The Supreme Court of the United States decides Obergefell v. Hodges (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I recently attended an annual fundraiser for a high-profile LGBT nonprofit organization. Since they run multiple programs, some of which I support, I had no idea until I arrived that the entire event was dedicated to raising funds for what was billed as “marriage equality” (a term I loathe for many reasons). An hour into the event, sitting at a round table full of well-intentioned, middle-aged, upper-income, white gay men, I’d had my fill of the marriage movement’s rhetoric, which positioned queer people’s claim to equality in the context of sameness. Based almost solely on the assertion that our relationships are no different from straight people’s, the movement contends that we therefore deserve what others have. “Our love is just like your love,” “Our family is just like your family,” “We’re committed and monogamous, just like you.” These and other refrains echoed throughout the room, resulting in applause and bidding paddles being raised to donate money toward the final frontier of gay equality: marriage. Contemporary arguments for legalizing same-sex marriage are predicated on a narrative that says our relationships are just like yours. Therefore, to recognize yours but not ours is discriminatory and perpetuates inequality. And here is my struggle with that rhetoric: I am one of those well-intentioned, middle-aged, upper-income, white men, but my queer family is most certainly not “just like any other.”
I do not want equality, with its demand that those of us on the margins must assimilate to norms that remain unquestioned, rather than transforming those norms altogether. I do not want to achieve social recognition for my family if that recognition hinges on my willingness to restructure my relationships according to the narratives and norms presented to me through conventional legal marriage. I do not support the further fracturing of queer communities such that only two-person monogamous relationships are granted validation (because those relationships are familiar enough to a dominant norm that the oddity of their same-sex-ness can be excused). I certainly do not want the pressing concerns of the most vulnerable members of my community (employment, housing, access to physical and mental health care, immigration protections, and so much more) to be sidelined in pursuit of the much more luxurious interests of people like me. Equity? I’m on board. But equality, and specifically equality signaled by access to marriage? Not so fast.
Much as I sometimes resist admitting it, I am an academic. I have been an activist (I hope in some ways I still am through my writing and my teaching). I am also just another queer person living with my queer family in the Pacific Northwest. From all three vantage points, I am concerned about the agenda my community seems bent on pursuing. This essay presents my attempt to tell my story, pulling all three parts of myself into alignment and adding my voice to a chorus of others in resistance to the mainstream gay rights movement’s focus on “marriage equality.”
Let me be clear at the outset: I am not against marriage per se. I understand and agree with many critiques of the institution itself—for its historic (and often contemporary) misogyny, its role in the service of neoliberal social and economic interests like the privatization of human caring, or its utility in legislating and policing sexuality and sexual behavior. But my primary interest here is not to dismantle the institution of marriage. Instead, I use my experiences with and in queer families to present a picture of resistance to the desperate desire of the mainstream lesbian and gay rights movement to adopt a same-sex version of conventional straight marriage for the sake of social recognition, to assimilate to the hegemonic norms that structure these marriages, and to have the audacity to hold this up as the marker of equality for our communities.
The pursuit of two-person, monogamous, economically independent relationships works for many people, both within and outside queer communities. But marriage has never been the gold standard of our queer relationships; we have developed creative and adaptive structures for our relationships and families—partly out of necessity and partly out of the freedom that comes from being outside the parameters of that which is “normal.” What is really at stake in the marriage debate is a larger principle: queering relationship and family. By arguing that our relationships deserve the same recognition as everyone else’s only because or when we are “just like everyone else,” we declare that marriage is the norm for queer relationships and the basis of “normal” queer families.
Wedding cake toppers (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This is a position I simply cannot support. As an activist, it runs contrary to all my values related to social justice and pluralism; the melting pot analogy, in which difference fades in favor of a single shared identity, is simply unacceptable. As a scholar, I reject claims to a single account of the human experience, a “normal” around which all Others orbit. As a queer person myself, I have lived and continue to live in families that are actually jeopardized by normalizing gay relationships and queer families only insofar as they align with a default heterosexual “everyone else.”
My family and the families in my queer community are not like everyone else’s. My friends’ families consist of ex-lovers supporting one another long after their relationships have ended, in some cases claiming bonds of family and community with each other’s new lovers (and new exes); sexually intimate relationships with more than two partners; gay men and lesbians forming long-term platonic yet intimate relationships with one another, including conceiving and co-parenting their wonderful and creative children; and gay families through adoption, often including birthmothers or surrogates as active participants. These families cannot be boxed into a single narrative of the “normal” family form, and their diversity is both staggering and a source of pride.
