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By Darnell L. Moore
Soon are the days when progressives (and, neoconservatives alike) will deploy the Empire State’s Marriage Equality Act as a case for New York’s movement in the direction of social democratic ideals. Many will contend that the state of New York serves as the nation’s laudable example of “fairness,” “equity,” “justice,” and—dare I say—“human rights” as they relate to LGBTQ constituents. The Marriage Equality Act will become the cause célèbreof New York-based and national gay rights “activists” distracting the state’s citizenry from centering on policies, practices and legislation that further concretize the lack of rights, freedoms, access, power and safety in the lives of some queer others.
And, while I have never deemed myself a seer, I predict that the recent passage of the Marriage Equality Act will result in the localization of the posture and practice of “pinkwashing.” A term generally taken up by pro-Palestinian activists to illuminate and critique the Israeli government’s emphasis of state sanctions granted to LGBTQ citizens, “pinkwashing” has been isolated as a method to distract Israeli citizens from their complicity in the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the stronghold on Gaza. A technique, as my sister-friend Alexis Pauline Gumbs reminded me, which feminists like June Jordan and Alice Walker fought against using their words and bodies. Yet, I foresee the days when pinkwashed politics will be played out similarly in the state of New York perpetuating the hyperinvisibility of the bodies (and material conditions in the lives) of certain queer folk in New York and beyond. In response, we will need a queer, feminist lens to assess and address this problematic.
But, let me start at another beginning, lest I be found guilty of offering an admonitory commentary without including any words of commendation on behalf of this historic undertaking on the part of the New York state government. I am elated that our state’s governing body has provided the civil marriage option for those LGBTQ folk who wish to be afforded the same 1,324 rights granted to married couples in our state. Indeed, the passage of this landmark legislation is no small feat. Yet, I am of the opinion, as poignantly stated by some queer, feminist scholar-activists like Rich Blint and Lisa Duggan, that civil marriage is of but one option that should be made available to those who desire the state’s qualification of and benefits toward their relationships. And, as many feminist and/or queer activists have argued before me, I contend that the sole focus of some LGBT advocates and straight allies on the reified “institution” of marriage as the chief arrangement among intimate partnerships—situated along the moral hierarchy above(!) civil unions, domestic partnerships and other forms of non-married, non-monogamous relationship formations—is extremely myopic and dangerously so.
I am thinking, as I write, of my young, black, poor, single mother of four who raised me and my three younger sisters, amidst intimate partner violence, alone in the city of Camden during its media heyday in the 80s—the days of looming welfare reform—in one of the most “dangerous” and economically distressed cities in the country. My mother—not unlike other poor black and brown women in Camden, Trenton, Paterson, Newark and elsewhere—was imagined as the amoral, non-married, capital-sucking, welfare queen who raised children alone, without a man/head of the household. I am certain that the “institution” of marriage as conjured in the national imaginary, in all its moral splendor, did more to instantiate my mother’s presumed inferiority than the possibility of difference. And, that ain’t representative of a feminist, left, or radical queer politic even though “mothering [with or without a man or woman] is the most feminist act of all” as beautifully articulated by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. But, I digress…though, not really.
The singular investment (capital, ideological and bodily) in “gay marriage” advocacy work short circuits the emancipatory potential of a queer politic and activist platform that seeks the overall destabilization of any such “institution,” real or imagined, that furthers state-ordained, heteronormed, patriarchal and neoliberal modes of relationality. Such institutions are modes of normativity (made proper by way of state sanctions) that disqualify other modes of non-heteronomormative relationships. It is assismilationist posturing that moves us away from Cathy Cohen’s suggested trajectory of queer activism in the direction of anti-assimilationist and transformational coalition work.[i] And it is founded upon a politic of “benign disembarkation” into the realm of the “normal” rather than a politic of “radical departure” from the normative that simultaneously moves us in the direction of equalized, diverse forms of relationality. But for what it is worth, we will have our 1,324 rights should we want them, even if that means the homonormativation of marriage is the end result. The many lived experiences, the diverse ways that queers orient themselves in the world and in their bedrooms, the varied forms of intimacy and relationship will be disappeared under the guise of “gay marriage.” And that, I’m afraid, will be but another form of pink-washed politics. But we know this, yes?
