As a gay person, I am aware of (and have experienced) a certain amount of discrimination. In many situations I have been in a category that could be described as “second class citizen.”
As a white male, I am aware of the privilege that society confers on some people just because of outward appearances and how easy it is for us to not even notice it is happening. I have no doubt that I have found doors open to me that weren’t to others because I happen to be pale and male.
It is very easy, while discussing any issue involving rights, discrimination, and related topics to fall into an unproductive cycle of arguing with each other about who does and doesn’t benefit from various areas of privilege and which among them is “truly able” to understand the oppression of others. This form of circular firing squad is sometimes referred to as the “Oppression Olympics.” Arguing over who is the most oppressed, or just trying to explain that one is properly aware of the oppression of others, wastes an incredible amount of time and energy.
Because two cases involving one aspect of non-heterosexual rights were before the Supreme Court this week, and because people determined to deny certain rights to those non-heterosexuals have staged marches and rallies in the nation’s capital in response to those cases, every news outlet has been covering the cases, the rallies, and so on. Every organization involved in the battle for or against non-heterosexual rights is posting videos, news releases, and so on. Everyone of us who follows this thing are linking to those stories, videos, and other postings—including me.
I understand it can get a bit tiring for people who are not invested in the story du jour. I do.
So a bunch of people were linking to a particular tumblr post this week whose purpose was to make sure the debate about equality doesn’t just devolve to marriage equality. This is a noble goal that I support, but one of the points made on the post epitomizes a major flaw in this ongoing internal debate:
examine what marriage as an institution has historically looked like. marriage isn’t even good for most white folks if they don’t fit into a heteronormative, able-bodied supremacist, upper-ruling-class, nuclear family frame
This is a nod to the argument that some people make that marriage is bad because it’s only useful to people who what to mimic or pass as straights, or only useful to people who are not racial minorities, et cetera.
There is more than one argument going on in this, some of them contradictory. Let’s tackle a couple of them:
One of the implicit points in this boils down to: “your proposal [marriage equality] does not solve this host of other problems, so we should not pursue it.” This is the equivalent of the FDA saying, “Your new antibiotic doesn’t cure cancer, Parkinson’s disease, or celiac disease—it only treats infections by some bacteria that have grown resistant to other antibiotics—therefore we cannot approve your drug.” Marriage equality removes only one barrier to a host of legal rights in our system, and it’s true that there are a lot of rights that aren’t effected, and it’s true that there are a lot of people who still can’t get at those rights or have no interest in those rights, but that doesn’t mean that that particular barrier should remain in place.
The more obvious part of the argument, “what marriage as an institution has historically looked like” is even more ridiculous. This argument is virtually the same false argument the anti-gay people make: cherry-picking some aspects of the historical and religious meanings of marriage, and insisting that any discussion of civil marriage is exactly the same thing. The anti-gay people argue that allowing same-sex partners to access the legal rights associated with civil marriage will somehow magically destroy the sacred power of the religious meaning of marriage. These non-anti-gay folks argue that allowing same-sex partners to access the legal rights associated with civil marriage will somehow magically force all the nasty bad aspects of the historical meaning of marriage onto people who don’t want it. Neither is true. Because we are not talking about going back in time, and we are not talking about any religion’s sacred vision of marriage. We’re talking about civil marriage, which is the legal recognition of a decision citizens make as to who counts as their legal next-of-kin, and a collection of legal rights and responsibilities that go along with that designation.
The entire “it’s not even good for” argument is based upon this historical aspect, rather than on the actual practice or laws of marriage today. To return to my FDA analogy, claiming that marriage is only of interest to “able-bodied supremacist, upper-ruling-class” people is the same as someone saying, “I oppose the use and development of antibiotics because the medieval practice of bleeding proves that all medicine is harmful.” The folks who spout this argument about marriage are the anti-vaxxers of the civil rights movement.
Another argument implied in there is the notion that too much energy is going to the marriage equality fight when there are other, more important problems we could be solving. The “more important” argument has been used forever to thwart civil rights progress. It has probably been the most common argument thrown in the face of feminists for decades. There will always be something someone thinks is more important, but that’s not sufficient reason to halt all pursuit of this. Besides, many of those more important, more complicated issues will be slightly easier to tackle after achieving victory here. After each incremental improvement, society at large has to get used to the new normal. Once used to one change without the collapse of society, it is easier to see the ridiculousness of other forms of discrimination. It’s like each improvement lowers all the other hurdles a fraction of an inch.
I’ve ranted plenty about the frustrations of an incremental approach. But I also recognize that every now and then, when enough of the little improvements have accumulated, a kind of tipping point is reached, and society is ready to take a much bigger leap. I’d love to have the leaps happen more rapidly. That isn’t going to happen if we don’t take the baby steps when we can get them.
There are reasons that the first couple in line to get a marriage certificate when Washington, D.C. recognized marriage equality was a pair of working class African-american women. They were not trying to transform into white heterosexual elitists. They want the legal protections (hospital visitation rights, medical decisions on behalf of partner, housing lease transfer, all the rights with joint parenting, sick leave for care of partner, bereavement leave, wrongful death benefits, et cetera) that come with marriage. Yes, it’s about choosing who to share your life with, but it’s also about the law respecting that decision.
Occasionally someone does the math to calculate what it would cost a gay couple to have drawn up and properly registered the legal documents—power of attorney, durable power of attorney (which is not the same thing), property deed with right of survivorship, wills, and so on—to grant the fraction of those rights that the law allows for someone other than the spouse. The last one I saw was $15,000. And that is for only some of the rights that come with marriage! Compare that to the $64 Michael and I paid for our marriage license, and it becomes crystal clear that marriage equality is not an upper-ruling class supremacy issue. In fact, it is the opposite. Not fighting for marriage equality is pro upper-ruling class supremacy.
So while, yes, there are people in the lgbt community who aren’t in favor of marriage equality, they are no less wrong to do so than the screaming Bible-thumpers.
But enough of this serious talk! I’d much rather listen to Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart break the marriage equality debate down, wouldn’t you?