“You mark my words,” Pat Robertson intoned on television last May, legalizing gay marriage means “the beginning in a long downward slide in relation to all the things that we consider to be abhorrent.” Allow homosexuals to marry, he insists, and you must allow “polygamy,” “bestiality,” and “child molestation and pedophilia.” Robertson’s phrasing may be extreme, but among conservatives, the argument is common. Defenders of gay marriage go to great lengths to tape off this slippery slope. Legalizing gay marriage, they argue, is just a matter of ensuring equal protection of the law. It has zero bearing on sexual behavior and no connection to any kind of dark carnality. Now, the liberal argument isn’t wrong. Gay and lesbian couples deserve the same protection that their heterosexual counterparts enjoy. But by avoiding the question of sexual freedom, by insisting that it is just a matter of formal rights, they concede too much to the moralists.
I want to make a modest proposal: a campaign for universal sexual freedom. We ought to be free to enter into whatever kinds of relationships we want with each other. This means getting the state out of our bedrooms, our bathhouses, our porn theaters. But there are material conditions for freedom. You can’t sustain, experiment, form, forge, develop, and enjoy relationships if you’re overworked, underpaid, and struggling to make the next bill payment. Sexual freedom requires social freedom.
This may sound completely unrelated to the fight for gay marriage. But historian George Chauncey suggests that the gay marriage movement is, fundamentally, pursuing forms of social security. Marriage means bedside visitation, custody, and estate rights, and our (highly hypothetical) campaign for universal sexual freedom will fight for that security. But there’s more to fight for than security. For the liberals, being gay means belonging to a minority whose rights must be protected—hence the endless comparisons with the civil rights movement. Fair enough, necessary enough, but not enough.
See, there’s another way of understanding gayness. Capitalism broke us free from traditional society: Today we develop and pursue our own goals and pleasures. We should count gay life—from Oscar Wilde to Tom of Finland to Butt Magazine—as a signal achievement of capitalist modernity. But gay life, like all of modern life, remains incomplete. Capitalism gets in the way of its own promise: disease, poverty, and ignorance all prevent the development of true sexual freedom. We work full-time for our careers when we could be sharing our lives full-time with those we love. We need to achieve our gayness, and that means overcoming capitalism.
This sounds superficially similar to the language used by so-called queer activists. Last October, a group vandalized the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) building and shot off a communiqué claiming that, “The queer liberation movement has been misrepresented and co-opted by the HRC. The HRC marginalizes us into a limited struggle for aspiring homosexual elites to regain the privilege that they’ve lost and climb the social ladder towards becoming bourgeoisie.” Such quasi-reasoning confuses liberal civil rights with capitalist domination, and justifies impotent, theatrical acts of vandalism.
We shouldn’t let the HRC off the hook. But the problem isn’t that they are aspiring homosexual elites. The problem is with their politics, with the perpetual, pitiful and sometimes petulant lobbying of the Democratic Party for piecemeal reform. Such pleading may eventually deliver gay marriage. But it won’t give us anything more. The fantasy of the Democrats representing the interests of all the marginalized groups, the “us-es” in Harvey Milk’s memorable phrase, is a product of miseducation. Lobbying the Democratic Party will not loosen the moralistic death-grip that strangles American politics. Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act during his reelection campaign, and the Obama administration has demonstrated by its actions that its opposition to the act was just a campaign promise. The Democrats won’t deliver the real social changes needed to ensure sexual freedom or any other kind of freedom. To get the most basic reforms, something bigger might just be needed.
— Greg Gabrellas is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in the Social Sciences.