Point Can Queer Love Fit Marriage's Heteronorms?
by parker cronin
Counterpoint Marriage Equality Now
by Sara Burke
Contrary to what you may believe based on the thesis of this article, I am not a homophobic bigot. In fact, I am a proud gay man. My stance against marriage stems, neither from a sense of self-hatred (I like being gay), nor from religious belief (I am an atheist), nor even from the fact that I wish to keep marriage at its current status. The modern GLBT (Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender) movement has focused extensively on this crusade for equal legal rights, yet in its hasty attempt to attain legal equality, activists have never really stopped to ask the question – why do gays want to get married? This article argues that gays should not want to get married.
Advocates for same-sex marriage often say that marriage is “only about love,” which is actually something that I agree with. Truly committed relationships require nothing more than love. This also means that they do not need marriage. The government does not need to sanction my love. This is the same system that beat queers at Stonewall, the system that is about to engage in active genocide against queers in Uganda, and the system that maintained sodomy laws until less than a decade ago in the United States. Despite the fact that the state has done nothing but oppress us, the modern GLBT movement has decided to turn to government in order to achieve change. To put it simply: we should not embrace the system that for the past several hundred years has been playing a game that sets us up to fail. We should not want this violent system to infect our love. There may be pragmatic and tangible benefits to marriage, but, to resist oppressive systems, we as queers should refuse those benefits in order to transform overall meta-power structures that label and suppress us as so-called deviants.
Moreover, let us not forget that legal change is not directly related to the disruption of heteronormative oppression. “Heteronormativity” – the collection of practices making “straight” normal and “queer” non-normal – does not exist on its own; its people and the institutions in which, they place power perpetuate this social system. Churches and homophobes are the reason why queer people often face unnecessarily difficult lives. Laws are not the problem; the people behind them are. Legal change does not change the hearts and minds of bigots.
The true goal of the GLBT movement should be the end of sexuality-based oppression.
Unfortunately, marriage plays the familiar game. In modern society there are thousands of markers designed to exclude sexualities not deemed to be normal. The state-system has created a game, and it controls the rules. Ideal life includes marriage between one man and one woman, kids, and settling down. Each of these and a thousand other little acts are norms that form the rules of the marriage game. The GLBT movement has lost its way when it seeks permission to play the game that is the source of queer oppression.
In this way, same-sex marriage redraws the lines of exclusion in a slightly different way. Not only the history of marriage, but also the intrinsic character of marriage define a norm of what should be included, implicitly excluding any relationships that are not deemed acceptable. One account of a queer marriage in San Francisco tells of a threesome who stood outside city hall waiting to get their marriage licenses. Their fellow queers booed them off the steps and jeered at them – yelling that they were “ruining it for the rest of them.” How dare these sexual deviants even show their faces in public!
True freedom from sexual oppression means overcoming the necessarily normative structure of marriage. It means breaking away from a defined relational status.
It means that we need to stop playing the rigged game in which the oppressor decides which groups of people are deviant and which are acceptable. Marriage, by definition, requires some sort of institutional requirements over what can and cannot be considered legitimate. As such, it is a system that necessarily excludes certain groups from normalcy.
True sexual freedom means overcoming the belief that we can use the systems that have oppressed us for so long in a productive way. We do not need yet another token reform; we need a radical act that changes the way that people think. The GLBT movement should actively refuse marriage as a way of voicing our opposition to normative and violent structures. Rather than focus on needlessly pragmatic and unimaginative reforms, we must reach beyond pragmatic action into a world of truly free sexual expression. Gay marriage is a step – refusing gay marriage is a step with more potential to create ruptures in the way that oppressive systems operate. In fact, through our activism it may finally become clear that everyone, not just queer people, should refuse marriage as a troubled, oppressive institution that society must abandon in its entirety in order to be free.
