Joy and Rage: Why the Fight for Queer Equality Doesn’t End with Marriage

This Wednesday the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), so now we have to talk about it. DOMA was instated in 1996 under President Bill Clinton, and now 13 years later, it’s gone.

This, of course, has been a momentous week in American politics. The Supreme Court, being the showy queens that they are, save the best for last for each season that they’re in session, and this time around they made some decisions that will weigh on their legacy of human rights and change the immediate realities of millions across the country.

Human rights, of course, mean much more than gay rights, despite what the genius branding of the Human Rights Campaign would lead one to believe. Human rights are civil rights, a concept most strongly associated in America with the Black struggle for racial equality in the 1950s and 60s. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, which at the time was a landmark case that outlawed discriminatory practices that systematically prevented Black Americans from voting. Up until that point, this blockage from voting was one of many institutions that perpetuated the disenfranchisement of Black bodies and lives. Voting confirmed, at the very least, that they were participating citizens of this country, and that could not be taken away, no matter hostile the climate may still have been. The Supreme Court gutted this historic bill on Tuesday. DOMA was defeated on Wednesday.

 

 Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera marching for the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) at 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day March.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera know what’s up with intersectionality, marching for the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) at 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day March.

What does this have to do with gay rights? Well, nothing explicitly. The cruel juxtaposition of the two decisions is what’s most startling. We may call it progress when one historically oppressed group gains unprecedented rights, but what do we call it when another group simultaneously loses theirs after decades of brutal struggle? Furthermore, how do we begin to understand the total cognitive dissonance that begins to settle in when we realize that these groups are not mutually exclusive? There are now Black and Latino voters in “our community” who are not voters anymore. Their marriages may be recognized in the eyes of the state (if they are married under very specific circumstances), but suddenly their votes are not.

The idea seems to be to divide and conquer. Oppressed groups can’t gain true power in this country without each other. They may be placated with wins throughout history, but as we’ve just been shown, these wins can be taken back at any time, given the right context, political climate, and national culture that is taking place at any given historical moment. The act itself seems to be one of hypocrisy toward the idea of human or civil rights. Rights mean that we are entitled to them, that we are born with them, that we do not have to earn them, that they are irrevocable because they are our given fucking rights, and we have them because we’re human. At the very least, we have them because we’re citizens. Now we know that’s not the case, and we should keep that in mind before we get too distracted with this victory.

LEST WE FORGET THAT ONE TIME WITH THE AIDS CRISIS

LEST WE FORGET THAT ONE TIME WITH THE AIDS CRISIS

But can’t we just be happy for marriage for just one minute? Well, I think it’s fair to say that we have been, and I think it’s unfair to say that we can’t continue to be, even while remaining critical of the institution that enabled this freedom.

After all, it is the same institution that revoked it in the first place.

The frustration on all sides isn’t new. There’s this thing that happens on the left where you start a movement with huge blanket causes. It gains momentum and a large following, and with that large following, inevitably garners criticism. Your movement isn’t inclusive enough. Where are the people of color? Where are the queers? Where are the women? All too often, these questions are seen as “holding the movement back,” to which I say:

You’re damn fucking right. Because the struggles of queer and trans* people are no less important than the struggles of gay people, and if they move forward without us, they are not moving forward at all.

There are, of course very practical, very immediate, and very much deserved upsides to marriage. This is now especially true for binational couples, as laid out here by Immigration Equality. Married couples enjoy tax breaks, hospital visitation rights, and shared healthcare. Through marriage, individuals who are U.S. citizens could sponsor their partners for citizenship. It’s also worth noting that this is could be the second institutional channel recently opened to queer people. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, members of the U.S. military also have a streamlined naturalization process, giving undocumented people – yes, even queers – the same opportunities to endanger their lives in exchange for access to basic human protections within this country’s borders.

For some people, this is more than just a theoretical argument or a symbolic stride, it’s a day-to-day reality. These are people’s lives. For some people, marriage matters. Increased access to resources matters. Being able to treat your partner as your partner – not just as a stranger – in the eyes of the law, that matters. And so celebrating a victory which might allow them greater access to those resources and rights is totally appropriate. But our power as citizens is what enables us to win these victories, and so by the same token, our celebrating should be done with the knowledge that many peoples’ power to effect more changes like this has been stripped away.

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Is this indicative of a deeply flawed system in which couples may only gain access to healthcare, tax cuts, citizenship opportunities, and legitimacy of their own relationships through an institution supported by a government that refused to act on AIDS, that mandates policing of our bodies, that puts us under surveillance if we step out-of-bounds (or really even if we don’t), and that passed DOMA in 1996 “to reflect and honor… collective moral judgment and to express moral disapproval of homosexuality”? Well, yes. But that’s why the fight doesn’t end with marriage.

We won this past Wednesday. Well, at least some of us did. So celebrate, because you have the right to do that, and maybe now you have a future that you could have never imagined before. That’s something to celebrate. And then think about what it could mean to be an ally to those who may not have benefitted from this victory that changed your life. How can those living on the margins of the queer community expect to win their rights to dignity without the allyship of those who have greater privilege?

