Can Marriage Be Saved?
ARE YOU FOR OR AGAINST GAY MARRIAGE? Once one agrees to answer the question, one is already trapped. By answering, one loses the chance to ask, why has this become the question? When polled, I reject the proposed constitutional amendment restricting marriage to a man and a woman, and support legislation establishing marriage as an institution open to any two (or possibly more) people, regardless of gender. But if I enter this debate as if it were the priority for our times, I ratify that priority and fall into amnesia about what the alliances of the lesbian and gay movement used to be, and stifle the hope that its alliances and priorities still might broaden and change. For me, the more pressing question is: What would the priorities of a radical movement for sexual minorities be right now if gay marriage were not monopolizing the forefront of the political agenda?
The first issue that comes to mind is violence against queer youth and transgendered people. The contemporary legacies of Matthew Shepard, Gwen Araujo and Brandon Teena should remind us that lesbian and gay, genderqueer and trans people remain targets of violence not only on streets and bars but at the workplace and inside families. Gay marriage is not the same as alternative kinship, and it's only through extended kinship and broader community alliances that antiviolence efforts stand a chance of success. Marriage is but one way of addressing the problems of kinship: how to organize human relations that attend to basic needs and enduring forms of dependency like illness, shelter, childrearing and aging. It does not address our community responsibilities toward those who live, love, suffer, thrive and die outside the conjugal frame. What are the ties of kinship among those who defy gender norms, evoke public anxiety and often suffer loss of employment, loss of parental status, undergo physical injury and, sometimes, lose their lives? Rather than privatize those relations of care, why not extend our conception of kinship and community to establish ongoing support for vulnerable populations: genderqueer and trans people, youth and the aging?
Gay marriage became a national priority only after the AIDS crisis, despite its persistence in communities of color, was prematurely declared over, and a new, cleaner, whiter image of the gay movement was promulgated by the Human Rights Campaign and others. Prior to "the cocktail," HIV/AIDS threatened to popularize a conception of gay relationships as "promiscuous," "unstable" and "irresponsible." It was not only against the stigma of HIV/AIDS that a new, bourgeois model emerged to sanitize the public image of gay and lesbian people, but against the often multiracial coalitions fostered by AIDS activism that allied gay and lesbian people with transgender and intersex movements, drug users and queers of color who suffer heightened physical and economic vulnerability both in the United States and abroad.
We would be better off forging broad-based coalitions and supporting social agencies that seek to prevent suicide among gay and trans youth. We should be thinking about collective housing arrangements for aging queer and trans people for whom the wider community constitutes their main emotional and economic resource. We could be forging a new global coalition of AIDS activists, allying queers and communities of color, to combat the rise of HIV among people of color, especially women of color in the urban United States and in the global South. Why has the marriage bid taken the place of an activism that would prioritize educational outreach, combat profiteering drug companies and produce communities of support--reanimating ideals of radical kinship--across racial and sexual lines?
Gay marriage sets up a hierarchy between so-called legitimate intimate associations and those that should remain closeted, shamed or stigmatized. Those who are single, who have multiple partners or who negotiate relationships in ways that are unrecognizable by public norms or the state, are still innovating social relations outside the established marriage norm. Relationships that were once considered brave, if difficult, sociopolitical experiments now stand to be stigmatized, effaced or, indeed, deemed threatening to the monolithic priority of the movement. That very movement should, however, be capacious enough to demand legitimacy for an array of intimate and kinship arrangements that don't conform to the marital model.
Currently, thousands of gay people, exhilarated by the thought of legal recognition, forget their prior political commitments and their hopes for a social movement that exceeds the demand for this one legal right. They do not think about the history of property and race that has gone into the idealized version of the institution they are entering, and they do not consider what social forms of kinship they are delegitimizing along the way. If gay marriage promises health insurance, power of attorney and inheritance rights for one's partner, then perhaps we can consider an alternative political path. Instead of battling for gay marriage, we could be seeking legislation to guarantee healthcare to every citizen regardless of marital status, to separate power of attorney and inheritance from marital status and to leave marriage as a "symbolic" act that consenting adults might perform if they so wish.
Luckily, my lover of thirteen years, more a Marxist than I, threatens to divorce me if I try to marry her, so I'm not at risk. But the personal desires of those who want that symbolic status should not stand in the way of a broader alliance and political activism that furthers the needs of a community whose material and corporeal vulnerabilities remain seriously unaddressed. Along the way, we will be articulating an extended notion of kinship and community that goes far beyond what can be imagined from within the marriage norm.
Judith Butler is the author of Precarious Life: Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso).