As part of an action organized by the Campaign for Southern Equality, the date of May 11, 2012, found me and my partner at the Asheville, N.C., Register of Deeds Office requesting a marriage license. We brought the requisite paperwork, presented our Social Security cards and driver's licenses and expressed our business with our county government. Other couples at the counter adjacent to where we stood seemed to be doing the same. They got theirs. We did not get ours.
There is much to be said about the heterosexism and, in our case, transphobia that accounts for why we, along with 15 other LGBTQ couples, were denied licenses that day. But here I want to address another question altogether: How did we, a couple who wear our "queer" identity like a badge of courage and who historically derided marriage as "not our fight," find ourselves asking for a marriage license? Put another way, how has our queer politic become seemingly so mainstreamed?
As a 20-something I subscribed to queer anti-marriage politics with evangelical zeal, and yet I regularly deciphered confusion etched on foreheads of progressive folks and even LGBTQ people as they sometimes asked, "What's so wrong with marriage if it's, you know, egalitarian?"
There's a lot wrong with marriage, straight or gay. Marriage is intrinsically exclusionary. It solidifies a hierarchy of respectability wherein single folks never fully attain the status of "adult." Similarly, people who choose non-monogamy are treated with suspicion and disdain. The institution of marriage works as the primary mechanism to dispense what are really basic human needs, like health care and housing, making life as single person increasingly difficult to navigate as social supports dry up, wages stagnate and employment opportunities dwindle. Those folks who do not choose or have the opportunity to access marriage have significantly fewer routes to security and crucial elements of well-being. Marriage works as a status, too. Relationships formed through marriage are the only ones widely acknowledged as familial. My chosen family of friends, a web forged through love and everyday kinship work, is never counted for what it truly is. When marriage functions as the essential avenue for legally establishing family linkages, these queer ties have no route for recognition or protection. The problems with marriage lead queer critics like Lynne Huffer, in "The New Normal Is Not Good Enough," published on The Huffington Post this past year, to suggest that "same-sex marriage to the exclusion of other issues is a narrow vision of politics and an impoverished vision of love."
This sensibility feeds a persistent antagonism. On one side are organizations like the Human Rights Campaign on the national level, and efforts like the We Do campaign on a more local level, that invest in marriage equality efforts. The other side includes a beautiful array of community-based ventures and non-formalized organizations that, for good reasons, resist the depoliticizing effects of 501(c) status. For many groups that are doing the urgent work of finding housing for homeless queer youth or challenging the criminalization of economically disenfranchised queer folks, or that are networking chronically ill, isolated LGBTQ elders, the ongoing fight for marriage equality seems largely beside the point. There's also the contentious fact that marriage equality efforts consume a startling portion of dollars spent to make LGBTQ lives "get better."
This focus on marriage equality at the expense of other critically important LGBTQ issues leads Lynne Huffer to smartly ask:
How does marriage benefit two gay men in their 60s, both single all their lives, who decide to live together not as an expression of romantic love but to make ends meet? Why should this relationship, more caring and longer lasting than many legal marriages, be less valued than the gay imitation of Ozzie and Harriet? What about the single lesbian mother who finds herself homeless with her two children after escaping her lesbian partner's domestic abuse? Or the F-to-M transgender teenager who tries to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of pills after his parents kick him out because they cannot accept his inability to conform to gender norms? Is marriage going to save his life?
Huffer is on to something here. Marriage equality will do little to nothing to transform most of the lives Huffer sketches here in any immediate way.
So why is it that queers like us applied for a marriage license and plan to do so again this week? Because as much as Huffer's questions resonate with me, I find myself asking some others.
How does marriage benefit a gay man in his 30s when his partner, whose family of origin has never recognized their relationship, suddenly and unexpectedly dies? Why should the living partner be exposed to disproportionate economic harm? What about the chronically ill child of lesbian mothers who is not legally recognized by the state as the daughter of the one mother with access to comprehensive health insurance and so instead only receives the paltry care afforded by Medicaid? Or the trans woman seeking access to domestic violence services and legal recourse against her male partner? Is marriage going to save them?
