Sunday, March 31, 2013

Marriage: The USA Loves Me. It Loves Me Not

The Supreme Court is preparing to rule on cases that will determine the direction of marriage rights for same-sex couples.  Because so much energy and money have been invested in the struggle for marriage equality—and because it is such a basic civil right—having the Supreme Court rule in these couples’ favor would be a victory for most Americans.  It would make this a slightly less hypocritical country; the nation’s deeds would better match its creed.  Also, if this legal victory is secured, perhaps some of the resources dedicated to this battle will be directed toward the much broader agenda that many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists have been passionately pursuing, despite having a fraction of the support.  What else have LGBT activists been working toward?  The fact that so many of us would have to ask demonstrates how much mainstream LGBT platforms have drowned out other voices.

Activists who see that heterosexism, classism, and racism converge to limit the life chances of certain populations have long suggested that their agenda does not necessarily match that of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and other well-funded organizations that have made marriage equality their top priority.  For instance, these activists have long prioritized addressing the prison industrial complex, the alarming rates of homelessness among LGBT youth, and the degree to which LGBT youth (especially when not white and middle class) are vulnerable not only to suicide but also to the school-to-juvenile justice pipeline.  Likewise, many at the 2013 LGBT Creating Change conference concluded, “Now is the time for immigration reform and now is the time for LGBT people to accept that immigration reform is part of their movement as well.”

In light of a broader agenda, it becomes clear that marriage equality would be most life-altering for people who feel the sting of being denied this right because they are otherwise so well situated.  That is, because they do not struggle with “the most critical of needs (housing, food, gainful employment), which are not at all met by same-sex marriage,” securing this unjustly withheld option would dramatically improve their quality of life.  Of course, not being able to provide health insurance for one’s partner, being charged more for coverage when it is available, being denied visitation rights, and being cheated out of death benefits if one’s partner passes away all constitute egregious insult and injury of which the entire country should be ashamed.  This does not lessen the injustice of being vulnerable to racialized and sexualized surveillance and being barred from employment, though, which are some of the issues that can make marriage rights feel less urgent for most members of LGBT communities.  As activist Joseph DeFilippis puts it, “Despite the mainstream media depiction of gays and lesbians as white, middle-class people … with plenty of disposable income, this is not an accurate depiction of the LGBT population as a whole.” 

Yet, the power of this image is not limited to aesthetics; it has also been allowed to set the agenda, so marriage equality has become the issue, leaving the concerns of the majority of LGBT people largely unaddressed.  In fact, DeFilippis finds that “White, middle-class leaders of national gay organizations set the agenda and then, after the fact, they may hire people of color to ‘do outreach’ to sell that agenda to minority communities.”  Having drawn a similar conclusion, Black Girl Dangerous creator Mia McKenzie declares, “Yes, you can care about gay marriage. I don’t, but you can. But don’t fool yourselves into thinking that ‘Marriage Equality’ is some kind of miracle trickle-down movement that’s trying to bring everyone along. It’s not. It is a narrow, mainstream movement that USES many of us in order to appear intersectional and inclusive. But it’s not.”

Though I believe marriage is a civil right and have long been an HRC member, I recognize the validity of these critiques, so I sincerely hope that a diversity of voices will gain the hearing they deserve now that more people have noticed the unjust circumstances that LBGT people face.  Unfortunately, there is no guarantee.  As author and activist Kenyon Farrow has argued, “many of the gay donors who raise money, even for LGBT equality organizations, are ‘progressives’ only because of marriage, and actually do not support most of what the rest of us would call a left agenda (single-payer health care system, collective bargaining, public education, an end to massive imprisonment, reproductive justice, etc.).” 

If this broader agenda continues to take a back seat to marriage equality, then whatever the Supreme Court does this summer, it will not change something that desperately needs to change, the fact that anyone who is not heterosexual stands a much greater chance of experiencing violence of all kinds. 

In this country, certain people are deemed essentially disposable, so they must try to prove their worth by conforming to narrow conceptions of what a “good” person or “real” citizen is and does.  This is what marriage is really about.  Will the USA care about my well being and that of my loved ones or will it ignore us?  And there is nothing but violence in the country’s willingness to disregard certain populations.  Instead of recognizing that all people deserve health care, for example, the United States has created a system in which you deserve it only under certain conditions (including, if you get married).  It is a truly ridiculous premise, but Americans accept it, so too few of us question the logic.   

