'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Paradox of Same Sex Marriage 

Opponents of same sex marriage have responded to the California Supreme Court decision requiring the state to accept such marriages by saying, just wait, we will take care of it this fall. It is generally recognized that they will shortly qualify an initiative for the fall ballot which would amend the California Constitution so as to restrict marriage to unions between men and women.

But are they correct? Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times released the results of a poll showing that the measure was only supported by a 54% to 35% margin. A 19% margin superficially appears impressive, but the more important number is the fact that it is now only supported by 54% of the electorate. Historically, initiatives have required support significantly greater than 50% months in advance of an election to pass. Or, to put it differently, California voters tend to break against initiatives in the final weeks of a campaign because they are fearful of passing something that they don't understand.

Today, there was even better news. The highly respect Field Research Corporation released poll results showing the measure losing by a 51% to 42% margin. My guess is that the selection of Obama over Clinton as the Democratic nominee will ensure the defeat of this measure, given his ability to turn out younger voters between 18 and 40 who strongly support same sex marriage. I used to believe that gay marriage would come to the US as a consequence of a judicial decision in a state with no initiative process, or one in which initiatives qualified through a highly restrictive process, such as requiring legislative approval.

Now, it appears possible that California will lead the way by having the public ratify the decision of the California Supreme Court granting equal marriage rights to gays and lesbians. It is hard to imagine a better outcome, unless religious fundamentalists launched a boycott of the state and left us alone. But I wouldn't want San Francisco or Los Angeles to be struck by a hurricane.

For a left, anarchist influenced blog like this one, however, there is an aspect of this social conflict that is frequently ignored, because, in this society, social acceptance of relationships through marriage remains highly prized. But, of course, anarchism has long rejected the need for relationships to be legitimized through an institution inspired by religion. And, through a group like Gay Shame, some gays and lesbians have vehemently opposed same sex marriage as an insidious means by which gays and lesbians are incorporated into a centuries old oppressive social structure. Consider these question and answer excerpts from its statement on the subject:

So, what is wrong with gay marriage?

In order to answer that question we must first understand what this thing called marriage is. Marriage is essentially a financial and legal contract that allocates the movement of property, power and privilege from one person to another. Historically it has been a way of consolidating family power amongst and between men, through women. In more recent times marriage in the United States has functioned to solidify the American middle class. Marriage does this through concentrating wealth and power through family lines and inheritance (both in terms of money and power). Because of marriage's ability to discipline class structures it is now, and always has been a primary structure of a capitalist economy. In reality most people marry within their own socioeconomic class. Marriage, earlier through miscegenation laws, and currently through racist "values" also contains wealth through racist ideologies of matrimony. Because of these realities there has been a long history of critique of the institution of marriage launched by feminists of color, white feminists, and queer people among others.

What about gay marriage? Isn't gay marriage going to change all of this?

NO. The current push towards gay marriage is, in fact, not going to subvert the systems of domination we all live through. Ironically, the gay marriage movement is standing on these same legacies of brutality for their slice of the wedding cake. Take for example the "Freedom to Marry" stickers created by the freedom to marry organization. Not only are these stickers falsely equating the intervention of the State into ones life (marriage) with "freedom" (when was the last time the State helped you to become more "free"?) they are trying to work this idea through horrifying star-spangled stickers. Instead of critiquing the ways US imperialism has rendered most transgender people, queer people, people or color etc. as expendable through its countless wars here and abroad, the Freedom To Marry stickers simply disguise these histories and reproduce this red-white-and-blue national theme for every married gay and guilt filled liberal to wear with PRIDE.

Stridency aside, there is undoubtedly a great deal of merit to this perspective. It is, however, based upon what I consider a false binary opposition, either you support marriage and all of the values of the society which promotes it, even the reprehensible ones, or you oppose marriage, even at the cost of social inferiority, as a means of resisting these values. Gays and lesbians must choose between being social inferiors, and the challenges associated with such status, or they must repudiate any motivation to agitate towards a more just world.

In other words, Gay Shame is also painting with a pretty broad reductionist brush in its characterization of the world around us. It is uniformly bad, and, in many ways, it is, but such an attitude eliminates the prospects for positive transformation by those of us who live within it without recourse to anarchist principles. After all, what other plausible prospect for such transformation exists? Gay Shame rejects the notion that the progressive expansion of marriage rights may incrementally undermine the religious fundamentalists who so strongly support the current global order.

Unfortunately, there is support for the Gay Shame perspective, one need only look at the extent to which some invoke the rights of gays and lesbians (and, more notoriously, women as well) to justify US imperial violence in the Muslim world. Feminism and gay rights have been incorporated into a contemporary rationalization for the purported cultural superiority of what are usually called Western, liberal, democratic societies, societies which must, regrettably, use violence against inferior ones to preserve themselves.

On Sunday, plato's cave commented in response to my second post about sex work in San Francisco, observing that the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse recognized how liberal societies grant increased individual rights as a means of enforcing a more effective, more repressive collective social control on the populace as a whole. In effect, that's the indictment of same sex marriage put forth by Gay Shame. Are they correct? In the famous words of Zhou En-lai, it's too soon to say. But it has thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of us to prove them wrong.

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