Maybe. These questions are not hypothetical. Each chronicles a story I've encountered in the last year. And here's the thing I know: Marriage would have made navigating these unexpected tragedies, everyday troubles and traumas easier.
In the face of losing a lover, marriage empowers a partner to self-determine what will happen next: how a body will be treated and what funeral services do or do not look like. In the heartache of grief, especially as a result of tragic loss, these decisions might not be everything, but they might be something. The difference marriage makes for parents who do not have to fight employers and insurance companies for recognition while loving a sick child might not be everything, but it's certainly something. For those facing transphobia when interacting with police or social service agents but who need to immediately access resources, the ability to invoke the status of marriage isn't everything, but it's undoubtedly something.
These days I find myself neither parroting scathing indictments of nuptial culture nor celebrating marriage equality as some sort of political panacea. Instead I'm asking: Can the new normal, with its presumptive ties to marriage, be something without being everything? And relatedly, how can we establish a queer relationship to marriage equality efforts?
Queers viscerally understand the significance of investing in something that isn't everything. Consider, by way of illustration, harm reduction as a public health strategy. For example, rather than eliminating drug use or encouraging abstinence, needle exchange and safer sex education stand out as pragmatic approaches to dealing with human behaviors that do carry risk. Critics argue that such harm reduction measures "promote" risky (which often also coded as "immoral") behaviors.
Nevertheless, in light of recent harm reduction efforts aimed at HIV and hepatitis C transmission alongside sex worker safety, issues that remain pressing in queer communities, many queers deeply appreciate the promise of harm reduction. Regular testing, condom availability and safe spaces to organize are transformative. And they might not be everything. They're not free and accessible comprehensive health care. They don't signal the end of capitalist modes of selling one's labor. But they're something. Ultimately, while some harm reduction strategies are counterintuitive, especially to punitive and ascetic American sensibilities, the fact remains that responses shaped by harm reduction philosophies save lives.
Queers who get harm reduction might get how engaging in marriage equality fights makes practical sense. It's also the case that queers might think more critically about how marriage equality is scorned in so many queer spaces. Specifically, I am bothered when I see young, urban and/or highly educated queers characterize goals like marriage equality as stupid and those who support these goals as either uninformed or naïve. This pattern maps onto other systematic interactions of dismissal that are deeply ageist, classist and regionalist, as if authentic queer culture only exists in Northern urban centers and on the West Coast.
Like most early 20-somethings I resented the hell out of folks who told me that I would become more conservative as I got older. I'm glad to say that, as I've transitioned into my 30s, in several ways the opposite has proved true. But it is also the case that my rabidly anti-marriage smugness has yielded to something that appears, from some vantage points, oddly conventional.
However, my sensibility about marriage is far less driven by the desire to assimilate or disappear. Instead, I see marriage equality as a method of harm reduction, meaning that it isn't a global solution toward human flourishing, but for some people in this moment, it could hold transformative potential.
I would be the first to echo queer critics who suggest that we should all have avenues to make families that include whomever we choose and, correspondingly, to legally exclude our families of origin from our familial unit if our ties are tinged with familial homophobia and transphobia. I agree that marriage equality threatens to yield a hierarchy wherein the gorgeous sexuality and resistant culture of queerness becomes increasingly marked as depraved. Like so many others, I believe that pursuing state recognition feeds a rights-based model that relies on citizenship to the constant degradation of the non-citizens. And yesterday, Jan. 17, I once again applied for a marriage license as the Campaign for Southern Equality's most recent efforts culminated in a mass request in Virginia and Washington, D.C. It's not everything, but it's something -- not in a theoretical way but in a pragmatic way. Not for every LGBTQ person but for some LGBTQ people -- ones I know and ones I love.
For the ones marriage equality doesn't mean jack for -- for the single gay man in his 60s and the homeless lesbian mother and the trans teenager whom Huffer invokes -- my queer politic isn't going anywhere. Marriage equality may be something, but it certainly isn't everything. We keep loving, and we keep fighting.