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As Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous said yesterday in “Calling in a Queer Debt: On DOMA, the VRA, and The Perfect Opportunity”, this time is about action. She points out something that many people know but few people really, truly internalize – that you can be queer and something else. And that many, many of us are:

“Will you make room in your agenda for the rest of us? Those of us who are queer and black, trans* and Chicano, intersex and South Asian, and Two-Spirit? Will you speak up for us, while the cameras roll? Will you speak up for all the people in this country whose rights are being taken away while yours are being increased? Or will you be silent? It is not enough to acknowledge your privilege. Acknowledging it will never make it better, will never, ever change anything. At some point, you must act against it. This is that point.”

We are queer people. We have struggled with our desires. We’ve grown to fit our bodies. We’ve built communities. When society at large told us that we should feel hatred and shame towards ourselves, we found comfort in each other. We’ve defined love by our own means and standards. We’ve found a way. We create and struggle and feel. We survive. And we’re going to continue to survive, not just for ourselves but for our predecessors who died neglected by the government, who were beaten, arrested, and humiliated, for those who live and die on the streets, for those young people we’ve seen pass who felt that life as a queer person was unbearable in today’s world.

We just won marriage, but we won’t stop there because liberation means creating and living in a world that’s actually worth living in. We’re not going to stop at marriage, because we know now what we didn’t always know: we deserve so much more.

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Katrina is a 23-year-old grrrl splitting her time between her great homeland of New York City and Washington DC. She loves activism and hates sleep, which is convenient because neither of those things really allows for the other anyway. She thinks that slang is rad. As a math equation (with words, because she is bad at math), Katrina would go as such: writer + riot grrrl = wrioter grrrl. When not manifesting itself as a mathematical equation, Katrina’s life usually reads out like a lesbian coming-of-age novel, though sometimes she wishes it were more like a bad 1950s lesbian pulp fiction story. Also, she really, really, truly believes that the revolution is upon us. Come read her rantings about it on her twitter and blog!

Contact: katrina[at]autostraddle.com

katrina has written 64 articles for us.

34 Comments

  1. Thumb up 3

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    Ok, so, you missed some things:
    The Baby Veronica case was also ruled on, and the decision was horrible. Horrible horrible, and sets First Nation rights (MY rights, my family’s rights, my baby cousin who is in and out of foster care’s rights) back sixty or so years. Somebody should be mentioning that, because it matters. The only real coverage on it is convoluted and racist.
    I think the case in Texas (and really, all across the US) is just as important as the VRA because, I mean, it’s my body we’re talking about. Sure, I think my body is a fucking superhero because it can create and birth a baby, but I’d like to do that when I want to do that, and don’t really want someone who has never known and will never know what it’s like to have to worry about accidentally getting knocked up being allowed to have an opinion on what I do with my body. So basically, I’m still considered a second class citizen to those who don’t have to worry about abortion or birth control for the sake of birth control. They’re getting to make decisions about my body like I’m some kind of property, when they don’t have a CLUE as to what they’re talking about. Great.
    But yes, the VRA decision was ridiculous. Horrible.
    At the same time, I will say that I don’t think being super happy for the DOMA decision and realizing how far we have yet to go are mutually exclusive things. I’m beyond happy about the DOMA decision because I’ve always been frustrated that when I get married it won’t be a “real” marriage. Also, marital benefits can help SO many people, especially the underprivileged. So that’s great. I don’t know, it leaves me free to dream about marriage like other people I know do.
    Just. Feelings.

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    This whole article. And this:

    “The cruel juxtaposition of the two decisions is what’s most startling. We may call it progress when one historically oppressed group gains unprecedented rights, but what do we call it when another group simultaneously loses theirs after decades of brutal struggle?”

    and this again

    “We just won marriage, but we won’t stop there because liberation means creating and living in a world that’s actually worth living in. We’re not going to stop at marriage, because we know now what we didn’t always know: we deserve so much more.”

    And this whole article all over again.

  3. Thumb up 3

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    This was really excellent. I want to point people towards a book, Captive Genders:Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex edited by Nat Smith. It has a couple of excellent essays addressing the myopic tendencies of the modern LGBT movement and suggests alternatives. I ordered it through my friendly local anarchist bookstore but apparently it’s also available on amazon. http://www.amazon.ca/Captive-Genders-Embodiment-Industrial-Complex/dp/1849350701

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    I love this Katrina!!! You said everything that is in my brain/heart, but much more eloquently than I could.

    Victories (like the DOMA ruling) are really exciting and I think its okay to celebrate them. I think there is a tendency, though, to confuse a small step toward equality with the ultimate goal. Its like when someone says, ‘We have a black President now, racism is over’ (or these ridiculous SCOTUS rulings w/r/t the VRA and affirmative action). Really, our work isn’t done until every single human can be who they are AND enjoy their human rights and have their dignity and personhood affirmed everywhere. OBVIOUSLY we have a long long long way to go.

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    I don’t live in the US, but I’m an immigrant so I know how much DOMA means for people risking deportation or just a much more complicated and longer road to residency / citizenship rights – it’s immensely frustrating how seconds after the decision was announced, I was already starting to get flooded by people (who don’t risk deportation) saying that marriage equality never did anything for anyone except straight acting white middle class gay men etc etc – helpfully reminding me again that all sides of the queer liberation movement think the lives and struggles of people like me are irrelevant.

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      i don’t fux with marriage& im definitely hyper critical of the movement but im very stoked at the deportations that have been halted& the implications for undocuqueers and queer immigrants that doma’s overturning has caused!

      i think a lot of the anger from the brown poc community (that i’ve seen) is this unabashed joy that seems to fly in the face of the havoc wreaked on the Voter Registration Act& the indigenous rights in the same week. personally, im super frustrated with all the white queers in my life who are acting like the fight is over and lord knows im the kinda grrrl who’s gotta say something about it.

      but you have a great point, and if you’re up to it, i think you should instigate conversation with fellow poc who are citizens of the US- we need to be reminded that PoC is a blanket term that includes many different sets of people with different histories, needs and struggles that we hella should not be erasing even as we try to keep ourselves from being erased.

      thank you for bringing this up and reminding me that the struggle is everywhere.

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        “i think you should instigate conversation with fellow poc who are citizens of the US- we need to be reminded that PoC is a blanket term that includes many different sets of people with different histories, needs and struggles that we hella should not be erasing even as we try to keep ourselves from being erased. ”

        I’ve tried doing this, and I can tell you that it has been challenging at best. Trying to get American PoC to understand that they have citizenship privilege is hella difficult because zomg! POC have no privilege! etc. Hell I’ve gotten some PoC who *blame immigrants* for their troubles, rather than seeing how White supremacy is creating a divide-and-conquer strategy. I know many international students and other recent-migrant types who want nothing to do with PoC activism despite being PoC themselves because it’s alienating and too US-centric.

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    Thanks for writing this. I felt this week the way I did on election night 2008, where on the one hand a barrier had been beautifully crossed, and on the other discrimination was still being practiced, openly.

    And the reasoning behind gutting the VRA – that the Congress had failed to alter it since 1965 and therefore was stuck in the past, was a kind of bizarre reverse shock doctrine. It’s been evident since 2000 that voter disenfranchisement has been a problem, and not just in states covered by the VRA. But because Conservatives in the Congress have refused (in recent years) to allow the formula for covered states to be reworked the Court pretended none of that even happened. The 15th Amendment gives the Congress absolute power to legislate that no one’s vote is denied because of race or prior servitude. The Supreme Court’s opinion was duplicitous and in violation of the Constitution. No matter what they did on Wednesday nobody should trust them.

    Probably the only reason they granted cert on the gay marriage cases was so they could try to avoid granting cert for at least 5-10 more years on the ultimate question for every queer in the country. The Roberts court’s “kindnesses” tend to boomerang.

    Anyway, I’m so very happy, on a personal basis, for all the people who can marry today. But I’m wary.

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    I’m not too keen on marriage myself. It’s all “I love you so much! Now let’s get the government involved so it’s harder for you to leave me.”

    I do think that there are more pressing matters. The abuse people in the community face, homelessness,suicide, etc. are still here. No amount of NPH being able to marry his partner is going to change that. I doubt a kid getting the crap kicked out of them by family for being gay gives a damn about putting a ring on anything. Some of us are just trying to survive. It’s nice that we won a thing though. One step closer I guess.

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      I actually have really complicated feelings about the way young people are going to be affected by this!

      On one hand, I (obviously) don’t think that marriage is the greatest shit to ever happen to queer people, BUT it took a really long time and a ton of personal development before my politics looked like this.

      I’ve been out since I was 16, and even though I wasn’t bullied too much in high school, I think this level of visibility would’ve been a game changer for my confidence and self-esteem. In 2006, I don’t think marriage was even on the table for same-sex couples, and if it was, I didn’t know anything about it. I was convinced that I didn’t have a future, and that’s really scary for a teenager – or anyone really. Queer teens now know that they have a place in society, even if that place isn’t necessarily the most radical or liberating thing ever. Sometimes the promise of a future is juuuust enough, you know?

      BUT at the same time, that’s why we need to keep talking about this! Teens are way smarter than most of society gives them credit for. My girlfriend tutors high schoolers in sociology, and they truly have the capacity to understand some complex shit, especially when it applies directly to their lives! Now that a generation of young queers won’t be caught up in the battle over marriage, it’s our time and our responsibility to talk to them about where other sites of liberation can take place. Now not only do they have a “future,” but that future also has the possibility to be radically meaningful!

      /youthrant

  8. Thumb up 3

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    This shit just straight up gave me chills. I love this so much and have so many thoughts and feelings about this situation. If anybody lives in the south and has lots of feels about this let me suggest looking in to SONG, Southerners on New Ground. Look, they even made a video about being committed to the movement!
    http://vimeo.com/69103461

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