Queer Vows, Pros and Cons

Against the Current, No. 63, July/August 1996

Catherine Sameh

Is there a relationship between homosexual liberation and socialism? That’s an unfashionably utopian question, but I pose it because it’s entirely conceivable that we will one day live miserably in a thoroughly ravaged world in which lesbians and gay men can marry and serve openly in the army and that’s it. –Tony Kushner, “A Socialism of the Skin (Liberation, Honey!)” from Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness

MY BEGINNING WITH this quote might lead you to believe I’m against queers getting hitched or serving Uncle Sam. No, I support our right to both. But I do so while steeped in the dilemmas such institutions raise for radicals, with lots of reservations and questions about how loudly or quietly to demand our rights to them.

Same-sex marriage is so much at the forefront of the news these days, you’d think everyone was doing it. Bill Clinton, in his ongoing display of spinelessness, says he would sign a bill denying federal recognition to same-sex marriages if Congress passed it. The “Defense of Marriage” act, co-sponsored by Bob Dole would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and would deny federal pension, health and other benefits to same-sex couples. It would also absolve any state from recognizing a same-sex marriage performed in any other.

Given the rapid opposition to same-sex marriage by not only the right, but by Clinton and other social liberals, it’s hard not to passionately defend and fight for it. It’s another good opportunity to expose the conservatism behind the Clinton administration and the close links between the Democrats and the Republicans on so many issues. But how central to the struggle for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trasngendered liberation should the fight for same-sex marriage be?

I love the aesthetic of queer marriage, perhaps more than any other part of it. There is no act more clothed in heterosexual imagery than a wedding, except maybe figure skating. (The image of queers together on ice gives me the same thrill!) Two butch dykes in lace, or one or both in tuxes. Whatever the pairing, the campy, gender-bending picture of two girls or two boys earnestly marching down the isle, exchanging vows and rings, and kissing passionately in front of all exposes the whole institution, even while embracing it. Maybe I’d be more excited about queers in the military if we queered the view there.

And more than just visually appearing, there are real material benefits to getting married. That’s why a good many lefties still do it. But does queer marriage in and of itself challenge the nature of such a patriarchal institution that, one, is not working for half the straight couples that enter it, and two, has been extremely detrimental to women. If we fight for our right to something most radicals have found pretty loathsome, without envisioning and valuing alternatives to it, are we simply adjust to oppression? As Kushner says, “capitalism, after all, can absorb a lot.”

On the other hand, equality ain’t liberation, honey, but it’s important nonetheless. We fight for the right to jobs, as horrible as so many of them are. We should fight for queer marriage, as problematic an institution as it is. But let’s say, in the same breath, that we want decent and fulfilling jobs, a sustainable and democratic way of organizing our economy, and yes, a much shorter work week.

Let’s argue for the same kind of material and emotional support for nonmarried gay or straight couples, for single people, and for extended and nontraditionally configured families — queer or not. Let’s read and reread Tony Kushner’s brilliant essay against gay conservatism and for a liberatory socialism. Let’s begin (and never stop) talking about what kind of radically transformed society we are working for, and not settle for a few reforms here and there.

ATC 63, July-August 1996