The recent ruling in favor of gays and lesbians in New York has had unintended consequences. And I don’t mean that the global wellbeing of gay New Yorkers is demonstrably greater or that sales of nuptial paraphernalia have increased, though to be sure New York’s Marriage Equality Act has produced both effects. I’m referring to an entirely different set of outcomes resulting from the extension of “marriage rights” to those New Yorkers in same sex partnerships.
One of the lessons in many introductory sociology courses revolves around the “manifest functions” and “latent consequences” of particular social arrangements. While these concepts are holdovers from the oft-derided theoretical school known as structural-functionalism, distinguishing between manifest and latent effects remains an incredibly powerful strategy for teaching critical thinking. Every governmental policy, family tradition, and social institution has not only intended and conscious (manifest) functions but also unintended and often invisible (latent) effects. Students are not surprised to consider that the manifest function of educational institutions is to transmit content—the proverbial reading, writing, and arithmetic. Some are disquieted though to consider that one latent consequence effected through a system of rules which rewards obedience and conformity is the production of citizen-workers who are prepared to be politically apathetic and economically subordinate to corporate interests.
What does this basic kind of analysis have to do with gay folks, New York, or North Carolina, for that matter? While legislation like New York’s Marriage Equality Act is manifestly aimed at extending rights to gays and lesbians, I worry that the excitement surrounding such legislative victories has two fairly insidious latent consequences.
First, the flurry that surrounds the announcement of “gay marriage” in places like New York, and Massachusetts and, my favorite, Iowa ignores the fact that marriage equality doesn’t actually exist. Not even for couples in New York. Second and perhaps more importantly, buzz about progress unfolding most prominently in the Northeast obfuscates the ongoing and, I would argue, intensifying oppression experienced by LGBTQ people, throughout the United States but particularly in Southern states.
In the week following New York’s initial gay nuptials, I received an email from a friend with the subject line: “If this doesn’t make you cry, you are dead inside.” Attached was a slideshow featuring gay and lesbian couples delighting in state sanctioned wedded bliss. Several of these photo montages circulated via Facebook and other social media outlets. The friend who sent this particular one to me is straight, but she’s the kind of straight person who when discussing heterosexism will spontaneously start crying. She is, in short, a beautiful example of what reflecting on privilege— straight or white or male— really entails, namely the messy and emotional process of empathizing about what it would feel like to have your human dignity systematically assaulted.
My friend was right—the photographs were deeply moving. It’s hard not to be swept up in the romance. In particular, seeing portraits of couples in their seventies and eighties exit New York’s City Hall with marriage licenses held proudly over their head is deeply stirring. Yet press surrounding New York’s Marriage Equality Act (and other state level victories) makes for profound confusion about what life in these United States truly entails for LGBTQs.
Marriage rights are real things that have nothing to do with cake or Bed, Bath, & Beyond registries or Olivia cruise honeymoons. Marriage, for better or worse, is about money. One right afforded married couples includes Social Security survivor benefits. Rights like these are dispensed federally, and since the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits federal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships, newlyweds in New York remain single from Uncle Sam’s perspective. None of this, I thought, was any surprise to anyone, especially folks who are LGBTQ or who know someone who is. I was wrong.
Recently, someone asked me “Gays can’t get married in North Carolina, right?” It’s an understandable question. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up about who can get married where, especially when one might be married by a municipality only to have the validity of the marriage license challenged. San Francisco, anyone? (It seems important here to point out heterosexual privilege #452: Married straight folks never have do internet research to decipher what entities recognize the validity of one’s partnership.) Interestingly, the very question about where one can marry presumes that LGBTQs can, in fact, marry somewhere. Undoubtedly, there is an ambient sensibility that it’s getting better, and while it most certainly is in particular ways, many dimensions of LGBTQ oppression remain firmly intact.
Several weeks ago, a friend asked me when a couple we know might retire. I offhandedly remarked that the very question of when one can retire is contingent on the benefits one can access. Put simply, for these dear friends, being gay will translate into more years in the workforce and fewer years with each other since they are not entitled to one another’s benefits. To this, I encountered the following startling response, “But there’s a way to get around that, right?”
