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The Politics of Same Sex Marriage

After keeping a relatively low profile during most of the political season, gay rights have become a major issue as we approach Election Day. People across the country have contributed millions of dollars to the fight over Proposition 8, which would overturn the May 2008 decision by the California Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage. There are similar initiatives on the ballot in Florida and Arizona. Coming on the heels of October’s Connecticut Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, people on both side of the issue are looking to California as an indicator of the future of gay marriage.

The intense debate over gay marriage makes me wonder how this became the leading issue for gay rights organizations. After all, the federal Employment Non Discrimination Act, which would protect gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees from unfair treatment based on sexual orientation, dates back to 1974 and still has not been passed by the Senate (transgender people were omitted from the bill passed by the House of Representatives in November 2007). And although many people noted the ten year anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death last month, there is still no federal hate crimes legislation concerning sexual orientation.

I mention these other bills because I feel the concerns they address are more “bread and butter” issues that affect more members of the LGBT community than marriage. It seems odd to devote a disproportionate amount of resources to marriage when our ability to work can be taken away at the whim of a homophobic employer with no recourse. Particularly with the employment situation as perilous as it currently is, many LGBT people may be making an extra effort to “pass” in order to protect themselves. Likewise with hate crime laws, FBI statistics show that crimes based on sexual orientation have been rising since 2005, so you would think there would be more attention placed on this subject.

The elevation of marriage seems to be part of a strategy to generate acceptance among straights by “normalizing” LGBTs. For decades, there has been debate about the best way to secure gay rights: the aggressive, in-your-face style of politics that is associated with other progressive causes like women’s rights, the environment, and antiwar activities, or a more cautious approach driven by careful media representations of the gay community, as outlined in the classic 1989 book After The Ball by Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen. They advocated low key public relations campaigns emphasizing “regular” gay people: less drag queens and leather daddies, more suits and dresses (for lesbians, of course).

Their ideas were very influential, as complaints about the more outlandish members and activities of the LGBT community were increasingly seen as “making us look bad” and barriers to equality. With more emphasis on making straight America comfortable, gay media seemed to place a premium on white, sophisticated men to the exclusion of anyone who didn’t fit that profile. This image fit in well with the publication of stories written about gay affluence, touting the relative wealth and advanced education of LGBTs compared to straights. In fact, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia used those articles as evidence that gays had “disproportionate political power” as he voted in favor of the antigay Colorado law Amendment 2 in 1996.

The drive to present LGBT as just like straight people reached an early high point with the early 1990s discussion over gays in the military. While nobody could deny the long history of gay people joining the military, and Bill Clinton promised to ban gay discrimination in the armed forces (although he ended up compromising with “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”), this was seen by many as an ideal way to prove LGBT “worthiness” of civil rights by showing us as patriotic and tough as straight people. People opposed to the military were asked to keep quiet for the greater good.

So it is with gay marriage. Getting married (and the related topic of gay adoption) is seen as perhaps the ultimate proof that gays and lesbians are just like straights. While gay people have historically embraced a more expansive definition of relationships than the traditional marriage model, it is the obvious extension of the philosophy that gays and straights are alike except for bed partners, and therefore should receive the same benefits.

With the country being in a conservative mode for at least the last twenty years, it is not surprising that gay politics have also taken a more conservative direction. And it is difficult to argue with the results: who does not think gays have greater freedom now than in 1988? Maybe the Human Rights Campaign has the right game plan after all. I am not opposed to gay marriage, but I hope that our organizations don’t forget about those of us who don’t fit the preferred media portrayal of our community and have more pressing concerns than planning our wedding reception.

From “Blackout” 11/03/08 by Anthony Rucker


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