The more that marriage is allowed to remain a way of determining whether the USA should care about its residents or not, the fewer options people will have, because nothing else will be able to compete with its perceived validity.  As cultural historian Lisa Duggan reminds us, other statuses such as domestic partnership and reciprocal beneficiary too often “are represented as second-class marriage rather than as alternatives crucial to the lives of so many of us.”  Instead of accepting this logic, Duggan rightly asks, “Why not diversify and democratize the ways we recognize interdependencies, rather than enshrine the right to marry as a singular priority goal?”

Underscoring the urgency of taking this question seriously, Joseph DeFilippis asserts, “Whether we are single or partnered, we have the right to basic economic security. Marriage should be a personal choice based on cultural and religious preferences. It should not be the way to secure economic benefits for yourself and your family.” 

With brutal consequences, Americans unjustly allow marriage to determine who we see as responsible citizens, legitimate adults, and all-around decent people.  As we do so, we leave undisturbed the assumptions that have made marriage unavailable to same-sex couples all this time.  Thus, ensuring that more people have access to marriage will not adequately counter the assumption that anyone who is not straight is a potentially dangerous deviant—or at least someone we need not respect.  If a person is not interested in monogamous marriage, so the logic goes, they must be entrenched in a questionable lifestyle.  Thus, scholar Martin Joseph Ponce predicts that in the wake of marriage equality, “those queer folk who do not marry…will be stigmatized all over again, seen as incapable of maintaining a long-term relationship, possessed by perverse desires, practicing all kinds of deviant acts, attaching themselves to all the wrong sorts of people.”

It is this sexualized stigma that marriage equality leaves untouched and that concerns me mostbecause it has always been used to justify violence, including the violence of the USA not caring about people’s access to physical, social, and economic support.  Having studied violence for the past 15 years, I understand that its main purpose is to mark who belongs and who does not.  Whenever we accept the arbitrary standards that help justify violence of any kind, we might extend tolerance but we withhold true acceptance and full inclusion.

Given this reality, the silence around anti-LGBT violence, especially in comparison to the impassioned conversations on same-sex marriage, is striking.  The newsletter that comes with my HRC membership has not addressed violence with nearly the passion and attention to detail that has characterized its coverage of the struggle for marriage equality, but the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) consistently finds that brutality may be the most common experience among members of LGBT communities.  Leaders of mainstream LGBT organizations seem to believe that downplaying vulnerability—while spotlighting those who seem best poised to enter the privileged institution of marriage—will make people safer.   

It is a truly seductive idea, and we have seen marginalized groups embrace it before.  For instance, at the last turn of the century, when lynching remained a palpable threat to African Americans, they clung to the belief that if they became the perfect picture of respectable citizenship, they would be less vulnerable to attack.  After all, racial violence was said to occur because black men were often rapists who cared nothing for stable domesticity and black women were whores incapable of creating domestic havens.  According to widely accepted rhetoric, if more African Americans would form nuclear families led by respectable men and virtuous women, the race would not encounter so much discrimination and hostility. 

Though many still believe and preach this supposed gospel, the lie at the heart of this logic has been revealed again and again.  As I demonstrate in Living with Lynching, when members of maligned groups achieve according to traditional standards, their accomplishments inspire aggression as often as praise.  Therefore, violence often forms the backdrop to their success.  I call this deeply entrenched American tradition know-your-place aggression.  Very often, what turns members of marginalized groups into targets is the fact that they have succeeded in becoming what dominant discourse claimed they could not become.

For this reason, I argue in a forthcoming article that the violence consistently directed toward LGBT people should be understood as a response to success.  The community’s accomplishments can be measured in many ways—from the popularity and prominence of Ellen DeGeneres, Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Wanda Sykes, Ricky Martin, Sara Ramirez, Margaret Cho, George Takei, and the gay couple on Modern Family to the fact that not every single non-conforming person stays in the closet.  In other words, I see anti-LGBT violence as know-your-place aggression because it is based on the idea that “those” people need to be reminded of their “proper place” in society.  And let’s be clear: the need for such reminders is greatest when maligned groups are achieving in ways that cannot be ignored.
Given this country’s pattern of progress for marginalized groups followed by harsh backlash, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality, especially in a sweeping way, then one result will be a rise in know-your-place aggression.  I therefore hope that my work in identifying the parallels between lynching 100 years ago and anti-LGBT violence today will encourage more people to join the many activists who have been pursuing an agenda that includes, but has never been limited to, marriage equality.  Only this broader agenda will begin to highlight not just the disadvantages faced by LGBT communities, but also the unearned privileges enjoyed by those who are deemed heterosexual.  We must push past questions of whether the USA can learn to love presumably less desirable residents if they behave “properly.”  We must grapple with the country’s insistence upon caring for certain people…whether they are well-behaved or not.