New York marriage equality: some semi-coherent ruminations

As you may have heard, the New York State Senate voted on Friday to allow same-sex couples to join their opposite-sex compatriots in getting married.  This is, of course, a good thing – it’s pretty much axiomatic that, if you believe in LGBT equality, there should be nothing a straight, cis person can do that an LGBT person is prevented from doing, simply on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender status.  That said, and if I’m honest, I’m somewhat ambivalent about the ultra-assimilationist direction the LGBT equality movement in America is heading.

I tend to think we’ve got things a little more sorted out here in the UK, where it seems to me LGBT people are being integrated into the mainstream (well, ok, LGB people – trans folks are still very much ostracised and excluded, even by gay people, who really should know better.  And actually, thinking about it, gay and straight people could do a better job of not being complete arseholes to bi people, too…

…er… sorry, I seemed to lose my train of thought there.  Where was I…?  Oh, yes:

I tend to think we’ve got things a little more sorted out here in the UK, where it seems to me LGBT people are being integrated into the mainstream, not by becoming “just like the straights”, but by the mainstream broadening out to include us.  (How else to explain those straight people who’ve spent their whole lives in the mainstream but are now campaigning for access to civil partnerships, a legal institution intended to bring us close to, but keep us apart from, the mainstream?  Why would they feel discriminated against – as they are – by the provision of civil partnerships to gay people, unless they think of gay people as just like them, and gay-only provisions therefore as something to be desired, not regarded as a signal of inferiority?)

Er…sorry…lost my train of thought again.  The old brain’s not quite working at full capacity yet, or I’d have found a way of working these digressions into the a seamless whole.  Anyway, to get back to the matter at hand:

I think this situation – where we become part of the mainstream by the mainstream broadening out, not by remaking ourselves in the image of an unaltered mainstream – is pretty much ideal.  Certainly it suits someone like me, who wants to maintain a distinctively gay identity (straight people are lovely, but I’m not one of them, and I don’t want to pretend I am) but also has never wanted to live his life in a ghetto.  These days, in the UK, it’s no longer the case that being LGBT (ok, LG) automatically makes you part of an alternative social and political culture.  These days it’s a matter of personal choice for an individual whether they want to conform or not, and that’s a good thing, I think.  Even if I do sometimes regret the number of LGBT people who seem prepared – even content – to join in the demonisation and exploitation of other marginalised and excluded people.

But, anyway, things are going in a different direction in America – mainly thanks, so far as I can see, to the influence of the Christian Right, who seem to think marriage is the ground upon which they can win – and the campaign for equality there is all about marriage: DADT repeal has been passed, though not yet implemented, and ENDA seems to have been almost entirely abandoned.  A consequence of this has been an awful lot of emphasis on the part of gay people as to how normal and non-threatening gay people are, and a concomitant increase in LGBT-on-LGBT hostility towards people who don’t fit comfortably into the ‘normal’ template: the camp/ effeminate men, the butch women, the people who are visibly, demonstratively gay, and the people who don’t fit within the conventional picture of what a man or woman ought to look and behave like.  (This is a joke, but there are too many gay people who think we should proceed as though it was real.)

I’ve always seen this approach as a fairly major turn off – I have no interest in something that will advance the interests of some of us at the expense of injuring others amongst us; I want to make things better for everyone, and I always have – but I also think it’s a mistaken strategy.  It relies on the idea that, in order to access our rights, LGBT people have to remake ourselves in the image of the mainstream.  It’s almost as though the people who advocate this approach think of our rights as a gift we’ll only be given if we prove we deserve it by behaving like good little girls and boys.  Our human rights are ours by right – the clue’s in the name, really – and we are entitled to them whether we’re dressed in leather and chains and flagellating each other nightly, or if we’re dressed in carefully contrasted outfits from Marks & Spencer and strolling to Evensong.

This can seem trivial, but it’s really a difference of opinion at a fundamental level.  On the one hand there are people who accept the idea that people are identified as ‘us’ or ‘them’ and devote their efforts into getting a particular group of people re-categorised from ‘them’ to ‘us’.  And on the other there are people who want to remake the world in such a way that someone’s position as one of ‘us’ or ‘them’ makes no difference.  The first approach is fundamentally exclusive – it rests on the idea that, yes, there are some people who should be excluded, but I’m not one of them – and the other is fundamentally inclusive.  I’ve always been powerfully attracted to the inclusive approach, and so I always suffer these little pangs of discomfort when news like that in New York comes along.

“Fantastic news,” everyone seems to be saying.  “Now we can live lives of suburban conformity with the best of them”.  And I find myself saying well, ok, that’s good – and it is good; if LGBT people want it they shouldn’t be prevented from having it.  But I also find myself worrying about those LGBT people who will be excluded from the suburban idyll by the way they look and act.  Haven’t we gone wrong somewhere down the line if, in the interests of getting the heterosexual majority to see us as just like them, we throw under the bus the people who aren’t just like them?  If we exclude them, not just from the picture of what the straight world should look like, but from the picture of what the gay world should look like, too, haven’t we pretty much just joined hands with our oppressors, and started doing their work for them?

