Marriage is only the beginning

Mainstream LGBTQ movement overlooks other important issues in emphasizing marriage equality.

By Kris Rosentel

On Tuesday, November 5, the Illinois legislature passed a bill legalizing same-gender marriages. After its passage, I was bombarded with celebratory and supportive responses from many of my progressive, straight, cisgender friends: “Have you heard the good news?” “I’m so happy for you!” “It’s about time!” “Your gay wedding will be so classy.” These friends are under the impression that marriage equality is the sole solution—a happy ending—to LGBTQ oppression and thus that I, as a member of that community, would be overjoyed with the passage of this bill.

But here’s the deal: I’m a queer man who doesn’t support the marriage equality movement. I do think same-gender couples should be treated equally under the law. I also think they should have access to many of the benefits that come with marriage. And who knows, perhaps I’ll even get married someday in order to take advantage of those benefits. However, what I mainly take issue with is the mainstream gay movement’s approach to marriage equality advocacy.

This movement, which is largely led by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), has adopted a strategy that idolizes normative family models within the institution of marriage, ignoring non–marriage equality LGBTQ issues and pushing the most marginalized groups within the LGBTQ community further to the fringes. A quick look at the HRC, Lambda Legal, and other mainstream gay organizations’ websites makes the idolization of traditional family structures obvious: They generally feature photos of well-dressed couples, often with children, holding hands or with their arms around each other, paired with rhetoric focused on love and care giving. Through this depiction, these organizations are creating a new gay ideal: upper-middle-class, loving, monogamous couples who keep their sex lives private. The creation of this ideal inherently leads to the stigmatization of alternative gay lifestyles. Promiscuity, overt sexuality, polyamory, and single life are all being shamed within the contexts of the gay community. In other words, the mainstream gay movement is forcing gay people to conform to heteronormative family structures in order to fit into a “we’re no different than straight people” narrative—a narrative that is generic and straitlaced enough to resonate with mass audiences while flying under the guise of progressivism.

What may be even more troubling than this conformist pressure is the relative disregard of LGBTQ issues that are not related to marriage. These include high rates of homelessness among LGBTQ youth; the inaccessibility of existing resources such as HIV testing, counseling, and LGBTQ social groups to people of color and/or low-income status; lack of adequate and accessible health care for both HIV-positive people and trans* people; strict immigration policy that makes it difficult for LGBTQ people to leave behind persecution in their home countries; the rarity of gender-neutral bathroom options; and high levels of violence against LGBTQ inmates, especially trans* inmates, within the prison system.

The HRC and other mainstream LGBTQ organizations perpetuate the myth that these issues will be solved when marriage equality is achieved because benefits will be accessible through marriage and homophobia will be eradicated. This argument is flawed on many levels. First, it  overlooks the fact that marriage equality will do nothing for single LGBTQ people and that many of these issues, including LGBTQ youth homelessness and prison violence, are hardly addressed by marriage benefits. Second, it suggests that acceptance of gay people will trickle down from state recognition of same-gender marriage and that people will thereby stop being homophobic. This makes about as much sense as saying that Roe v. Wade would end misogyny or that the Civil Rights Act would end racism. Furthermore, in a manner typical of the mainstream LGBTQ agenda, this argument doesn’t even address transphobia.

Along with the disregard for many such LGBTQ issues by the marriage-centric movement comes the further marginalization of trans* people, bisexual people, people of color, and people of low-income status. Examples of this abound—for instance, last spring, during the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 hearings, an HRC staffer asked a man to remove his transgender pride flag from a marriage equality rally because it did not “coincide with the message of the demonstration.” In a similar vein, the HRC recently asked a Latino speaker at a marriage equality rally to avoid discussing his experiences as an undocumented worker because it didn’t want to complicate the narrative. By silencing voices and hiding identities, the mainstream movement at best tokenizes minority groups and at worst ignores them entirely.

The LGBTQ community is about much more than the fairy tale weddings of Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres. It’s about time we started acting like it.

Kris Rosentel is a second-year in the College majoring in gender and sexuality studies and public policy.