Why Marriage Equality Is Not Enough

As you might have heard by now, President Barack Obama has expressed his belief that gay people should be able to get married. Obama said he has talked to friends, family, and neighbors about it; hell, he has people on his staff who are gay (surprise!), and it's not fair that they feel "constrained... because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage." There's a lot that could be said about what's been called Obama's #formemyselfpersonally endorsement of same-sex marriage -- such as how he's acting like it took Sasha and Malia being confused for him to realize that he should support the issue, and whether it's good or bad for politics -- but I want to take a moment to talk about the terms of the discussion. My concerns can fit broadly under what I'll call The Equality Problem.

Though the potential weaknesses of equality-based advocacy are myriad, perhaps one of the biggest is that the foremost goal is typically inclusion. Wagering for inclusion with regard to marriage is problematic first of all because it affirms rather than challenges the legitimacy of marriage as the supreme institution of relationships and domesticities. As has been argued before, the primacy of conjugal status in determining things like who counts as next of kin, who's covered by whose health care, and who can file joint tax returns is worth questioning. Fighting to extend the benefits of marriage to gay couples, on the basis that they model the nuclear mold, falls short of a "larger effort to strengthen the stability and security of diverse households and families." And ultimately, as we have seen with the recent passing of Amendment 1 in North Carolina, policies touted under the banner of assumedly desirable "traditional families" are, and have been for at least five decades, about restricting state support for a range of "deviant" relationships and domesticities from unmarried partnerships to multigenerational and single parent households.

Of course, assimilation into an institution also means assimilation into a particular notion of what's normative and acceptable. Enter: The "Just Like You!" Plea. At the end of the day, inclusion still conforms to a perceived norm, and in doing so, marginalizes other preferences, experiences, and expressions. People in gay relationships (not queer! that's a bad word) just want to buy a house with a picket fence and have 2.5 kids like their mythical heterosexual brothers and sisters. They just want to "raise a family" and take turns walking the dog and emulate the anachronistic norm of patriarchal, economically productive homes. Right? ... No? Okay, so in that case, can we stop pretending like everyone is the same? (And while we're at it can we stop pretending as though "opposite" and "same" sex are in any way accurate or adequate?) Progressive legislation and equal recognition need not be rallied for on the grounds that all LGBTQ couples are wealthy, white, able-bodied, cis male monogatrons who are "just like you, but gay." Challenging this homo-normative narrative entails acknowledging that the hetero-normative illusion it claims to be "just like" is also a fallacy and furthermore unnecessary as a means for comparison. Do we all have to identify as straight, gay or lesbian, or perform an intelligible gender, or be in "incredibly committed monogamous relationships" to deserve the multiple economic and legal privileges currently provided through marriage?

Lastly, a side of the marriage equality wrangle that merits some discussion is the obsession with whether or not same-sex attraction is "natural." With well-intentioned proponents affirming that it is, and others countering that it's not (usually accompanied by some name game platitude involving biblical characters), the "natural" vs. "unnatural" debate almost has the appearance of being important. Yet, not only should it be of no import whether or not Cynthia Nixon was "born this way," but harping on the matter compromises the terms of the debate and significantly clouds what should be an unstable notion of "sexuality" anyway. "Homosexuality" is not any more natural than "heterosexuality," and, in fact, neither should be conceived as constituting some kind of fixed, continuous entity that can satisfactorily encompass intimate human activity since the beginning of time. After all, it's been only relatively recently that marriage has become marginally less prejudicial than it's been at times in the past, and not long before that was the discursive binary of hetero/homosexuality popularized, so there is absolutely no reason to invoke "nature" here, nor is there a need to concretize acts of sex and intimacy into identity, and identity into institution.

The aim is not to legislate how "happy," relatively unenthusiastic, or somewhere in the middle people can be about Obama's announcement and the drive towards marriage equality more generally, but rather to try to think about how the debate is framed, who it further excludes, and what we want beyond it. The concept of equality does not have to present problems (at least not problems we can't work through), and perhaps it can be useful if we ensure that it signifies more than simply drawing the circle of hegemonic normativity a little wider. In the meantime, in the midst of the political momentum surrounding same-sex marriage and with an ongoing commitment to remain critical, we've got our work cut out for us.