Same Sex Marriage: A Right, Not A Way to Achieve Change

From the June 2013 PNL #825

by Scot Nakagawa

Pending Supreme Court decisions concerning the constitutionality of California Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act have pushed discussion of same-sex marriage into the mainstream, with many civil rights advocates convinced that regardless of the court’s decision, eventual victory is a done deal. I don’t disagree. I’ve also argued in support of same sex marriage rights. However, I have some serious worries about the broad implications of this victory.

First, marriage is a conservative institution. It licenses certain kinds of relationships and not others based on a template that reproduces a status quo rooted in conservative Christian religious values. Those values reflect a bias that is both normative and cultural in a pretty blatantly chauvinistic way. And if you don’t think that bias is all that big a deal, consider for a moment the way conservative Christian norms have justified American Indian removal and forced assimilation, slavery, Jim Crow, excluding women from the vote, bans on abortion, sodomy laws, and discrimination against Jews and other religious minorities. Then consider for a moment how those same values are currently being used to promote a permanent war against Muslims.

The fundamentally conservative nature of marriage is why, I think, younger conservatives are growing more supportive of same sex marriage. Extending marriage rights to LGBT people does little to address the structure of oppressive family laws and values in society. It also does very little to change the core of the conservative agenda which is fundamentally about power and control. This is evidenced by the fact that young conservatives are increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage at the same time that they continue to be champions of austerity, and deeply opposed to public funding of critical safety net programs. And many are terrible on issues of race, equating black and brown people with out-of-control sexuality, crime, and government debt. So their attitudes about LGBT people may have changed, but their worldviews remain much the same. They’ve just let monogamous same sex couples off the hook for certain societal problems, something they’ve been doing for heterosexual couples all along.

Amy Lewis and Tricia Benson celebrate with
their son in the Maryland State House after
the House of Delegates passed a gay marriage
bill in Annapolis, MD on Feb. 17. Photo: Patrick

What appears to be leading to this “success” points to another concern. By presenting LGBT people as basically conservative in our demands, the mainstream faction within the LGBT movement is subtly positioning us as a model minority. And it’s working. Where once attacks against LGBT people relied heavily on messaging reflecting prejudices historically used against people of color (morally debased sexual predators and criminals seeking anti-American special rights), LGBT people are increasingly understood to be all-American and non-threatening. The sales job revolves around the idea that if you let us in, nothing really changes. And, based on the demands at the center of this agenda, this is, to a degree, true.

Like all model minority strategies, this kind of argument plays on an us vs them mentality suggesting we ought not be vilified because we are like you, not like the them popular prejudices associate us with. It is used by some immigrant rights advocates who argue that undocumented immigrants aren’t criminals or lazy free-loaders getting benefits without paying taxes, but are instead just the latest wave of  honest, hard-working sojourners landing in “a nation of immigrants.” That argument has the indirect effect of marginalizing and demonizing groups like African Americans and Native Americans who a) aren’t really descended of immigrants and whose demands for justice hinge in part on their non-immigrant status, and b) are stereotyped as lazy moochers.

The current strategies also ignore something about marriage rights that ought to be obvious to anyone excluded from them. That is, that we are arguing to be able to use marriage as a shield against wrongs that no one, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status, should suffer. No loved one should be excluded from survivors’ benefits and pensions, end of life decision-making, hospital visitation, and the many other family rights reserved for married couples. And when we argue that being able to wield this shield is a right we deserve because we conform to the values of good people, that shield becomes a weapon against those excluded.

So, while I’m supportive of same-sex marriage rights as a civil right, and I believe powerfully that civil rights ought not arbitrarily exclude people, I worry. Civil rights demands for LGBT people need to expand democratic rights for everyone, or our gains will fail to address the foundations of unjust power and remain vulnerable to roll back. Or, put another way, to a movement that likes to quote Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, “...injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere... .”

Scot is a Senior Partner in ChangeLab, a grassroots institute for the advancement of racial equity.