2011 As the Year of the Queer: Gay Marriage Edition

This was a big year for the gays and same sex marriage.  In New York, we came, we fought, we conquered, we made out. Well, high five your gay best friend because Salon tells us that this year we reached another landmark. Back in May, a Gallup poll revealed that for the first time, more than 50% of Americans support our right to marry; Salon’s Linda Hirshman claims that this means we’ve finally succeeded in making marriage equality a moral issue in America, and that this could make all the difference. She writes that concepts of “fairness”  or “tolerance” aren’t what change hearts and minds; the change in American opinion on marriage equality is because we’ve finally managed to convince people that it’s the right thing to do.

While Linda Hirshman at Salon writes of our success in winning over the majority with our moral claims to the social institution of marriage, a recent essay from Lapham’s Quarterly laments the same. In his essay Working Arrangement, Justen E. Smith reminds readers that the nuclear family is a recent social invention directly tied with the rise of industrialization and consumer culture. Smith reduces the modern image of the loving American couple to essentially an extension of traditional exchanges of the means of production from one family to the next. Read: the history of marriage shows it to be not so much about love and passion, more so about money and, as of late, work. (And apparently there are no straight men for the ladies to marry to increase their market-value anyway, as Kate Bolick explains in her essay in The Atlantic, “All the Single Ladies”. Bummer.)

Smith’s essay reminds readers of the origins of so-called “traditional” marriage. Right-wing arguments to protect the sanctity of marriage and promotion of salvaging what is a “natural” family are a real hoot when you actually consider facts and history. Let’s take a brief stroll down memory lane and revisit oppressions past. Ariah Fine offers this infographic:

So in summation: the problems with “traditional marriage,” they are many. Until recently, Smith notes, “gay love has always stood on the margins of the economic contract that is heterosexual marriage.”  And for Smith the reasons homosexuals are now being welcomed into the marriage contract are much more economic than romantic. Furthermore, in his opinion there is a tragedy in the likely loss of a radical, creative marginalized society as queers are brought into the mainstream fold. Same-sex couples as work-love units are not sexy.

For Smith, the “imperialist” institution of marriage closing in on the counter-culture of same-sex desire risking utter “domestication” of the gay.  He writes, “we are not supposed to speak anymore of the connection between same-sex desire and creativity.” Basically, as I understand the essay, Smith believes in the “gay gene” and thinks we are ruining it with the boring institution of mainstream marriage. He seems particularly troubled by all of the creativity we are ruining in gay men, but maybe he also recognizes it in lesbians? Unclear.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, white picket fence not pictured

Should we be concerned that this so called domestication (note: using that word definitely makes me feel icky) of the LGBTQ community through mainstream marriage norms will tame us? I find the idea of romanticizing marginalization of a community highly problematic, and it fails to really address all the ways in which queer families experience real economic marginalization under the current system. Nevertheless the question of winning people over to our side through the “morality of the mainstream” does raise some interesting questions. What would Gertrude and Alice think?

The fact that 2011 was a landmark year for the progress of marriage equality seems inarguable. How our community feels about that, and what place we want marriage equality to take in our continued struggle for equal rights, seems like it’s still up for plenty of debate. Maybe 2012 will be the year that we’re finally in a position to experience what equality feels like, and decide what we think about being “mainstream.”

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Jamie J. Hagen

Jamie lives in Boston and is currently a PhD student in Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is a freelance writer and also a team associate for the Boston chapter of Hollaback!.

Jamie has written 76 articles for us.


  1. While I appreciate the progress indicated by changing attitudes concerning marriage equality, I would like to see a different end-goal on that changing definitions of marriage timeline:

    20?? -marriage-

  2. I think you summarise Smith’s essay perfectly. I agreed with his take on marriage up until the final two paragraphs, where he seemed to want to shoehorn in some of his personal grievances, unfortunately failing to back them up as thoroughly as the many well-researched points earlier in the article.

