On Marriage Equality and ‘First Steps’

So today the US Supreme Court passed a ruling overturning state bans on same-sex marriage, legally instituting marriage equality across the entire country.

Which is… something.

I want to be happy. Well, no, I am happy: I’m happy for the couples who are able to be together and support each other who couldn’t do so before, I’m happy for the activists that have fought to make this happen, I’m happy for a country that is catching up to where a lot of its counterparts (and a lot of the places it casts as ‘less developed’) have been for a while.

But it’s hard to be that happy when in the same year that marriage equality became law, 7 trans women were murdered before the end of February. It’s hard to be happy when in the same week that this ruling happened, the President shut down a trans activist at a Pride event. It’s hard to be happy when what is being presented as a victory for the entire ‘LGBT community’ (whoever that is) is in reality mostly just a victory for members of that ‘community’ who are relatively advantaged already, primarily cis, white, economically stable people who can benefit from marriage.

Other people have made this argument in much more nuanced and articulate ways than I can, and I encourage you to read those opinions (here, here and here are good places to start). That’s not really what this post is for. This post is just to articulate a response to an argument I’ve heard a few times in having this conversation, specifically the argument that marriage equality is a necessary ‘first step’, and will lead the way to other advances for other queer people. It’s the argument that this change will open the door for other changes.

I think there are a couple things in this position that are worth addressing. First, there’s the assumption that momentum that has built up around gay marriage will actually translate into more support being directed to trans issues, or immigration issues, or homelessness among queer youth. Which would be awesome: it would be great if all these multimillion dollar advocacy campaigns that have built up around marriage equality now pour resources and direct national attention to these issues that have been too long ignored. I just find it very hard to believe that that will actually happen, particularly given the way that these groups have thus far been pretty exclusionary, particularly of trans people and trans issues (again, the White House event earlier this week, where a trans activist was shouted down, was full of supposed gay allies). Material resources aside, the argument is often made that these initial ‘steps’ allow for cultural shifts, in this case normalizing queerness or LGBTQ+ identities. However, looking historically, it’s hard to recall examples where that has actually happened, where an initial moment of ‘progress’ among the relatively privileged members of a marginalized group actually led to broader acceptance of the many manifestations and experiences of that group, and particularly greater attention to the issues faced by the members of that group that experience multiple layers of oppression. Mainstream feminism, for instance, has not expanded far beyond ideas of feminism rooted in experiences of white, middle class, Western women. Indeed, those early points of ‘progress’ seem to do more to solidify cultural conceptions of what a certain group looks like and needs, making it even harder for other voices to be heard. So it’s hard for me to accept that this ‘first step’ will actually lead to second, third, fourth steps that advance the concerns of other queer people.

What’s even more puzzling for me is the logic that decides that marriage is a good ‘first step’ when considering the struggles queer people face today. It seems to me that the first step in making change should be about addressing issues that need urgent, immediate fixes: say, for example, people literally being killed. That’s at the least the logic that I think most people would apply to other kinds of ‘change’ they would want to see. If for instance, there are bunch of renovations you want to make in your house, my guess is most people would decide to first fix their leaky plumbing rather than change their wallpaper. The former might be harder and more expensive and not actually that noticeable once it’s done, but it’s something that needs to happen because it threatens the entire house. You need that for the whole thing to work. To potentially over-extend this metaphor, changing the wallpaper first might be great as a noticeable, tangible change, but it becomes less than productive if your shiny new wallpaper makes you forget that your house had a bunch of other problems too.

It’s not hard to get swept up in the excitement of the day, and I do see this as a win. However as long as we keep picking ‘first steps’ based on the perspectives and experiences of the relatively privileged members of a group, rather than what issues actually most urgently need to be addressed – as long as the conversation about queer rights centres on marriage while continuing to ignore the people being killed in the street – then those steps aren’t going to bring us to a place of real equality.

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