Queer writer and activist, Kenyon Farrow, recently posed the following question: “What does it mean when progressives celebrate a victory in large part won by GOP-supporting hedge fund managers, Tea Party funders and corporate conglomerates?” Farrow’s important question is cause for serious contemplation in this present moment of post-vote celebration among gay rights workers. The ideological slippages and leaps that were made (and will be made) to ensure that an agenda centered on normalizing the gay married couple/family was pushed will surely trouble the necessary work that remains to be done, as Farrow similarly contends, in the areas of (urban) education, immigration and prison reform, women’s rights, economic justice, environmental justice, etc.
Yet, I doubt that it will haunt many of the organizations and individuals, LGBTQ or straight, for whom access and excess, rights and privileges, as granted per their privileged social locations, are primary positions of concern. Maybe that’s a leap, but when one considers that millions of dollars were raised and leveraged toward the pro-gay marriage bill, s/he will also have to contend with the reality that such capital rarely lands (if at all) in the coffers of those committed to doing work on behalf/with those with limited access and excess (i.e. queer youth of color projects; educational programs for queer urban youth; social and economic justice programs focused on ameliorating and removing the conditions impacting poor, jobless, homeless queers; etc.) and/or those with limited state rights and privileges (i.e. those queers in non-married relationships whether monogamous or polyamorous; sex workers; etc.). This is the work and the representations that will be covered in pink and left unnamed behind the marker of celebratory gay marriage. Again, as I write, my friend Ashon Crawley reminded me of the recent news report posted in the “Crime” section of the Daily News a week or so after the passing of the Marriage Equality Bill entitled, “Chaos on Christopher: Iconic Village stretch overrun by drug dealers, prostitutes, violent youths.” The revolting article, which caricatures the mostly black and brown queer youth and adults who take to Christopher Street typically at night and on the weekends as societal pestilence, is silent regarding the conditions (i.e. tools of surveillance: placement of very bright flood lights on highly-populated intersections; increased police presence in car and on foot; white male guards protecting shops, etc.) which produce certain results (i.e. creation of a “high-risk” area, performances of presumed “criminality” in response to the watchful gaze of citizens and police, antagonism between buyers and store owners, “visitors” and residents, etc.). Here is an opportunity for gay activists invested in gay uplift to step in and redirect attention to a larger problem, namely, the lack of safe spaces, affecting the lives of queer, urban youth of color. As of yet, I have yet to witness such a response, even on the joyous heals of celebration. Such is the distance between Stonewaller’s Christopher Street and the Christopher Street that is a safe space for our queer youth of color today who are too young to marry. The work of queer activists in New York State must be recalibrated such that we are prepared to brush away the pink and illuminate the many shades of colors situated beneath limited liberalist argumentation and politics. Our analyses cannot center on the “out there-ness” of oppressions alone, but now is the time to insist upon the movement of activists (whether focused on gay marriage alone or health care) into matrices of interwoven oppressions that activists might, ourselves, be complicit in maintaining. Yes, we are complicit in acts of oppression if by the celebration of one thing (“gay marriage”) we further the disinvestment of our time, sweat, dollars and thought-leadership from advocacy work in other key areas. The national gay movement has been very adept at assessing the many, interconnected “feet” that we daily feel/see pounce on the backs and necks of LGBTQ folk; but what about the need to assess the location of our own queer “feet” and the need to envision the necks and backs upon which our feet comfortably settle daily? When we look, we might find some of those necks and backs painted in pink. And that ain’t cute.
 See Cathy Cohen’s, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics,” in Still Brave : The Evolution of Black Women’s Studies, (Eds. Stanlie M. James, Frances Smith Foster & Beverly Guy-Sheftall), (New York: Feminist Press, 2009).
Darnell L. Moore is a Visiting Scholar in the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University. He hails from Camden, NJ and currently lives in Bedstuy, Brooklyn, NY.