The American LGBT movement has been dominated, for the last 20 or so years, by campaigns around marriage. The story began in 1993, when three same-sex couples sued the state of Hawaii, arguing that denying them the right to marry was discriminatory. To everyone’s surprise, they won. Thus began a series of political and legal battles.
At the moment, same-sex marriage is legal in 13 states, while 31 states have passed constitutional amendments banning it. Hundreds of referendums have been held on the issue. Proposition 8, for example, banned same-sex marriage and was passed in 2008 in California – only to be ruled unconstitutional by a federal court earlier this year.
Most LGBT activists have sought to defend marriage equality, but some authors, writing from the perspective of queer politics, have questioned this approach. They point out that the early gay movement made a radical critique of marriage, opposing monogamy and state involvement in people’s relationships.
Such authors are concerned that for LGBT people to get married is for them to seek a respectable position within a sexist and homophobic society, instead of fighting to transform it.
This collection of academic essays sets out to examine this argument, based on evidence from marriage equality campaigns. It becomes clear that activists are divided by class, sex and race. Many feel that, while marriage is a priority, more stress should be put on other issues, such as healthcare and transgender oppression. One Massachusetts activist reported that “the marriage movement is a lot of rich white gay men, frankly”.
So the queer theorists have, to some extent, a point. But it’s a point that many marriage activists in fact understand, but don’t see as central. Another Massachusetts campaigner remarks, “Whether or not I like it, this is where the battleground for equality is. I mean, I don’t plan on ever getting married.”
The fact that this is the current battleground seems the crucial point. The homophobic right was able to mobilise 100,000 volunteers in California in support of Proposition 8, raise millions of dollars and distribute over a million signs for supporters to display outside their homes – “the largest anti-gay campaign in history”. In this situation, arguing for the right to marriage equality is not to say that marriage is a wonderful thing, but to defend LGBT people in general.
A final point is illustrated by the experience of the couples who married in early 2004 in San Francisco, when the mayor granted some 4,000 licences before the courts intervened. In the words of one woman, “I was against the institution of marriage. I didn’t want to be the same as straight people.” Yet she married, so as to make a political statement against discrimination. Of the people who got married, almost half had been involved in campaigning for abortion rights, and over one in five around union issues. In the long queue to get a certificate, marriage changed to some extent from an individual private act to a collective political one as couples shared their stories, lent each other rings and agreed to act as witnesses.
This book gives a fascinating and moving picture of the complexities and contradictions of a movement that has involved millions of LGBT and straight people. Recommended.
The Marrying Kind? Mary Bernstein and Verta Taylor (eds), University of Minnesota Press, £18.50 pounds (GB).
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