Simply put, the answer is no. Inequality is built into the laws and policies of this nation such that accessing rights is not simply a matter of “thinking outside the box.” That’s precisely the nature of oppression. The box has been built around you and the tools that it takes to get out are not at your disposal. Not even if the state of New York grants you a “gay” marriage license.
To be sure, this person (who is straight) knew the words “homophobia” and “heterosexism.” As a good straight ally, he too had been moved by New York’s victory and even offered his congratulations via Facebook status. In fact, he even brandished a Human Rights Campaign sticker on his office door. (You know the one—yellow equal sign on a blue background.) Setting aside the fact that the graphic is essentially an organizational brand rather than a symbol with a real queer history, it does carry some, albeit amorphous, meaning—namely that one is “pro gay rights.” Yet even this ally’s critical consciousness seemed hijacked by a mythical sense that somehow equality is accessible if you know how to work the system.
Similarly in the last several weeks, a queer woman explained to me that she and her partner intended to marry in Washington, D.C. Since the District is not a state, the couple reasoned that marrying there would give them access to federal rights. But this is magical thinking, and such naiveté pervades both straight and LGBTQ people’s queer consciousness. What does it mean that this straight ally presumed that equality is accessible? What does it mean that a lesbian couple imagined that equality could be attained merely by traversing the Beltway?
I am deeply concerned that so many folks are misinformed, at best, and deluded, at worst, about the very real oppression experienced by LGBTQ person in these United States. The idea that one can “get around” oppression suggests that folks are deeply confused about how LGBTQ discrimination is inescapable as long as federal legislation is predicated on limiting rights based on identity (in this case sexual) and status (in this case married).
Perhaps though, we should not be surprised by all the misunderstanding. Media celebrating New York’s victory suggests that the marriages occurring there convey are real and in one sense, they are. The social endorsement facilitated by the state is deeply meaningful for many couples. On the other hand, these are unions are not “real” marriages, regardless of whether or not a state chooses to call them such. Federal rights automatically imbued to straight couples who marry remain inaccessible to married gay New Yorkers and Iowans. This is the reality, but it is a reality that seems to have been obscured in the rush to celebrate progress.
As it happens, while gay couples have been exchanging vows in the state of New York, LGBTQ activists in North Carolina have been hustling to push back the further entrenchment of gay hate into the state’s founding document. New York might have something to celebrate, but in North Carolina, the stakes are decidedly different. When the North Carolina legislature returned from break at noon on Monday, September 12, N.C. House Bill 777 was up for consideration. What has become known as the “anti-gay Amendment” passed the N.C. House by Monday evening and the N.C. Senate by Tuesday midday. When N.C. voters go to the polls to vote in May’s Presidential Primary, they will encounter a ballot measure seeking to amend the Constitution of the state to clarify that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.
It’s interesting to consider what issues of the day find their way into state Constitutions and which don’t. Child abuse, which undoubtedly, threatens children’s wellbeing has yet to integrated into a state’s founding document. Even the explosion of patriotism post 9/11 did not result in wide-spread state level campaigns to amend Constitutions to account for possible threats posed by terrorism. While the laws of North Carolina already contain statues which prohibit same sex marriage, the issue is apparently so threatening to the integrity of the state that it needs to be outlawed…twice. This series of unfortunate events, or shall I say evil calculated strategy of the GOP, is not unique to North Carolina. Thirty states have already incorporated comparable language into their state constitutions. (Amending state constitutions has actually become a tried and true strategy to mobilize conservative voters. Such changes have to be decided on by the electorate, and unfortunately, measures that impinge on the wellbeing of LGBTQs seem to elicit more voter turnout than other social issues.)
If marriage rights are already inaccessible, why do Constitutional Amendments like this matter? For one, these political efforts mobilize vitriolic rhetoric that does violence to the spirit of LGBTQ humans. For example, in an effort to contest the characterization of the struggle as a fight over civil rights, a group of black clergy led by Pastor Johnny Hunter held a press conference in which Hunter insisted, “It is offensive to equate an obsession with immoral, unnatural sexual behaviors with being black. Black people have morals.” As the N.C. NAACP’s response suggests, such rhetoric feeds efforts to systematically exclude groups from full recognition. These efforts also make people’s lives worse in very tangible ways. Campaigns in favor of this Amendment warn that the family is systematically under attack. This is one thing the fundamentalist Right has right—the struggle over gay rights is tearing North Carolina families apart at the seams…gay families that is. Do you know what the destruction of family looks like? Hundreds of nullified adoptions completed (and paid for) by same sex couples. This is the reality effected by a December North Carolina Supreme Court decision. Essentially such legislation leaves one parent with no legal standing as a parent, a decidedly tenuous status particularly in cases of separation or death.
