Rebuilding Queer Community, Beyond Marriage

My mother loves gay marriage. She’d vote for it in a heartbeat. She phone-stalked Hillary Clinton about it and kvelled about Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco mayor’s whose maverick streak brought back memories of her own rebel days. She loves marriage for the same reason I don’t—it’s gays’ big chance to be normal. If her kid is going to be gay, my mother wants a daughter-in-law and some grandbabies, not some boot-stomping dyke with an authority problem. To her, the whole queer-outsider thing smacks of bad manners. So although it’s unsettling, I suppose it’s not strange that the Marriage Gays—national institutions such as the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, and others—remind me of my mother. And I so wish the Marriage Gays would stop telling me how to live my life.

During state anti-marriage referenda held during the past two years, exit-pollsters canvassed to find out who was “for or against us.” Their results surprised Ken Sherrill, a Hunter College political science professor and a strategist for the marriage movement, who made an interesting presentation to a Harvard audience last month. Contradicting the long held view that knowing a gay person was a leading indicator of support for full equality, Sherrill learned that having a queer friend or relative didn’t tend to make people vote for gay marriage. In one poll, 20 percent of queers themselves voted against marriage. In another, 51 percent of queers who supported marriage said they were just voting for the right to a loving relationship; it had nothing to do with wanting to register with the state, or at Macy’s.

So it turns out that chasing respectability hasn’t done much for us. The marriage movement, Sherrill explained, hoped that the coming-out of “respectable people” had changed the image of queers from oversexed riff-raff to “just folks.” The image of queers as nice two-children-and-a-dog couples has been a centerpiece of marriage strategy. But queers lost on marriage in state after state, as our friends and family voted to reserve pieces of their state constitutions for “just straight folks.”

The polls tell us that Marriage Gays have also been wrong about how queers think about our rights. Turns out we’re not all on a mission to be middle-class normal after all. Mortgages and picket fences have to share a place in queerdom with raging feminists, junkies, pier queens, and other “others”—the people whose first-hand knowledge of how mainstream people screw marginal people has been the heart of queer resistance.

But ritzy queers have always used money, politicians, and the media to speak on behalf of the rest of us. The marriage problem is that bad habit in hyper-drive. National gay institutions have big money that hasn’t been available to local queer communities. They’ve tapped the idea that homophobia is bad, and declared marriage to be the opposite of homophobia. They’re speaking not just to the powerful, but to people en masse. About us. Without us.

Perversely, queers are on the receiving end too. In place of community organizing through which queers argued back and forth before putting out messages to the world, the marriage messaging campaigns are selling marriage back to us. If some folks do come together to support those campaigns, we’re told: “Look, the marriage issue is coming from the grassroots!” But it isn’t. And real grassroots organizing, where unity is a difficult, complex thing that can’t be dictated from a Communications Department, is simply not equipped to challenge it.

A lot of thoughtful queers have been urging Marriage Gays to shift focus to the issues underlying marriage—that people need health insurance, and that immigrants have rights. Sherrill, reexamining the respectability tactic, has ideas too. He reports that in recent focus groups, ads explaining why it’s impractical and disruptive to live a secret life seemed to be better than marriage-focused ads for getting straights to care about us. Although corporate-sponsored ads for tolerance aren’t much more democratic than corporate-sponsored ads for marriage, asserting the need to act different—since we are different—makes sense.

But how do we make the switch? National queer groups have no more right to decide for us on a different approach than they had to tell us marriage was the issue in the first place. Is it possible to democratize an organization like HRC, which has a membership but eclipses queers who don’t sign up; and whose sponsors include multinational corporation with appalling human rights records such as like Shell Oil and Nike? Can we seriously get queer rights through organizations that exclude us?

Like Iraq war rhetoric about “fighting the enemies of freedom,” it’s hard to object to “equality”—though it’s easier to explain why it’s a bad idea to stake a movement on equality legislation, a comparison of the U.S. civil rights movement with the current state racial equality making for a pretty chilling example. But the marriage movement has traded on deep inequalities among queers, and even its strategists are saying it’s time to go another way. It’s really important that the new way not just be a change in direction at the top of our weird, unelected system of representation. It has to include all of us in thinking about who queers are, deciding what’s important, and with all our power, demanding the right to be different. So it can’t be led by my mother, HRC, or anyone who wants—out of love or expediency—to mold us in their image.