbrained and fallaciously argued, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a favorite. My nominee is Yasmin Nair and her “The Secret History of Gay Marriage,” which she presciently posted the day before the Obergefell decision: When you’re going to say absolutely nothing new, and say it less coherently, there’s no substitute for getting out ahead of the pack.
Virtually everything Nair writes in “The Secret History of Gay Marriage” is wrong, including (pace Mary McCarthy) “and” and “the.” Still, one has to start somewhere.
I’d like to start with her slippery-slope arguments, her straw-man fallacies, the total lack of evidence for her assertions, her logic-free reasoning, and the numerous facts she gets exactly wrong—all the traits, in other words, of an essay that I would sternly hand back for a rewrite if it came to me in one of the freshman-comp classes I occasionally teach.
Before I dig in, it might be helpful if you knew one thing right off the bat: Nair doesn’t like Frank Bruni. I don’t always like Frank Bruni either, so I can relate.
In this case, though, Nair got her head of steam up by skewering Bruni for a June 20, 2015 New York Times Op-Ed in which he recalled that one horror of the horror-filed AIDS years was the “constant sorrow and countless examples of gay people treated as second-class citizens. One [such example] was almost certainly this: the steadfast, heartbroken man being shut out of his beloved’s final weeks—not allowed in the hospital room, not welcomed at the grave—because some family members disapproved and no law trumped their bigotry.
Nair, who loves a straw man as she loves no other, takes exception to this because, she says,
[T]he fact that romantic partners, all husbands in waiting as Bruni’s myopic history would have us believe, were turned away from the bedsides of dying men was not the central problem with AIDS in the 80s. The far bigger problem was that men were dying of AIDS, period, and in often brutal and dehumanising conditions. But if you were to believe Bruni, the lesson of AIDS was that gay marriage would solve all the problems of the epidemic.
Okay … so let’s now go back to Bruni’s text and see where he says any of that. I’ll wait while you read his Op-Ed through a time or twelve.
Can’t find it?
That’s because it isn’t there.
I mean, I’m all for calling Frank Bruni a tool when he acts like one, but accusing him of not understanding that the “central problem with AIDS in the 80s” was actually AIDS and not hospital visitation is repulsive. Also fatuous. Also really fucking annoying.
Then there’s her assertion that Bruni writes “rubbish” when he says (in Nair’s inaccurate restatement) that “seeds” of activism by the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis permitted “the legalization of same-sex marriage [to flower].”
What Bruni actually wrote was a little broader than Nair gives him credit for:
Alfred Kinsey told Americans in the late 1940s just how common same-sex activity was. The Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights groups, appeared in 1950, in Los Angeles. The Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian political organization, appeared in 1955, in San Francisco. From those seeds, the legalization of same-sex marriage flowered, and no shortage of harsh winters intervened.
But Nair knows all this is “rubbish” because, she avers without a scrap of evidence, “gay marriage … was never a topic of huge concern in the LGBTQ community until the rise of the mainstream gay organizations in the mid-1990s.”
I suppose all interpretations could hinge upon the words “huge” and “mainstream,” but it is simply historically inaccurate to say that it was not a concern for early gay- and lesbian-rights organizations. I recently finished an extensive period of study (on an unrelated project) at the ONE Archives in Los Angeles, which included reading numerous issues of ONE Magazine and The Mattachine Review, and I can confirm that writers in those magazines were “concerned about” and did mention the marriage issue more than casually—even in the 1950s. (Just one example among many: “The Society We Envisage” by Edward Sagarin [writing as Donald Webster Cory] in his 1951 The Homosexual In America; Sagarin saw the option of same-sex marriage as one outgrowth of the “liberalization of the sexual mores of modern civilization” in which “some people require[d] a mate; others [did] not” but in which all consensual social/sexual relationships could exist “without social ostracism” or “fear of social consequences.”/2/)
Moreover, as earlier as 1971, the Gay Activist Alliance in New York was staging protests at the New York City Clerk’s office over its refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. At around the same time, a number of early post-Stonewall documents—Carl Wittman’s famous “A Gay Manifesto” (1969-1970), Charlotte Bunch’s “Lesbians in Revolt” (1972)—discuss and confront the issue of marriage, either in demands for the elimination of traditional sex roles, criticisms of lesbian and gay male imitation of heterosexual marriage, or analyses of the nuclear family as a fundamental unit of gay and women’s oppression.
