Bigotry Didn't Die with DOMA, Neither Should Radical Queer Politics

The gutting of the Voting Rights Act is a major setback in the struggle for racial justice. This doesn't mean we can't celebrate the death of DOMA and Prop 8, two hateful pieces of legislation. But we can't let our rainbow flags blind us to what's happening behind the scenes.
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My partner, Tamara, and I were sitting in our neighborhood coffee shop when the SCOTUS decisions were announced: when the right to same-sex marriage became federal law and California's Proposition 8 was rendered impotent.

I've been publicly critical of the marriage equality movement for its narrow politics: for focusing on marriage rights to the exclusion of other issues, for making romantic love the primary condition for access to health insurance and other benefits, and for creating new forms of discrimination that pit married gays and lesbians against those who resist traditional coupledom--what I call the "new deviants."

But I have to admit I cried right there in the coffee shop at the news. This was high drama: In one fell swoop, the Supreme Court justices became Justice Itself, reversing almost two decades of bigoted federal law and restoring fairness to gay and lesbian Californians who want to be married.

Despite our mixed feelings, Tamara and I went to midtown Atlanta later that evening for the celebrations that had been planned in anticipation. A dozen or so people stood on the corner of 10th and Piedmont waving their rainbow flags as cars sped by honking with approval. In the restaurant parking lot just up the street another 50 or so people had congregated, some casually listening to people speak into a makeshift microphone. It was more than a gathering but not quite a rally. Mostly people were milling around, hugging each other and looking happy. Sweet but politically toothless.

I did my best to be upbeat.

"It's good to see people so happy," I said to Tamara. She nodded in agreement

I held her hand in mine, felt the softness of her skin, looked down at the contrast between her fingers and mine. Hers a deep chocolate with honey undertones, mine eggshell with a hint of pink.

Gazing at her hand I suddenly felt angry. Just the day before, the Supreme Court had gutted Section Four of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Because of that decision, states with a documented history of racial discrimination--states like Georgia where we live--will have a much easier time keeping dark-skinned people like Tamara from voting.

How dare we celebrate, I thought. Here we are, giddy with victory, while the fundamental tool against the racist exclusion of black voters is being flushed down the toilet. Is this where the LGBT movement has taken us, to a political movement whose vision of democracy makes marriage more important than voting?

The contrast between the back-to-back decisions--the Voting Rights Act and same-sex marriage--highlights what's wrong with our postracial belief in the inevitability of progress that has dominated LGBT activism for the past two decades. Marriage equality advocates regularly compare the struggle for same-sex marriage to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. In fact, the racial analogy has been the most common frame for understanding the LGBT rights struggle.

For example, lawyers, pundits, and activists regularly compare the inevitability of same-sex marriage rights to Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court decision that struck down state statutes prohibiting interracial marriage. On the day of this year's SCOTUS decisions, Evan Wolfson, the head of Freedom to Marry, applauded the death of DOMA but lamented the failure of the Prop 8 decision to end marriage discrimination nationwide. But, he assured us, invoking historical precedent, we too will finish the job. "The Supreme Court first punted on interracial marriage before it finally did the right thing in Loving v. Virginia in 1967--and brought the country to national resolution," Wolfson said.

Or take Barney Frank's comments at the DNC last fall as another example LGBT activists' "like race" equations. In a clear analogy between gays and blacks who become traitors to their cause, Frank slammed the Log Cabin Republicans by calling them Uncle Toms. And let's not forget the August 2012 cover of The Advocate depicting Obama in the place of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, transforming a symbol of our nation's union after a Civil War over slavery into a story about the wedding vows of same-sex couples.

The message behind these comparisons is clear: racial discrimination is a thing of the past. Now that race is taken care of, it's time to move on to equality for gays and lesbians.

The problem with this story is that it serves to justify the narrow politics of a single-issue movement. And it does this by peddling one of our nation's favorite myths: that we've moved beyond the race problem. And our belief in that myth strengthens our faith in the inevitability of progress. But this week's SCOTUS drama--a step forward for same-sex marriage, two steps back for voting rights--exposes the persistence of injustice and discrimination lurking beneath this postracial fairy tale.

It may be convenient and politically savvy for LGBT advocates to present ourselves as the "last in line" for rights. But in the long run that position will hurt us. Not only does it perpetuate the lie of a postracial society, but it also divides marginalized groups from each other. The LGBT movement's "like race" comparisons weaken the possibilities for a coalitional politics that might have a fighting chance against the Right. One step forward and two steps back? I hate to say it, but that means the Right is winning.

We want to believe that the withering away of oppression is as inevitable as the passage of time. But the events of this week, if we take a moment to look at them, force us to rethink this belief. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act is a major setback in the struggle for racial justice. This doesn't mean we can't celebrate the death of DOMA and Prop 8, two hateful pieces of legislation. But we can't let our rainbow flags blind us to what's happening behind the scenes of all those queer fairy tale weddings we're about to attend.

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