Monday, February 6, 2012

Guest Post: Marriage-Ambivalence Meets Reality

By Louisa Mackenzie

At about 8 p.m. on February 1st, 2012, the Washington State Senate voted, 28-21, to approve marriage equality. I was there, standing in the gallery along with hundreds of other LGBTQQI (etc.) and allied Washingtonians. And for about 24 hours afterwards, I forgot to be ambivalent.
Now it's coming back . The ambivalence. Some of it might be better defined as pessimism. There will almost certainly be an ugly referendum. National so-called "family values" groups have had their eyes on our state for months now, and are already pouring money into local religious coalitions who have promised a ballot challenge. We'll be called pedophiles, necrophiliacs, hell-bound harbingers of social chaos, German Shepherd-marriers. Maybe – probably – we're headed for a California-style pendulum. We'll be allowed to marry on one Wednesday in July, but it will only be recognised if the papers are signed before 4:03 p.m. when another referendum will be filed, but not if the judge was on lunch break; then it'll be back to domestic partnerships (which will have been dissolved if we got married, so we'll have to reapply, but since our DP was nonexistent for two hours we will actually find ourselves to be legally separated). And then, Focus on the Creepy Old Testament Family will start chipping away at domestic partnerships too, so we'll find ourselves back in the 1970s before it's Thursday.
And then there's DoMA. State-based marriages don't address the federal limbo we live in. We pay "gay taxes" on health insurance for partners; we're not eligible for Social Security; we can't sponsor a non-US-born partner into the country; we can have an accident in a neighbouring state and die alone in a hospital while our partner is legally refused access to our room.  And that's just four of the hundreds of ways in which DoMA reminds us of our status (social chaos, hell, necrophilia, German Shepherds).
Some of my ambivalence comes from the M-word itself. Despite my own utterly assimilated life as a middle-aged monogamously partnered lesbo with the metaphorical white picket fence and the literal Subaru, I respect many of the arguments from within our community against the current focus on gay marriage. Anti-assimilation activists argue for a more radical understanding of rights. Some argue that marriage is a patriarchal and homophobic institution to which we should not aspire, that marriage itself requires queering. Others –this is more where I've aligned myself recently – argue that same-sex couples don't need the term "marriage" as long as they have all of the state and federal rights associated with the institution. Call it whatever you want. Call it Sid, or The Institution Formerly Known as Marriage, just give us the rights.
Even as many of us celebrate, we should not dismiss the ways in which marriage continues to divide LGBTQ communities themselves. If it becomes legal in this state, I will almost certainly take advantage of it. As an already-privileged person, a white, employed, able-bodied, US citizen, I will garner even more privileges for myself and my partner (like the right to inherit her fleece collection without paying taxes). I don't get to dismiss the experience of someone who tells me that they feel that their racial identity has been problematically co-opted by the marriage debate, or someone who feels that marriage legislation is taking energy and funds away from causes more immediate to their needs, such as safe homes for queer youth, or immigration rights. Many of these people are ten times smarter and more engaged in social justice activism than I ever will be, and part of me understands why they didn't break out the champagne on Wednesday. They were probably busy facilitating a peer intervention for HIV-positive homeless drug users.
And yet. Marriage is a category that matters, and not just to the middle-class bourgaysie. Whatever we may think of it, whether you want to join it or queer it or abolish it, the reality of our current world is that "marriage is how society says you are a family," as Senator Ed Murray put it the other night. Given that we don't yet live in a utopian, gender-fluid, all-kinship-respecting, radically anti-oppressive society, the opening up of same-sex partnerships to a state-sanctioned definition of family can surely only be seen as progress.
Ambivalence and complexity aside, it was quite simply amazing to witness the yes vote in the state senate that evening. And kind of humbling. When I hear people like Senator Swecker (R-Rochester) claim that heterosexual Christians are the real victims of discrimination, I get to roll my eyes and mumble some recommendations of nice places from which he might, if so inclined, take a jump. Marriage equality advocates in the senate – those advocating to expand the rights of, you know, me - don't get to do that. They have to listen, talk to, negotiate with, and perhaps even learn to respect this person who they know believes them to be sinners (hell, German Shepherds). That's how political change happens, and it's no thanks to any sophisticated deconstruction I might perform of marriage's complicity with patriarchy or capitalism. It's thanks to the work of politicians and activists, and their willingness to work with people I would rather pretend don't exist.
It's not about me, although I'm hugely looking forward to figuring out how to use both cats and dogs in our ceremony (yes, simultaneously). It's about the gay teenager in Senator Swecker's district who might finally feel a little more human dignity when he sees the local fags getting married. Even if said fags have beer cans thrown at them as they walk out of the municipal court. It's about the gay kids yet to be born, who, when Adam and Steve live on every block, will look back on the appalling statistics of suicide among gay youth the way we look at medieval torture devices. It's about the lesbian couple in a retirement home, who finally have equal legal recourse in mistreatment cases, and who, after decades in the closet and 5 years of domestic partnership, finally get to say "I do" in the way they assumed would always be withheld from them. Marriage matters to so many of my people. And other things matter, too, like they always did.
So: marry me, Virginia. And let's volunteer more.

Scottish-born Louisa Mackenzie is a college professor in Seattle.  She is happy to be marrying into a decent fleece collection.