In other words, while Wittman and Bunch were both suspicious of “traditional” marriage, they raised the issue because it was on the minds of their readers and of the members of the political organizations in which they worked. Marriage equality was not their primary concern (that would have been not being arrested simply for existing or the seemingly intractable misogyny of gay male “homophile” organizations), but it did exist as one issue among others. Discussions such as these, then, were among the “seeds” to which Bruni (quite correctly) alludes.”/3/
In 1982, civil rights leader and strategist Bayard Rustin adopted his partner, Walter Naegle, because no other legal option then existed for them to formalize their long-term relationship. There were calls for same-sex marriage at the 1987 March on Washington (I was there); and the 1993 March included, as the Washington Post reported, a mass wedding at the National Museum of Natural History with 1,500 same-sex couples, “a dozen ministers, organ music, photographers and rice,” as well as, according to the Chicago Tribune, a smaller protest at the Internal Revenue Service building “for full legal recognition of domestic partnerships” for tax purposes./4/
The whole reason the Defense of Marriage Act was enacted in 1996 was precisely because years of activism had already constituted marriage equality as a credible “threat” to the status quo.
Let’s be clear then: The idea that marriage equality was the cynical “invention” of “mainstream” gay-rights organizations “following a depletion of political energy post-AIDS,” and was then “foisted upon a community with few resources” who otherwise couldn’t have cared less, all of which Nair argues, is bogus and false.
That is different from acknowledging that unprecedented attention and an extraordinary number of dollars went into the marriage-equality fight. It is different from recognizing that the decisions taken by gay-and-lesbian-rights organizations to pursue such an agenda were strategic ones, and that their strategies are subject to historical interpretation and to criticism.
But it is not a fact that same-sex marriage was absent from the queer political agenda over the 50 years of the queer movement prior to the end of the 1990s, and it is not a fact that same-sex marriage was “held hostage by a wealthy few … who wanted a way to ensure that their aspirations to be seen as just like everyone else would be fulfilled.”
We can’t even really justify assertions such as these as legitimate opinions. Rather, we should call them what they are: talking points, which the entire anti-marriage-equality crowd has sucked out of the same vat of Kool-Aid.
Here are more of Nair’s talking points:
The secret history of gay marriage is that it has never been about “equality” in any real sense, but about ensuring that a small section of gay men and women are able to hold on to their wealth…. The best example of this is the case of Edith Windsor, painted by Bruni and others as some kind of brave heroine. HRC and others quietly … created a mythology around her, that she was a little old lady sitting in an empty garrett [sic] somewhere in a cold, drafty apartment in New York, striking match after match just to keep herself warm while the wolves howled at her door. In fact, Windsor is more than well off…. [S]he is far more comfortably off than many of the delusional gays and lesbians living on much, much less who fondly imagine that they actually have estates that would be affected by the DOMA ruling in any way. The central point is what we have to pay attention to: that Windsor was not refusing to pay taxes because she couldn’t afford to, but because she refused to.
I would challenge Nair to produce one—just one—example of a press release or article or other official material from the HRC or other organization involved in the Windsor case in which there was any attempt to create a “mythology … that she was a little old lady sitting in an empty [garret] somewhere in a cold, drafty apartment in New York, striking match after match just to keep herself warm while the wolves howled at her door.”
Because: It. Never. Happened.
Keeping in mind the impossibility of proving the null hypothesis, I will nevertheless submit that there is no one who failed to understand that Edith Windsor was and is a wealthy woman or that the amount of money at issue in her case was, as the Against Equality Collective put it in 2014, “more than “[m]ost people are [likely] to ever see… in their lifetimes.”
