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Why I Support Same Sex Marriage as a Civil Right, But Not as a Strategy to Achieve Structural Change

Photo of road sign reading, "Leaving Normal".

The pending Supreme Court decisions concerning the constitutionality of California Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act have pushed discussion of same-sex marriage into the mainstream of the news cycle, with many civil rights advocates convinced that regardless of the court’s decision, eventual victory is a done deal. I don’t disagree. I’ve also argued in support of same sex marriage rights. However, I have some serious worries about the broad implications of this victory.

Why? First, the obvious. Marriage is a conservative institution. It licenses certain kinds of relationships and not others based on a template that reproduces a status quo rooted in conservative Christian religious values. Those values reflect a bias that is both normative and cultural in a pretty blatantly chauvinistic way. And if you don’t think that bias is all that big a deal, consider for a moment the way conservative Christian norms have justified American Indian removal and forced assimilation, slavery, Jim Crow, excluding women from the vote, bans on abortion, sodomy laws, and systemic discrimination against Jews and other religious minorities. And then consider for a moment how those same values are currently being used to promote a permanent war against Muslims.

The fundamentally conservative nature of the marriage contract is why, I think, younger conservatives are growing more supportive of same sex marriage. Extending marriage rights to LGBT people does little or nothing to address the structure of oppressive family laws and values in society. It also does very little to change the  core of the conservative agenda which is, fundamentally, about power and control. This is evidenced by the fact that young conservatives are increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage at the same time that they continue to be champions of austerity who are deeply opposed to public funding of critical safety net programs. And many are terrible on issues of race, equating black and brown people with destructively out-of-control sexuality, crime, and government debt. So their attitudes about LGBT people may have changed, but their worldviews remain pretty much the same. They’ve just let monogamous same sex couples off the hook for certain societal problems, which is essentially what they’ve been doing all along for heterosexuals who marry.

What appears to be leading to this “success” with young conservatives points to another of my concerns. By presenting LGB (I’ll leave off the “t” here) people as basically conservative in our demands, the most mainstream faction within the LGB movement is subtly positioning us as a model minority. And it’s working. Where once attacks against LGB people relied heavily on messaging that mirrored prejudices historically used against people of color (morally debased sexual predators and criminals seeking anti-American special rights), LGB people are increasingly understood to be all-American and fundamentally non-threatening. The sales job basically seems to revolve around the idea that if you let us in, nothing really changes. And, based on the demands at the center of this agenda, this is, to a degree, true.

And, like all model minority strategies, this kind of argument plays subtly on an us vs them mentality that suggests that we ought not be vilified because we are like you, and not like the them popular prejudices associate us with.  This argument is not unlike that put forth by certain immigrant rights advocates who argue that undocumented immigrants aren’t criminals or lazy free-loaders getting benefits without paying taxes. They argue instead that immigrants are hard workers just wanting a break so they can participate in the American dream, even going so far as to claim that Latino immigrants are just the latest wave of sojourners landing in “a nation of immigrants.” That argument that has the indirect effect of marginalizing and even demonizing groups like African Americans and Native Americans who A) aren’t really immigrants and whose demands for justice hinge in part on their non-immigrant status, and B) are stereotyped as lazy moochers.

Also troubling is my sense that the current strategies ignore something about marriage rights that ought to be obvious to anyone excluded from them, especially when that group is arguing that being excluded has real, material consequences. That is, that we are arguing to be able to use marriage as a shield against wrongs that no one, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status, should suffer. No loved one should be excluded from survivors benefits and pensions, end of life decision-making, hospital visitation, and the many other family rights reserved for married couples. And when we argue that being able to wield this shield is a right we deserve because we conform with the values of good people, that shield can become a weapon against those who are still excluded.

So, while I’m supportive of same-sex marriage rights as a civil right, and I’m a powerful believer that civil rights ought not arbitrarily exclude people, I worry. Civil rights demands for LGBT people need to expand democratic rights for everyone, or our gains will fail to address the foundations of unjust power and remain vulnerable to roll back. Or, put another way, to a movement that likes to repeat Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail,

…injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…

I remind you, that saw cuts both ways.

This piece originally appeared on Changelab.info.

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