My Evolution on Gay Marriage
Back in college, I went to Caroline & Angela's wedding, with all our friends. I'd never been to a wedding before, and I didn't really know what to do. So I pulled out my camera and snapped pictures of everyone as they left the church. Lots of smiles and hugs. Thankfully I brought along a few extra rolls of film.
In the late 80's, there was no gay marriage issue. If two people of the same sex wanted to get married there were a thousand imaginative and creative ways to do it. It didn't occur to me that Angela and Caroline's wedding was representative of anything other than a 'wedding'. By that, I mean it wasn't a 'gay wedding', and I didn't think of it as something revolutionary or controversial. It was, if anything, a fairly conservative thing to do in those days (no offense intended!) And it would be hard to imagine homophobes having any more concern over gay people getting married that gay people buying milk. They would get exorcised about anything gay people might do, but not especially about gay people getting married.
It's hard to know when that changed. I guess it would have been in 1997 or so, when the Hawai'ian Supreme Court determined that the State either had to allow two people of similar genders to marry, or come up with some equivalent.
Still, it wasn't a mainstream issue in the gay community at all. We were focused on employment discrimination protections, hate crimes, and of course AIDS.
I don't remember talking with my friends about the issue at all then. Maybe it came up, maybe not. But if it did, I'm sure we would have talked about it as being an issue that was relevant chiefly to the couples bringing the suit, not something generally applicable to same-sex couples on a national level.
Then, there were referenda on restricting marriage in Hawai'i and Alaska in 1998, and Nevada in 2000. And it became clear that some Evangelicals were getting excited about 'gay marriage' in a way that they hadn't ever been before.
At that point, I was starting to 'feel the burn' as the rhetoric ramped up, but still it wasn't something I devoted much time to. Marriage was a right that I didn't want, and I think most political gays saw the emerging marriage debate as a distraction - it was a franchise very few of us wanted to exercise.
Let me take a step back on that for a minute. Why didn't many of us want to get married?
Because growing up in the 70s and 80s, "being gay" was a bit different than it is now. In order to become gay, to come out as gay, you had to consider the very strong likelihood that it would mean the end of all family ties. You had to essentially give up on the American Dream and start pursuing your own dreams instead. It meant giving up on giving your parents grandchildren. If the popular media was any guide, a sad, lonely life lay ahead.
After coming out, a very different picture was revealed, but before coming out, the whole gay thing looked pretty grim. And that before coming out period, that's when I and many others did a lot of hard work shifting assumptions about what life might lay ahead of us.
Then, once I did come out, I was skeptical when someone talked about getting married or having kids. I thought that was a sign that they hadn't become gay enough - they were still holding on to an impossible future, they needed a bit more time to fully blossom into imagining themselves in one of the many delicious alternative lifestyles we had cooked up.
So, coming back to 2000 or so, from my vantage point, marriage was a very curious right to seek. Marriage, after all, was the most visible symbol of heterosexism, something we felt oppressed by, and rebelled against. If anything, we hoped that heterosexuals would abandon this institution based on a transfer of property (a woman) from one man (her father) to another (her husband). This transfer is still the symbolic center of most heterosexual weddings - the father walks the bride up to the altar, the husband takes her away.
We felt like we were leading the way, creating many alternative models that radically reconceptualized kin relationships. When the subject of gay marriage came up during this time period (from about 2000 to 2004) I would mainly try to dismiss it with a joke like 'how did 3,000 years of enforced gender hierarchy become equality?' I didn't see being able to marry as a form of equality, I saw it as turning our backs on the progress we were making.
So when the radical right accused the gay community of 'wanting to destroy marriage' they were right, in a way. (notice how the language has changed- first we wanted to destroy marriage, then redefine it, now the latest meme they are trying out is that we want genderless marriage). The me in 2004 before the election would have been in complete agreement - genderless marriage would seem to be a great step forward, if the abolition of marriage was out of reach.
But then the 2004 election hit. In advance of the election, I ignored the various anti-gay referenda, still thinking it was a ridiculous sideshow, like banning flag-burning. The way I figured it, there wasn't any great harm in people voting on defining marriage - while we're at it, let's put in a definition saying that my mom bakes the best apple pies in the world.