And my question is: So what? Edith Windsor never stated—nor did anyone ever state on her behalf—that she couldn’t afford to pay her taxes. To say she simply “refused to” is an incomplete statement and, thus, constitutes a fallacious argument by omission.
She refused because it was unfair and discriminatory to pay taxes that a heterosexual married couple would not have had to pay. (Windsor and her wife were legally married, by the way; the issue was that the IRS refused to recognize that marriage.)
But here’s the real point. Supreme Court decisions, including the decision in U.S. v. Windsor, extend constitutional protections to all citizens. The benefits of being recognized as a “surviving spouse” (never mind as a living spouse) are considerable, regardless of socioeconomic status.
In terms of the specifics of Windsor, it is true that the Supreme Court’s decision meant that Edith Windsor could avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in estate taxes; it also meant, however, that any same-sex spouse of a deceased worker could receive Social Security survivor’s benefits, which currently average a whopping $1,083.13 per month. That’s hardly anyone’s idea of a fortune, but the logical extension of Nair’s argument, which parrots Against Equality’s most superficial cant, was this: Because striking down DOMA also potentially benefited wealthy people, the law should have been left intact to “protect” the downtrodden.
To move from the assertion that U.S. v. Windsor helped Edith Windsor avoid a fat tax bill to the insistence that the entire marriage-equality movement has been aimed at “ensuring that a small section of gay men and women are able to hold on to their wealth” is grotesque and asinine.
And this is where Nair’s argument reaches the true heights of offensiveness. Couching her argument as a defense of poor and working-class people and a criticism of economic disparity, Nair, snarled in the logical knots of her neoradical analysis, can only see the marriage-equality battle as a consolidation of the power of the “gay ruling class” and, thus, as antagonistic to diversity and cross-sectional solidarity.
And yet Nair’s analysis assumes that poor and working-class queers are entirely absent among those who are married or who might wish to be. In other words, she renders us invisible.
Nair cannot possibly know – nor has she one statistic to back her up – that the chief beneficiaries of marriage equality are or would be the wealthy. She cannot rationally maintain that queer poor people, queer working-class people, queer immigrants, and queer people of color are uninterested in marriage or are absent from the population that would benefit from entering into legal marriages if they chose to.
Not only do no facts exist to support such a position, the facts that do exist tell exactly the opposite story. As Andy Thayer reported in HuffPost,
Black same-sex couples are roughly twice as likely to be raising kids white same-sex couples, and same-sex Latino couples are more than three times as likely to raising kids as white male same-sex couples, according studies carried out the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Black Justice Coalition, and the National Latino/a Coalition for Justice. So who in the LGBT community really benefits most from legalized same-sex marriage?
Quoting from his and Robin Tyler’s “The Gay Marriage Struggle: What’s at Stake and How Can We Win?”, Thayer goes on to argue that “marriage and the family are much more important to the material security of working-class people than they are to wealthier people, who are usually better able to afford attorneys to construct the intricate web of legal documents needed to imperfectly mimic the contractual features of heterosexual marriage.”/5/
Finally, after reviewing the sad history of both Republicans and Democrats efforts to derail the marriage-equality issue (you can thank a Democrat, Bill Clinton, for DOMA), Thayer comments, “So if not from the politicians of either party, where did equal marriage rights truly emanate from? Where rights have always emanated from — from regular working people.”
Take me and my husband, for instance. According to Nair, we only got married to “consolidate our wealth,” so let’s talk specifics. By filing our taxes jointly over the last two years, we’ve saved somewhere between $200 and $400 per year. If that continues, and if we put all that “wealth” into the bank, at my current life expectancy we might actually have enough to pay for my funeral.
Similarly, being married means that, if I should die unexpectedly, my spouse could directly assume the “wealth” of our nine-year-old car (the only one we own—current Blue Book, about $3000), have access to my checking account (current balance, about $1,600), and, assuming I died after reaching retirement age, receive Social Security survivor benefits (which will amount to about $400 a month), all just by providing a copy of our marriage license. My only hope is that he will manage all that wealth wisely.