I come from one of these complicated and creative families. I grew up in rural Washington State, geographically close but culturally far from Portland, Oregon. In some ways, mine was a stereotypical white nuclear family. My parents, high school sweethearts, were privileged to attend college, where they married and then returned to their hometown to raise their three children. Although my family was cash poor throughout my early childhood, by the time I entered middle school, we were comfortably middle class, and in many ways, strikingly unremarkable. In the mid-1980s, when I was eleven years old, that changed suddenly when my father came out of the closet. In the space of just a few months, my parents separated and subsequently divorced; my father moved to a townhouse only nine blocks from our family home, and he partnered with the man I would come to know as my stepfather. Our family became politicized; we were now the Other in our town, by virtue of my father’s gayness, my stepdad’s Blackness, and my family’s ongoing commitment to one another in spite of divorce. My parents’ commitment to each other never wavered; they remained intimately (though platonically) connected even after the divorce, communicating to their children that family meant something much larger than simply the institution of marriage.
Over the coming years, my father and stepfather separated, and my dad moved from our small town to Portland to live in closer community with other gay people. He bought a house, partnered again (and then again, and then again), and although he and my stepfather were no longer romantically connected, they continued to live together and support each other financially and emotionally. For the rest of my father’s life (he died of AIDS in 1995), my three parents demonstrated the intimacy, commitment, and creativity of family, in spite of being entirely platonic in their relationships with one another (in fact, all three had romantic others in their lives during this period).
In the year following my father’s death, my stepfather decided it was time to know his HIV status; he had postponed getting tested because of his fear for the stress it would cause our already taxed family system if he received a positive result. He did test positive, and when he looked into his options for health insurance at that time, he learned that he would not be covered due to his HIV status; he was left with a diagnosis and need for treatment, but no means to access it. Meanwhile, my mother (who was nearly nine years into a committed relationship) learned that her insurance policy would provide coverage to her legal spouse without a health screening. One year after my father’s death, we drove to Reno, where my straight mother and gay stepfather were married for the purpose of health care; my mother and her straight male partner simply agreed that family needs took precedence over their desire to marry. Many years and health care policy gains later, my stepfather received coverage of his own and no longer needed to rely upon marriage to confer that benefit. He and my mother divorced, and my mother and her partner finally married after nearly eighteen years together.
Rainbow cake (Photo credit: flickr/various brennemans)
Along the way, from the time my father came out of the closet to the time my mother and her partner were finally married, our family continued to queer in new ways. We became an informal foster home for neighborhood youth whom the child welfare system would have served had it existed in any real sense in our part of the county. My grandmother moved into our home, and my mother’s sister and her children moved from Texas to provide care for my grandmother as her health declined. Meanwhile, my mother and younger sister moved out of our home and into my father’s Portland home to share home care for him during his death. At the same time, as a college student, I spent the week caring for my lesbian best friend, who was dying of cancer at age twenty-three, and drove to Portland on weekends to provide relief for my mother, sister, and stepfather in caring for my dad.
I share this narrative not only because I am proud of what my family has accomplished and how our experience illustrates different ways queer people have and continue to family. I share it to destabilize the notion that gay marriage will demonstrate the normalcy and “just like you” character of gay families. I came out when I was sixteen, confident in the acceptance of a family that celebrated its oddity, even in the context of bigotry and ugliness modeled daily by the town in which we lived. Growing up, my family was not just like any other family, as we were reminded daily. We did not fit the established templates for relationships (for marriage—or divorce, for that matter—or even of what adult sibling relationships entail). Functionally, we disregarded conventional meanings ascribed to our relationships; as queer families always have, we defined ourselves on our own terms. Marriage was not the marker of legitimacy for our family. It was a political tool, an instrument we used when we needed to, but not the indicator of our love or commitment to one another. Coming from that family, steeped in these values of creativity and commitment, I have now formed a queer family with new twists.
We are complicated, my current family. At our most basic level, we are a family of four—three adults and one child—living together, related in a variety of ways, deeply committed to one another and intimately connected, but without conventional language to name us. My family today includes my partner (with whom I am romantically intimate), his sister (with whom I am not), and our five-year-old daughter, whose birthmother chose us to be her parents and with whom we have an ongoing relationship. My daughter and I are white; my partner and his sister are Vietnamese. Three of us are Jewish and one is not. We live together in the same home, our finances are entirely interdependent, and our emotional commitments run deep—all circumstances I hope never change. My partner’s sister is not a parent to my daughter, but in name only; we have no term to describe the depth and intensity of their relationship. Likewise, she and I (and she and her brother) are intimately (if platonically) connected. I cannot imagine my home without her there, and again, we have no term to adequately name this connection. We are surrounded by my mother and her partner, my siblings by birth, two sisters by choice, and a complex constellation of other adults who support, affirm, and bolster us—they, too, are our family, and I struggle to find a title for these bonds. We are not merely close friends, we are kin, as clarified by Kath Weston in Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinshi.
