It seems a number of gay writers and pundits have got their knickers in a knot over Forcing the Spring, a recent book by New York Times reporter Jo Becker that purports to get “inside the fight” of the gay marriage movement. Andrew Sullivan over at The Dish, Dan Savage on HuffPo, and even Ronan Farrow on MSNBC have taken Becker to task for her rewriting of history, in which long struggles and movement activists (e.g. Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, and pioneering GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto) are given a few brief lines in favor of a truncated story that features conservatives late to the cause (Ken Mehlman and Ted Olson) and the fairly obscure head of HRC, Chad Griffin, whose times in the trenches of marriage equality activism was minimal to say the least.
This glossy fairytale is insulting and does a disservice to the unsung heroes and heroines who have worked on this issue assiduously and laboriously. But Sullivan et al all miss out on another point – and they are not alone in this I’m afraid. While they chastise Becker for her skewed narrative, they agree with her presumption that marriage equality is the abiding drama of the gay rights struggle. On the contrary, as gay historians, scholars, and activists have long argued, marriage rights are NOT the sum total of gay rights. Gaining a simple civil right is not the same as gaining full social belonging. And it is certainly not the same as provoking a fundamental shift in the power that gender stereotypes and sexual norms have on our ways of life, our institutions, our politics, our discourses. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and conservative fund-raiser Paul Singer may be on target when they claim that gay marriage is actually a conservative cause.
It’s not just that marriage is a problematic institution with a troubling history of gender inequity and racialized exclusions, a history that doesn’t end with our modern moment (glance at the statistics on who marries and who benefits financially from marriage: it’s a fairly white institution that tends to reproduce existing class inequalities). And it’s not just that many gay activists are concerned that this victory will simply let a few (marrying) gays gain a place at the table, re-asserting the family unit and the couple as the only deserving kinship structure (and the one that gets real financial benefits, not to mention citizenship itself), and consigning the rest to a less worthy form of “gayness.”
While these concerns are substantive and need to be aired in the court of public opinion, they can’t even get a tidbit of pundit-time when gay rights has come to be collapsed into gay marriage. Do a Google search on “gay rights” and what you’ll get – overwhelmingly – is gay marriage. It has come to “stand for” gay rights almost exclusively. Every campaign event, public declaration, political speech, and celebrity embrace virtually merges “gay rights” with “gay marriage” so that supporting gay rights in this historical moment essentially has come to mean supporting gay marriage.
When President Obama, in his second inaugural speech, invoked Stonewall in the long lineage of great American social upheavals (including “Seneca Falls” and “Selma”), he brought millions to tears. The recognition – the acknowledgement – was electrifying. But, for many, that elation was tempered by the words that followed, modifying that grand sweep by signifying those rights as narrowly marital: “…for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” Obama’s “evolution” is an important step forward, but the whole panoply of gay and lesbian and transgender issues are being crushed under the weight of the marriage behemoth.
No other social movement worth its salt has been so identified with a single civil right, and this was not in fact how lesbian and gay struggles have played out for most of its pre and post Stonewall history. Surely, abortion rights have been central to feminist demands, but they’ve never wholly crowded out other important concerns such as violence against women, pay equity, family-friendly workplaces, and so on. Voting rights were a centerpiece of the civil rights movement, but the moral gravitas of the struggle was never reduced to simple access to the ballot box but to a whole range of rights both practical and ineffable that came under the rubric of racial equality.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s never sad to see discriminatory practices go the way of the pet rock. Witnessing state after state grasp both the illegal and unethical nature of unequal treatment under the law is necessary and welcome. But homophobia and anti-gay animas does not disappear as the wedding bells ring, and other pressing concerns (the disproportionate number of gay youth who are homeless, the inability to pass the employment non-discrimination act, the persistence of brutality toward transgender folks, the continued reality of AIDS, to name just a few) can get shunted aside when all our search engines and media gatekeepers insist that marriage rights are the brass ring.
Becker’s Forcing the Spring might be a story ill told, but the larger tale of marriage as the beginning and end of gay belonging and freedom is like the most saccharine of children’s bedtime fables, a “just-so” story that lulls us to a quiescent sleep.