The Human Rights Campaign, one of the largest advocates for marriage equality in the United States, has corporatized and claimed the equal sign (=) so successfully that the blue-and-yellow sticker on someone’s laptop or car is ubiquitous in liberal circles. This week, you likely noticed the sudden influx of similar red equal signs in your Facebook News Feed—no accident, as the symbols were distributed by the HRC for what some described as “marriage week”: the Supreme Court hearing cases on both Prop. 8 and DOMA. The pictures were a simple answer to a seemingly simple question: a resounding “Yes” in answer to, “Do you support marriage equality?”
But when we reduce queer politics to an equal sign supporting marriage, we are ducking larger questions: is marriage even good for queers? And should marriage be the number one agenda item for LGBTQ+ activists? I want to argue, as a queer person who wishes to challenge multiple vectors of oppression and who has a vested interest in the elimination of discrimination, that though the extension of marriage to same-sex couples may benefit many individual people, we must begin to find strength in the collective claim that we (queers and allies both) are greater than marriage.
To be honest, when we look closely, marriage doesn’t seem that great. From a structural perspective, affirming the importance of the dyadic family as the building block of nationhood and the marker of respectability has allowed the state to regulate and survey the practices and lived intimacies of its citizens, and to transfer the responsibility for economic subsistence to the family (and away from the state). An uncritical politics of marriage for LGBTQ+ folks neglects to question how marriage has been used to determine who is worthy of receiving assistance, benefits, and respectability, along lines of sexuality as well as race, economic status, and citizenship status.
And since marriage itself is a problem, activism which focuses its energy solely on the issue of “marriage equality” is ultimately predicated upon a politics of assimilation which desires to uncritically gain acceptance into racist, classist, homophobic, and heterosexist family structures and ideologies, all of which reinforce the marginalization of people unable to reap the benefits of American capitalism.
Of course, this issue is personal and complicated. Say I’m 85 years old, watching my partner fade away in a hospital. Of course I want (and should have) the right to visit them. If I choose to have children, I want to know that they could be legally adopted by my partner. If my partner has health insurance, and I do not, I want to have access to those benefits. And if my partner is not a citizen of the United States, I want to be able to confer the material benefits of citizenship if necessary.
In short, I am not arguing that marriage is unimportant. Within a legal and cultural framework which holds marriage up as the ultimate relationship, marriage confers (and will always confer) an enormous number of material benefits which can become issues of life or death for many queers. But what if we could change that framework? What if we had universal healthcare? What if we understood family as something that goes beyond blood ties and reproduction? What if we pushed for immigration reform, healthcare reform, welfare reform?
I, and some of my friends, chose red “greater than” (>) signs for our profiles this week. Along with the picture, I posted an explanation for my choice: “Because queer activism does not end (and only questionably, tenuously should begin) with marriage; because queerfolk need more than what marriage provides; because there are other pressing factors dictating quality of life for queers of different genders, races, ethnicities, abilities, classes, immigration statuses, religions, and so on. Because progress does not always look the same; because we do not look like everyone else; because we should not have to want to look like everyone else. Because we do not all want the same things. Because this is important, but it is not nearly the end.”
I am not dismissing people’s attachments to marriage, and I am not dismissing its material importance. I am saying that marriage as an institution is problematic and marginalizing, and unevenly distributes benefits along the lines of respectability and economic prosperity. I am saying that we should be careful in our blind support of marriage equality. This week, more than ever, I am saying that we—the LGBTQ+ and allied community—cannot afford to be naïve about marriage equality, and we cannot continue to make it our most important point of advocacy in the United States.