My family is most certainly not “just like everyone else’s.” In restaurants, when my whole family is present, my daughter’s two male parents are routinely ignored by waitstaff who—with all the best of intentions—ask my sister-in-not-law what my daughter would like to eat. They assume she is the parent because, after all, our dominant social norms suggest that the presence of a woman in the company of a child renders her that child’s caregiver. Legalizing same-sex marriage does not address the sexism embedded in this taken-for-granted assumption that women are made for motherhood in a way men (even two of them actively parenting together) are not assumed to be fathers by default. Nor will it resolve the implicit racism I see in the faces of fellow passengers on public transportation, as they struggle to understand which two adults in our family created our blonde, fair-skinned white daughter; was it the two Vietnamese people who look a lot alike (my partner and his sister)? Or the Vietnamese woman and the dark-haired white man? We remain a mystery, a curiosity, out of the inability for people to fit us neatly into a tidy social template of family (signaled by racially matched married parents and their biological children).
I watch my five-year-old daughter explain to her blank-faced health care provider that “not all boys have penises and not all girls have vulvas,” and I realize that same-sex marriage will not help my child navigate a world that still denies the trans* people in her life full recognition or even the right to name their own bodies. Nor does it help her to see her family reflected in her elementary school’s curriculum—her same-sex parents (“Daddy,” which most people understand, and the Vietnamese “Ba,” which they do not), her aunt (who uses “Cô,” rather than “Aunt”), her birthmother, her five grandparents (three of whom are white, one Vietnamese, one Black, and none biologically connected to her), and the host of other adults (all of whom are actively involved in her upbringing) surrounding her day in and day out.
The White House lights up to celebrate Obergefell v. Hodges (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I think about my own extraordinary privilege, to work in a university, to take classes for next to no cost—and how that privilege extends to members of my family (spouse or children). Same-sex marriage, however, will not allow my sister-in-not-law to access this benefit because she isn’t family enough—in spite of us living together for the past six years, entirely financially and emotionally interdependent. The marriage movement also will not help other people understand that our occupational worries cannot be resolved by just getting a job elsewhere (a common recommendation from peers, given our class, educational attainment, and sector of employment). Our family form requires that for one of us to relocate, three jobs must be waiting.
Of course, in many ways, these are good problems to have. Coming out thirty years ago as a gay man with three children, these are problems my father would have loved to be able to claim. He faced active employment discrimination, threats of physical harm, and more, that I have never feared in the same way. Considering my queer peers who experience homelessness, struggle in poverty, are incarcerated and subject to inconceivable violence inside those walls, fear deportation, navigate health systems that deny them care without psychiatric diagnoses, and encounter interpersonal and structural racism every day, these problems fade into near insignificance.
But that is precisely the problem. I am, in so many ways, one of those gay people most like those driving the marriage movement. I am college educated. I am white. I am comfortably middle class. I am accustomed to being heard when I speak and finding ways for my needs to be met when I communicate them. I am in a relationship with someone I could call “husband” if the law allowed. Yet even for me, achieving legal same-sex marriage does not solve any actual day-to-day concerns. It simply solidifies as valid one form of relationship, of family, and by virtue of claiming recognition for that one form, it pushes the rest of us further out to the margins and leaves us further behind. Poly families, drag families, multiple couples co-parenting the children they created together, trans* and genderqueer families, poor queer people with no access to the assets marriage promises to protect—will still struggle for recognition of their families and relationships, and our communities fracture even more. None of this is intentional on the part of individual gays and lesbians who want recognition for their relationships; I am under no illusions and make no accusations that they deliberately pursue assimilation, or that they hope to deny diverse queer families the recognition they also deserve. Nevertheless, this is how the politic plays out.
So what do we, as a community, gain when we chase access to traditional marriage in the name of equality? What do we lose? Who gets left behind as we march toward the interests of a select few who have the luxury to be worried about inheritances and visitation (but less about employment security, immigration status, violence, or poverty)? When I voice these concerns to my friends and colleagues, I often hear, “Yes, but it’s a step. Those other things can be next. We have to start somewhere.” I question, however, how and why we came to decide that this is the place to start, with the interests of those people who for the most part already stand nearest social acceptance. Those closest to the mainstream will benefit, and the others? They remain on the margins, and indeed, those margins will have been pushed further out. Codifying marriage as the legitimate form of queer relationships as it has been positioned—parallel to heterosexual marriage—actually restricts the diversity of queer families rather than opening it for further future gains. When our “equality” is predicated on marriage, those of us for whom marriage is neither desirable nor helpful will be even further from that goal.
The pursuit of same-sex marriage, in the guise of equality, is not a starting point; it is the point. It is the point where we turn a corner, and if we turn in the direction we are now facing, toward recognition only through the rhetoric of sameness, we actually move further from inclusion and true equality. We move away from affirming a rich diversity of family and in favor of an increasingly narrow interpretation of “legitimate” relationships. Those in our community—in all communities—who want to marry should certainly be able to do so. Their relationships, and all others, should receive validation and recognition, or none should. But “marriage equality” is not a victory, not even an initial one, if it comes at the expense of other queer families, my own included, which are deliberately and deliciously not like everyone else’s.
This essay by Ben Anderson-Nathe is included in Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity, edited by Carter Sickels and released by Ooligan Press February 2015. Untangling the Knot is available where all fine books are sold.