1Wendy Brown. Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton U Press. Pp 3-4
Some activists have resisted the push for marriage equality by arguing that marriage in itself is patriarchal or heteronormative, or that many leading figures in the marriage equality movement exhibit oppressive social attitudes.
But marriage is not assimilation, and even if it were, it would still be a right worth fighting for.
I acknowledge that marriage has an oppressive history. In many influential cultures, including but not limited to most pre-20th century Western cultures, marriage was the transfer of a woman as property from the control of her father to the control of her husband. Even today, in most cultures, marriage is still frequently deployed to reinforce oppressive cultural norms—not just sexism, but also classism and other practices, which reinforce the dominant order.
Marriage does not have to be intrinsically sexist or classist. It can mean simply loving someone and living with them for the rest of one’s life—regardless of the identities or social positions of the two people involved. This concept of marriage is valuable and emotionally satisfying to many people—it already exists, even though it sometimes comes with a bunch of oppressive baggage. Reforms can change the way our culture thinks about marriage, doing more to combat the oppressive norms than simply rejecting the whole concept ever could.
I acknowledge that there are people in the gay marriage movement who have problematic ideas. The same is true of any movement. Those ideas can and should be resisted without rejecting the idea of marriage equality itself. When one progressive idea becomes increasingly ‘mainstream’, some people with other, less progressive ideas will be more willing to adopt it. This is a good thing, because it makes incremental gains more possible.
Working toward equality is important—regardless of the particular inequality in discussion. Administrative structures should confer the same material treatment on everybody regardless of arbitrary personal variables like race, ethnic background, sex, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability or disability, medical condition, et cetera. This ideal is valuable even if it has never been fully attained by any major organization or government. It affirms the fundamental value of each human being and reinforces the idea that faultless demographic characteristics should not be allowed to artificially constrain individual choices and freedoms. Any violation of this principle, by any institution, should be resisted—and the bigger the institution, the more influential its precedents.
Marriage inequality is not the only such discriminatory violation in US law—not by a long shot—but it is such a violation. All should be fought. All are meaningful.
Marriage equality would set a valuable legal precedent. Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the ongoing suit against California’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, is almost certain to be appealed and re-appealed until the Supreme Court resolves it. A favorable decision, especially one that applies the “strict scrutiny” standard under the federal 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, could expand official legal theory to encompass many more protections against unequal treatment, and also pave the way for the application of “strict scrutiny” to other marginalized groups.
The law has symbolic effects on society. It would be great if everybody started thinking everything through individually and coming to rational conclusions independent of what the government says, but we don’t, and we never will. Humans naturally rely on heuristics to make judgments about acceptable behavior, and the institutions that surround us influence those heuristics—especially when they have very simple policies, like marriage restrictions, that can be interpreted without much effort.
Governmental acknowledgment of gay and lesbian relationships is absolutely not necessary for those relationships to be valuable and real, but it unquestionably contributes to the widespread social acceptance of those relationships.
Finally, marriage equality would bring tangible benefits to real people. State-sanctioned marriage is an easy way to guarantee important rights in a long-term familial relationship, such as hospital visitation, access to family health insurance plans, work leave to care for a sick spouse, and access to pension plans. Any ideological argument against marriage equality—from the right or from the left—must take responsibility for all of the families who currently lack these rights and the security they provide.
Fighting for these benefits is not plainly a frivolous pursuit of the heteronormative elites: it is a step toward improving the lives of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans in many social and economic conditions. And while it isn’t enough—not even close to enough—it is still something.
About the Issue
Point author: parker cronin is a sophomore at the University of Michigan majoring in history and anthropology. He one day plans on becoming a lofty member of the academy by studying the history of history
Counterpoint author: Sara Burke is a junior at U of M majoring in psychology and English with the intention of pursuing a Ph.D. in social psychology and conducting research on intergroup relations and prejudice. She occasionally writes about political and social issues in her blog at seburke.wordpress.com.
Edited by: Aaron Bekemeyer
Cover by: Meirav Gebler