But in the wake of that election, when it became clear that these referenda were only partly an expression of popular will, but also partly an attempt by Turdblossom and his henchmen to manipulate the election, my views began to shift again.
I still wasn't won over to the fight for gay marriage (or the right to wage war as an openly gay person, for that matter). I still thought (and still think) that the bread-and-butter issues of employment protections and hate crimes are more fundamental. Gay marriage wasn't my first choice, but if that's the battering ram the religious right was using to knock us around with, then we did need to fight back. The religious right had succeeded in putting our movement on the defensive.
And it showed - we had been making tremendously rapid progress, especially in the late 1990's and early 2000's in extending employment protections across the nation. That progress came to a screeching halt as nearly all of our political resources got re-oriented towards the marriage battles. There was still progress being made in adding gender identity protections, but this happened more in jurisdictions that already had gay rights laws than in extending protections in new states and cities.
Another important thing was going on in my life in 2004: I was working on my doctoral thesis. I had written a paper on the fact that teen suicides fell in every state that passed a gay rights law, and since employment protections would presumably have little impact on teens, that this was evidence that changing mores on heterosexism had a demonstrable health benefit.
I was looking for other ways to measure societal homophobia, ideally a continuous measure which could be measured in fine geographic detail, preferably with variation over time.
So from an opportunistic perspective, these votes were a terrific help to me in characterizing local-area sentiments - in the states where these referenda were held, there was a very strong correlation at the county level between higher proportions of people voting to restrict marriage to 'one man and one woman' and teen suicide rates.
Thus, I found myself in a conflicted position. Of course I would prefer it if there was never another referendum on marriage, but the lemonade to make out of those lemons was that how people vote on marriage seems to be an excellent measure of societal heteronormativity, probably down to the neighborhood level.
I must admit, I felt a tinge of glee poring over the 2006 election results, because they enabled me to measure homophobia in a bunch of additional states.
When I presented my thesis in 2006, I was still very much opposed to pursuing gay marriage, and felt that the efforts to engage the religious right over this issue were a huge distraction from a more pro-active agenda that would affect a lot more people on a more fundamental level: keeping a job, being hired, losing housing, etc.
But I also solidified my understanding that the true issue here wasn't marriage - but heteronormativity. And that what was happening was that the debate was becoming less about whether we should exist at all, less about whether hitting on someone was a justification for homicide, and that the fact that the religious right kept making a mountain out of the marriage molehill was because they realized they had lost the ability to keep us silenced, closeted , marginalized. The metaphor of 'the closet' only makes sense when you have to 'come out' of it to change the status of how you are perceived. It works as a metaphor when the assumption of straight until proven otherwise was so ingrained that it wouldn't even occur to heterosexual society to ask whether a fellow who was a bit light in the loafers might be banging dudes (or want to).
But the metaphor of 'the closet' doesn't really work anymore. These days, most youth don't 'come out', they grow up in a world where any sexual orientation is always a possibility: that they may develop with various shades of queerness. Whether an adult has a problem with that or not, we are no longer in a world where everyone is assumed to be straight. We also are no longer in a world where Marcus Bachmann and Paul Cameron can have their claims of being straight taken with a straight face.
So in a way, the death of the closet had pulled the rug from under the Religious Right, and I think that's why they began making a big deal out of this gay marriage thing. Back when I was in college, Caroline & Angela's wedding wasn't a threat to the Religious Right, they could afford to ignore it completely, because in their minds, it was obvious it wasn't legitimate when two people of similar genders tied the knot. The fact that this is now the main issue shows just how far the culture has in fact changed.
Where have I evolved to now? I'm not exactly sure how to describe it. The simple soundbite is that of course people should be able to marry without regard to gender. We should have genderless marriage laws. But at the same time it feels very strange to push this agenda when it is still legal to fire people for being gay; where there is still tacit approval for beating up gay people in many parts of the country, especially if a gay eye lingers "too long"; where the claim "we're just like you" is fast outpacing our efforts not to be just like you: to be more playful, more imaginative, more fabulous.