And how much better it would be for us—how much better it would be for all queer working people, in fact—if none of this were possible, or if it were possible only if my spouse hired a lawyer and fought to get what little was rightfully his.
But that’s the argument Nair appears to be advancing: that discriminatory treatment should have been allowed to remain in place in order to save poor and working-class queers from themselves. Were it not for Nair’s warnings, we might fall into the “rapacious, greedy and entirely selfish pit,” whence cometh marriage equality.
In other words, it would be better for us to be denied access to marriage, should we want to be married, because Nair and her ilk can then make incoherent attacks on an invented “mainstream” for the purpose of advancing an entirely fanciful, entirely reactionary position about social institutions and economic disparity.
Here’s what else Nair very carefully leaves out of her rageful, unbalanced attack on marriage equality: Not a small number of us got married in order to give our non-American-citizen partners access to a green card (as many as 36,000 couples, according to Immigration Equality).
Following the 2013 Windsor and Prop 8 decisions, we won freedom not only from the fear of our partners’ being deported (for couples in which one member was “out of status”) but were able to put an end to years and years of temporary visas and the terror that a layoff might mean having to leave the country or face being separated.
Someone with Nair’s righteous “progressive” credentials is surely a fan of immigration reform, so completely avoiding this aspect of the marriage-equality fight is an indication of just how dishonest her criticisms really are. Unless, of course, Nair also believes that binational couples are all wealthy.
I’m no less skeptical than Nair likely is of silly, sound-bite claims that “we” miraculously now have dignity that we lacked on June 25th. I can’t help but cringe when people get on national TV and talk about how “we” are now completely equal.
But no one is required to subscribe to any of those notions about marriage in order to be married. And that’s the essential point.
In its literal sense, marriage is nothing more than a change in legal status, but we get to be married in any way we want. It doesn’t have to be a marriage that conforms to Justice Kennedy’s “noble purpose” or “sacred intimacy,” and, thank the deities, it doesn’t have to be a marriage that Yasmin Nair would approve.
And yet we now find ourselves in a strange position. We’re caught between right-wing bigots like Mike Huckabee telling me my marriage will undermine families and destroy the country and (ostensibly) left-wing bigots like Nair telling me my marriage is an insult to the poor, the working-class, people of color, and transmen and -women, all of whom we apparently despise; that it represents an aspiration to join the bourgeoisie or a pathetic wish be seen as “just like everyone else”; and that it reflects the success of an “entirely selfish campaign carried out by rapacious, greedy and entirely selfish gay men and women.”
True radicals should be incensed that a deeply intellectual tradition of analysis and action has been coopted by spokespeople whose main contribution to the causes they espouse (pun intended) has been the social-media rant. Nair’s “Secret History” is a prime example.
Nair doesn’t know what my marriage is, how it came to be, what it means to us, or how we lead our lives. She knows nothing about my experience of being an out queer man for nearly four decades. And she has no right to act as though she does.
To put it bluntly, anti-queer, anti-marriage-equality rhetoric like Nair’s is fucking evil. And it has to stop.
1 Landers, Renée (2012). “What’s Loving Got to Do With It?” In Kevin Noble Maillard and Rose Cuison Villazor, Eds., Loving v. Virginia in a Post-Racial World: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Marriage. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, pp. 128-140, 133 and 133, Note 20.
2 Reprinted in We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics. Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan, Eds. New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. 275-281.
3 Wittman’s and Bunch’s writings also appear in We Are Everywhere.
4 Wheeler, Linda (1993, April 25.). “Mass Wedding Marries Tradition and Protest.” Washington Post, < http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-943527.html>. Retrieved 28 June 2015. McRoberts, Flynn (1993, April 25). “Gays Take Fight For Dignity To D.C.”. Chicago Tribune. < http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1993-04-25/news/9304250244_1_gay-homosexuals-civil-rights> Retrieved 28 June 2015.
5 In Martin Dupuis and William A. Thompson, Eds. Defending Same-Sex Marriage:The Freedom-to-Marry Movement, Praeger Press, 2007.