    I would love to believe in the inherent artistic superiority of queers. But I can’t; the evidence simply isn’t there. After cave paintings, our artistic heritage is dominated by a privileged sliver of humanity. That we have marveled at “art that shook the very foundations of our society” is a testament to the fact that sliver did a bloody good job, but what other potential wonders might have been smothered by our history of oppression?

    The only way we can ever get to prove that we are really better than everyone else is by continuing to fight for equal opportunity for all.

    Sometimes it feels like one dubious benefit of queerness is getting a free pass on being slightly more interesting than a standard-issue straight person. I can buy into feelings of otherness causing a person to have to think harder, work harder, be more creative, but I think/hope those feelings stem from something deeper than sexuality.

    I think giving up our pass on assumed creativity for equality is a worthwhile exchange, even if marriage is far from the perfect expression of human existence.

  3. Cool.
    Onward to full civil and marriage and divorce equality rights now.
    Period. Case closed.
    Cheers, Joe Mustich, CT USA
    Marriage Officiant & Justice of the Peace

  4. I think it would be nice to be mainstream and have mainstream rights and respect and dignity. That doesn’t sound half bad.

    We have to do what makes us happy. Making choices based solely on what’s mainstream and what’s fringe means you’re still making your decisions based on the majority. Deciding queers shouldn’t marry because it’s just giving into heteronormative society’s norms is proving that that society has more influence on you than your own desires. You’re still letting the majority rule your life.

    • Mainstream rights…like certain people being allowed to live where they want, have access to medical care, pay less in taxes, care for their children together, etc. (while others do not) purely on the basis of registering with the government a lifestyle choice that dominant society advocates despite its history of denying personal rights to some people and legalizing rape? You’re right. That sounds more than half bad.

      “We have to do what makes us happy.” May I suggest putting down the Ayn Rand and picking up some Peter Singer?

      Thinking (no one person has the power to decide) that people should not marry because the institution is deeply problematic is not a rejection of heteronormative norms because they represent dominant society, but rather an escape from the heteronormative worldview that marriage is good and will make you happy. I know enough married people to know that’s a sham.

      • I’m married and happy. And not entirely delusional. (And I’m also not in a legally sanctioned marriage, although I’d really like to be.)

        I think all humans deserve the right to make that choice for themselves. Including you. Including me. I’ll agree that marriage has a problematic history, to say the least, but we have the power to take what’s good out of it and make it our own – queer or no.

        • I agree with you that all humans deserve the right to choose for themselves. They deserve to choose when they enter into a relationship, and with whom, to retain autonomous reproductive choice, career choice, freedom of movement, choice of what to eat and what to wear.

          This belief in the fundamental right of individuals to make such choices is why I oppose marriage, because the prevalence and power of the institution of marriage denies many women – and men – these choices.

          • Should we only care about ourselves and (the majority of) our friends? What about people who don’t share our privilege?

          • I don’t think I get you. How does two people marrying affect other people’s career/relationship/food choices?

          • Feylamia, to many women, marriage is the loss of their self determination and individual rights.

            I respect your enthusiasm about an institution that for you – luckily and happily, from the sound of your blog – is a whirlwind of romance, enjoying the social symbols you may not have thought were possible (a mother-in-law!).

            Sadly though, your experience of marriage (or Eingetragene Lebenspartnerschaft) is rare.

      • Mainstream rights are exactly what you said. And I think I said that it would be nice to have them. Which I think was what you were also saying? I’m not sure how we were disagreeing there.

        Was the Ayn Rand comment supposed to be an insult or something? xD Reading books doesn’t seem like a bad thing, ever, but no, I’ve never read her. Maybe I should so I know what that insult meant?

        Whether or not you think marriage is a “sham” (and I don’t even understand that comment, because surely a relationship is what you make of it), I would like to find that out on my own and make my own mistakes.

