BiblioBitch: Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage

The first time I read of a queer critique of gay marriage was in the article "Queers on the Run" in Bitch #47, the Action issue. Maybe this position has not gained much media coverage (or maybe I was just guilty of not thinking critically of the movement around gay marriage) but activist filmmakers Eric Stanley and Chris Vargas's argument that same-sex marriage should not be the ultimate goal for the queer community was deeply illuminating.

Hence my excitement to discover that the Against Equality collective's anthology, Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage, has just landed in the Bitch Community Lending Library.

This purposefully pocket-sized anthology contains eleven whip-smart but accessible essays outlining various arguments against gay marriage from an impressive list of various authors and activists, some of whom you may already know (e.g. Kate Bornstein, editor of Gender Outlaws).

Although I can not explain the overall critique and its nuances anywhere near as eloquently as these authors, the basic idea is this: The push for gay marriage has led to the false notion that "full citizenship" for gays and lesbians is just one step away. Marriage is an assimilation strategy into a fundamentally capitalist, racist, and patriarchal structure—one in which queers will never be truly accepted. The argument for the right to marry because of its 1,000+ legal benefits is faulty and begs the question: Why is it only married people who are deserving of rights and benefits like health care? Shouldn't rights and care be given to all, regardless of their marital status? Same-sex marriage is perhaps a way of taming the gay community and the power they could contribute to revolutionizing our political and cultural structure.

I recognize that this is a complicated issue that is pertinent—if not crucial—to many, and passionate opinions naturally abound. Which is why I appreciate one of the goals of this anthology: To bring to light that a venomous black-and-white rhetorical split has developed on gay marriage. The dichotomous engagement with the issue is damaging to the cohesion of the GLBTQ community and stops discussions short. This collection offers valuable, if controversial, much needed nuance to a radically fractured debate.

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9 Comments Have Been Posted

Speech at the National March for Equality

I have not read this anthology but it looks like an interesting work. I do have to say though, the first thing that comes to mind when I hear those in the queer community speak negatively of equal marriage laws for hetero and homosexual couples is the speech Cynthia Nixon gave at the National March for Equality. (start at 3:25 for her remarks on equal marriage laws)

“Our right to marry is of paramount importance, whether you as an individual gay person listening to me right now want to get married now or ever. It is important because when a country has different laws for different categories of people it sends its population a message that the different group of people with lesser rights are somehow inferior and less deserving of respect, and are, in fact, not wholly human. And that message is heard loud and clear by the worst elements in our society. And it instructs them that if they are looking for someone to bully, or beat, or even kill; if they are looking for someone vulnerable to prey upon, gay people are a ready target."

Thank you, Emily(or thank you

Thank you, Emily(or thank you Cynthia Nixon?), for saying much more eloquently than I could have.

The importance of the legalization of gay marriage is, to me, not about minutiae like tax benefits and health care. Nor do I think that granting us full marriage rights will magically put an end to homophobia. I do, however, think that it is a fundamental step. We will never reach full equality if we continue to be categorically discriminated against because of who we are. By denying gay couples the right to marry, we are left permanently othered; we are kept back by a law that applies only to us.

Gay opponents of same-sex marriage are fond of the "assimilation" argument, which I find both groundless and offensive. First, no one is forcing anyone else to get married. Plenty of straight people already shy away from the institution of marriage for the very reasons listed in the review. The difference is that hetero couples have the option, if that is their preference; they have the choice to change their mind. Secondly, a marriage need not be traditional. The cries of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism may have some truth to them, but I defy these nay-sayers to find something in mainstream American culture that doesn't. If we have marriage, we have the ability to shape it into something that is right for us, to perhaps steer it farther from its oppressive and discriminatory roots. I fail to see how willingly staying in the margins will be beneficial to anyone.

At the end of the day, it comes down to equal rights, and I'm quite honestly surprised to see a positive review of a work that so blatantly denies them. No, it's not a magical solution, but it is a step. It is a choice. And, even more so than outright bigots, I am incensed at the idea of gay people who would push against equality for their own people - it's no different than women who would personally not get an abortion railing against other women's choice to do the same. And it's completely reprehensible.


Thank you Katie and Emily for your input.

