Just a short blog entry to follow up on what I wrote on Friday about the LOGO presidential debate.
I’ve heard from a few people that Barack Obama was asking smart insider questions about whether marriage is the right focus now for the LGBT movement, or whether it shouldn’t be left for later–the way interracial marriage wasn’t first on the black civil rights movement’s agenda.
No. Obama was missing two things: the different significance of marriage to those two very different movements, and the community history on this issue.
First, he’s wrong to compare same-sex marriage to interracial marriage. Obama said, if I recall correctly, that the civil rights movement left marriage for last, putting votes and employment first. But no lesbian or gay man is barred from voting; in fact, according to recent news reports, apparently self-identified lesbians and gay men vote in higher percentages than most people. (Hard to know if that’s a statistic that holds up across all lesbians and gay men, since it’s impossible to find a random sample of us; not everyone will identify themselves as gay on a survey.) And while some LGBT people are fired for being gay–yes, that’s still legal in most states, and why we need passage of ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act–it’s not the widespread or devastating problem it was for most African Americans in 1960. The ability to care for those we love is really central for lesbian & gay folks; for us it’s a life or death question, very literally (for more on this see Evan Wolfson’s book Why Marriage Matters or Freedom to Marry’s website. Most black folks then had the ability to marry someone they loved; those who wanted to marry across racial lines were a minority. Interracial marriage was to the civil rights movement as foreign-American same-sex pairings for L/G folks; important and life-wrenching to those who fall in love with a non-citizen but not something that affects most of us, and therefore–although important–less strategically central. Obama had the importance of these issues to the LGBT movement inside out.
Second, and more important, is the community history on the issue. There was an enormous internal debate through the 90s about whether or not to go for marriage. The "leaders" and activists and academics mostly hated it and thought it was the wrong focus. The issue was catapulted to prominence by the grassroots, who initiated the first lawsuits against the leadership’s active attempts to stop them. The community pressure was overwhelmingly in favor and forced the leadership into being pro-marriage. That’s a simplification, but not too much so. (I have to admit to being proud that I was one of the early lesbians or feminists in favor; see my book What Is Marriage For?, my first marriage article for The Nation in 1993, and most of my writing during the 1990s.)
People want to get married. The word means an enormous amount emotionally. Separate but equal really does capture the distinction: it leaves a nasty taste to be told that your love for your wife isn’t as real as your brother’s love for his wife. Many people see this as very either/or: Am I not as good as you are? Cut my beloved, do I not bleed? As I’ve written elsewhere, attending the first legally recognized same-sex marriages here in Massachusetts was astonishingly powerful, far more powerful than many of us expected, since we’d been working for it for so long. Being declared openly equal is life-changing.
In questioning the focus on marriage, Obama revealed his lack of knowledge on the issue and his lack of well-informed LGBT advisors. This discussion is over, except among academics, where it is–excuse the pun–academic. Marriage is a major goal. It’s not the only thing worth talking about, but it cannot be dismissed.