        • We may not disagree. I’ll explain, and you can decide. Keep in mind (and this answers your third paragraph) that ‘marriage’ refers to the institution, not the relationship.

          What is wrong with defining marriage as between one man and one woman? I would say that it is discriminatory, exclusionary, offering some rights to some people while denying those rights to others.

          That discrimination is precisely what I oppose about marriage: it offers fundamental rights to some people (those who are married) while denying them to others. Why should registering one’s romantic relationship with the government in a socially condoned way be a precondition for access to healthcare, freedom to live where one chooses, raise children, inherit property, etc?

          You can make your own judgment about Ayn Rand. To demonstrate the difference in her and Singer’s thought, take this Singerian thought experiment:

          You are walking to a meeting in new $250 shoes when you see a child drowning in a pond. If you wade into the pond to save the child, you will ruin your new shoes and be late for your meeting. If you stop to remove your shoes before wading in, or if you keep walking to your meeting, then the child will die. What should you do? Rand would say you should pursue your own interests, and keep walking to your meeting. The child should save itself. Singer would tell you to wade in, shoes and all.

          What is wrong with pursuing one’s own interests in the context of defining marriage? Compare, for a moment, the marriage equality movement with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Both factions are responding to inequality in society: one segment of the population is unfairly privileged above other segments.

          Now imagine that instead of protesting the inequality by advocating a redistribution of privilege (that’s my understanding of the Occupy protests), a protester campaigns for a banking job. “Bankers have more privileges than the rest of us! Let me be a banker too!”

          That is the attitude of the marriage equality camp: married heterosexual couples receive more rights than homosexual couples, so homosexual couples want to get married to receive the special benefits of the institution too, throwing other non-married people under the proverbial bus.

          Asking for same-sex marriage is like going out and getting a banking job because bankers are more privileged. Isn’t it better to advocate an end to special privileges so that everyone gets the rights they deserve, regardless of membership in the marriage clique?

          • I see what you mean, and I definitely can understand your position. Unfortunately though, the very fact that we’re having to struggle for same-sex marriage proves to me that it’s an important struggle, and not just giving into an elitist ideology. If same-sex marriage were already legal or was an easy thing to achieve, then maybe would be the time to debate the worthiness of the institution of marriage. But standing here, where an entire group is being denied something that most members of society are granted without thought, the more important issue to me is WHY this discrimination is legal and how we can fight it. Being denied marriage is being told that you are inferior, not worthy, not normal, something Other, and I think breaking that down is an important and worthwhile fight.

            I think this is just something fundamentally different about our two concepts of marriage that we could probably never resolve. Of course marriage is not perfect, and sometimes seems very flawed, but it’s something that a lot of people want and are being denied on the basis of discrimination. That seems wrong to me. I may never get married, I may even agree with a lot of the points you made about the unfair advantages marriage can give people, but as long as it’s widely prevalent in this society, the fight for marriage rights is relevant and crucial.

            And despite the good points you made, I find it very difficult to not feel like marriage is about relationships and not the “institution of marriage”. Though the legal benefits are definitely very nice, people usually don’t marry solely for them. They marry because they love each other and maybe want to show that to everyone they know. Maybe they’re just romantic, maybe they actually want that church wedding and cutting the cake and dancing for the first time as a married couple. And maybe they want all of that to be recognized legally by the government; something people can’t ignore. Whatever they want, it’s dehumanizing to deny a section of the population the right to something that is such a large part of human lives. And I will fight that.

  5. I got hitched in 2011 (if you know German you can read about it here) and it makes me a very happy puppy. That is all. :)

  6. “Same-sex couples as work-love units are not sexy.”

    Yeah, but isn’t that real life (for many)? This whole argument seems kinda shallow to me.
    After all, straight people have always had the right to be creative and radical. It’s not an ‘exclusively gay’ thing. Neither should financial security and public acceptance of our relationships be an exclusively straight thing.

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