The book is not a push to deny equal rights. What the authors are saying is that marriage <i>itself</i> is an Othering and privileged institution. They believe full-heartedly in equality, but see marriage as an institution that will only continue to marginalize populations (e.g. single black mothers), <i>even if</i> gay marriage becomes a legal reality. I can see how in this overall discussion things like health care can be viewed as minutiae, as you said. But the authors believe the legal and health benefits that come from marriage carry a large symbolic weight. From Yasmin Nair's introduction:

<blockquote>"Furthermore, if millions of people are excluded from the 1000+ benefits simply because they are NOT married, surely it does not matter that 'we' have changed the institution when we now choose to ignore the inequalities perpetuated by marriage? Surely we ought not to be for a society where basic benefits like health care are only granted to those who get married? Surely the point is not to change an archaic institution but to change, you know, the world?"</blockquote>

Concerning the "choice" to get married. Yes, gay people do not have the choice to get married. And yes, this most likely contributes to an Othering of gay people. But what the authors are saying is that we can not 'fix' an inherently broken system, we should be dismantling it and creating a system and culture where EVERYONE is cared for, regardless of the status of their race, gender, sex, or if they have a ring on their left fourth finger. The huge activist movement around the push for gay marriage is not only leaving this broader goal (a more sure path to the acceptance of all sexualities and genders) in the dust--it is a roadblock.

<blockquote>"In short, the family is the best way to advance capitalism, as the base unit through which capitalism distributes benefits. through our reliance on the marital family structure, emphasized and vaolrized by the push for gay marriage, we allow the state to mandate that only some relationships and some forms of social networks count. If you are married, you get health care. If you are not, go and die on your sad and lonely deathbed by yourself; even the state will not take care of you. If you are married, you get to be the good immigrant and bring over your immediate and extended family to set up a family business and send your children to the best schools after years of perseverance and hard work (at least theoretically). If you are not, you can be deported and imprisoned at the slightest infraction and not one of the kinship networks tht you are a part of will count in the eyes of the state. In other words, a queer radical critique...[is] an economic critique. A queer radical critique of gay marriage exposes how capitalism structure our notion of 'family' and the privatization of the social relationships we depend on to survive"</blockquote>

Thanks Erika

Thank you, Erika for responding to the above comments with more detail about these authors' arguments. I think that Katie and Emily's posts are examples of how so many people in support of GLBTQ rights have a knee-jerk negative reaction to any argument against gay marriage, even a Queer one. It's difficult to get into further dialogue about this issue because of that reaction, although it is certainly understandable given the challenges the community faces.

I could only get so much information on "Against Equality" (eye-catching title!) and haven't had the chance to read it yet, but says its only 84 pages. I would submit Michael Warner's book, "The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life" for an even more in-depth look at these arguments. When I first read one of his articles in grad school he blew me away and his writing is very accessible (not incomprehensible "academese"). Of all the thousands of pages of social theory I read in that program, his article is the one I saved.


Hayley, thank you for reading and for your response! I will definitely check out Michael Warner's book.

what you're saying is exactly

what you're saying is exactly part of the issue. if married people get more rights than single people, that is sending a message that people in couples are fundamentally better than single people. that single people (or people in less traditional relationships) don't deserve the same privileges, respect. that single people aren't fully human. which is a message our culture constantly sends to us single people anyways (including many gay communities).

Other Readings

Judith Butler has written critiques along these lines, too. I remember running into them in "Undoing Gender" and it exploding my mind.

I agree that marriage is not

I agree that marriage is not the ultimate goal. It is one of numerous legal discriminations that need to be unhinged as a baseline. Gaining the vote was not the end of the work for gender equality, either.

As for marriage as an inherently othering institution, those are its roots. But there have always been and probably always will be couples of every description who prefer a formalized partnership, and the contractual rights inherent in a marriage certificate costing $100 for straight couples should not cost thousands for LGBT couples who must reinvent the wheel every time and still be denied basic rights.

It sounds as though you're saying straight folks don't care about universal health coverage because they can just get married. Really?

Maybe you all should read the

Maybe you all should read the book, instead of just the book review, to get a taste for what the critiques are! :-)

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