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3 Responses to New York marriage equality: some semi-coherent ruminations

  1. J. Wibble says:

    Dorothy’s brother is now overjoyed that he and his (civil) partner can finally get married; it’s a shame they have to move halfway across the world in order to do the one thing they can’t do here. I share your cautious optimism about ‘integration’ – this article might amuse you on that note:
    3 Things Gay People Are Going To Hate About Gay Marriage
    It’s from a comedy website so a bit tongue-in-cheek but it does mention some of the issues you raised.

    Interestingly trans people in the UK who are in a gay relationship with a cis person, or a straight relationship with another trans person, can get married if they don’t have a gender recognition certificate (GRC), because their birth certificates make them a straight couple. People who have done this are often quite annoyed that getting a GRC means they have to get a divorce (any current marriage or civil partnership must be annulled before the certificate is issued) as many people don’t want to or don’t agree with divorce on those grounds. You don’t actually need a GRC for anything else – despite what some bank tried to tell my mate – and it’s still a positive thing because there are other personal reasons why someone may want a GRC, but the marriage inequality aspect makes it awkward for a lot of people. Most of the trans people I know are very political because they have to be.

  2. Hi, J, thanks for the comment. I enjoyed the article: state-approved sex does have quite a negative ring to it… ;o)

    I’ve always thought the most compelling argument for full marriage equality and not just CPs are the problems the separation creates for trans people and their partners. It’s just stupid that a law should require the same two people to get divorced and then remarried, especially since, in the UK, it’s such a tiny (but vocal) minority of people who think access to marriage should be restricted.

    I’m glad for Dorothy’s brother and soon-to-be-actual husband. There’s a good chance I’d have a less ambivalent take on marriage if I wasn’t tragically single…

  3. Adair says:

    I agree with a lot of what you say, but I question whether there actually *has* been an increase in hostility to members of the community who are visibly different. For instance, I tabled with the Utah Polyamory Society at Pride here this summer. For the many hours I was there, no one made negative comments to us. A local newspaper’s frontpage story that weekend was about polyamory. The people I tabled with said that, ten years ago, people would stand in front of their booth and *yell* at them. There isn’t full acceptance–the Pride Center actually *didn’t bother bringing* their own bi group’s banner for the parade, gave away a bi pride flag instead of displaying it at the center, and needed a board member’s frantic action to even let the bi group march in the parade. They’re even queasier about the polyamorous crowd. But, still, even without the Center’s help, the community itself is responding much more positively to “not just like us” groups. In the bi example, I saw more people wearing shirts with slogans like “likes both” or “I’m not gay but my girlfriend is” than there were people in the official bi group at the parade–and certainly a higher percentage of spectators than parade participants were indicating their bisexuality.

    And bi (and asexuals, who are completely ignored) are among the worst off: the Center’s website boasts no fewer than seven trans groups, in a city of less than 200,000 people dominated by the church that funded outlawing same-sex marriage in California, which I think is doing pretty good. Identifying as genderqueer or some other variety of trans* is common in the liberal circles I move in. Straight people are accepted and often part of mostly-LGB social groups. I had a friend stay with me for two weeks.

    A Mormon roommate of mine asked me after she left, “The thing I couldn’t figure out–were they a girl or a boy?” I said, “She’s a girl, but she is trans.” [Err, that sounds like I’m dismissing her identity but what I meant was “but if you noticed any stubble, that’s why”.] My Mormon roommate said, “Oh, okay, that’s what I thought.” I know there’s always been liberal-minded people, so I might just be terribly skewed in my assessment. But it’s hard for me to believe anecdotes of older people who recall times when it wasn’t okay to be bi in a lesbian group, or when gender-nonnormative gay teens didn’t have straight male friends (I’m talking about you here :P ). I can’t imagine it.

    I have had my non-binary gender identity denied plenty of times, but I’ve never had my gender *presentation* questioned or reviled. (Err, people have assumed I was a Gender Studies student, though). I’ve never heard anyone but straight homophobes say someone was hurting LGBT causes by being visibly queer.

    Uhh, in summary, I’ll admit that there’s plenty of discrimination of all sorts but from what I’ve seen there’s no plague of assimiliationism devouring queer culture whole. I don’t know whether marriage activism detracts from other forms of activism (it certainly makes great polarized political theater for distracting the masses from other issues) or trains people who otherwise wouldn’t see themselves as “radical” enough to be political activists. I think that the vast majority of same-sex marriage supporters are motivated by a belief in accepting people’s differences, even if the same people are often biased against, say, the poor, Muslims, etc. And I don’t think that we’ve become *more* assimilationist–perhaps some of those impulses that have always been there feel more free to express themselves in major media outlets, but every other group *also* feels more free to express itself.

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