One thing is for sure. The struggle is a different kind of struggle depending on where a queer finds one’s self. New York is not North Carolina. Despite limited access to rights even in places with “marriage equality” and the palpable efforts at reinscribing gay hate, what remains startling is the prominence of progress narratives. As Sarah Schulman so aptly writes, “People will tell you that ‘things are getting better’ without being able to define, beyond banal cliché, what that actually means.”
Moments of progress can muddle our sense of reality. The buzz surrounding New York’s Marriage Equality Act and other developments which are counted as gay successes produce beliefs about equality that are in direct contrast to the political reality in which our lives unfold. We imagine that rights exist that, in fact, do not. We imagine that the effects of policies which thoroughly penetrate the lives of LGBTQ folks are escapable, if only we can figure out the right place to go. We forget even in the midst of things to celebrate, there is much to fight and much to grieve. We celebrate New York to a fault by forgetting to inquire about what is happening in these other (dis)united states.
Perhaps, you’ve seen the viral video in which a young boy wrestles with the idea of gay marriage. In response to two men who introduce themselves as “husbands,” he responds, “You always see husbands and wives, but this is the very first time I saw husbands and husbands.” And after a brief pause, he exclaims expectantly, “So that means you love each other!?!” No other internet sensation has captured me like this, which is to say I’ve watched it at least forty times…literally. It’s true you always see husbands and wives. This is not a revelation, and yet his words are revolutionary. It’s not what he says. It’s how he says it. Upon discovering that the two men standing before him are “husbands,” he delights. What is so powerful, for me and I imagine others, about this two and half minute home video is that queerness is not simply acknowledged. It is celebrated.
Earthquakes in Virginia and Alaska, news of an impending second recession when most of us hadn’t noticed the end of the first, and growing hopeless about Obama’s capacity to be audacious when Congress seems deeply committed to partisanship, make most of us desperate for celebration. So it’s no wonder that the myth of progress eclipses the reality of gay hate. But there is a way to celebrate without forgetting the fight that still rages.
Weeks ago, my person and I decided to throw a party after the N.C. Legislature votes had been cast and the phone banks were shut down. The party is on even though from one perspective, our efforts of the last several months—endless phone banking, recurrent meetings with N.C. law makers, persistent post carding at community events—failed. Yet, the invitations are going out because it is important to celebrate the work that happened, and it is critical that we come together especially in those moments in which we feel the most alienated. I understand the desperate need for celebration. I understand the excitement that explodes when something, anything happens that feels like movement towards equality. But I fear the ways celebration often gives way to the sense that progress is just around the corner. Perhaps, it seems that way in some New York towns. It most certainly does not in Asheville, N.C. There will be a party, but there will be more work too.
I agree with fellow Feminist Wire contributor Darnell L. Moore that the Marriage Equality Act is a “pinkwashing” policy, a legislative cookie offered to gay and lesbian New Yorkers that distracts gays and lesbians (and straights) from the continued inequities perpetrated by heterosexism. Moore speaks beautifully about the way Gay Inc. (gay and lesbian organizations that are part of the nonprofit industrial complex) privileges marriage (an issue favored by their donor base) above issues like criminalization of sex work, homeless queer youth, and even violence, (issues that disproportionately affect the most disenfranchised LGBTQs). This is a problem, one that queer efforts spearheaded by groups like Queers for Economic Justice and the Chicago’s Transformative Justice Law Project work tirelessly (and too often thanklessly) to address. But I would also argue that the cessation of state sponsored violence (and limiting rights does violence to the wellbeing of LGBTQs) is something worth celebrating. So congratulations, New York! Perhaps, though, we can keep our hope for progress in check so long as injustice reigns supreme.