I've been thinking about the question of "Who benefits from marriage equality?" for a while. I recognize that I'm wading into deep water here and I hope it doesn't get over my head. As I've been pondering it, I realize that multiple isms crop up in the discussion - racism, sexism, classism, appearance-ism and heterosexism.
I've heard glbt persons of color comment that the community is very often dominated by the concerns of gay white men. The standard for gay male attractiveness is almost always the fit, white man in his 20s or 30s. Media portrayals of gay men very often show professional and financially successful white men. As I think back to the Showtime series Queer as Folk (2000-2005), I don't recall any characters of color on the show - despite the fact that the show was set in Pittsburgh, a city in which 28% of the population is African-American.
A while back, I came across an article by Janani Balasubramanian in which they described arriving at a "Very White Gay Bar." I realize I live in Utah and Utah is white as wonder bread, but Salt Lake isn't as white as wonder bread, but when I think about the crowd I see at Pride or Equality Utah events, what I see is Janani's "Very White Gay Bar." What they wrote in the article caught my attention and has been nagging at my consciousness so, I did some googling and found other pieces of Janani's art - poetry, spoken word performances and so on. One piece that I should have bookmarked (because it was a nightmare to find again) was a slam poetry performance on marriage with Alok Vaid-Menon and Cam Awkward-Rich that continues to echo in my awareness:
This poem, “Marriage”, also known as “Queer Rage”, is a critique of gay marriage politics as a strategy of liberation. Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage (or anyone else’s) is not where the struggle ends, or even begins, really. In the piece we call for a consideration of race, class, and other systems of control that complicate and intersect with queerness. We also point to the increasing corporatization and overwhelming whiteness of gay marriage politics.
So in high school I laced my shoes with rainbowsAnd:
and preached the gospel of equal rights and pride
That tell us marriage will finally untangle
our love from shame, will legislate us wholly human
for richer, for poorerEarly in December I had the opportunity to facilitate a panel discussion with a gay man, a queer male, a transman and a transgirl (before anyone asks, she identifies as a transgirl). During the discussion, the transgirl pointed out that "marriage equality isn't really marriage equality . . . a transperson, I can't legally marry unless I find a judge who is willing to see it as 'almost normal' enough to let me get married."
tell that to El’Jai who lost his job last year
His state is one of only 12
where you cannot legally be fired
for having a body that doesn’t sit right with your heart
but his job “could only be done by a man”
and his genitals did not conform to his employers expectations.
[I do not know if he won the court case, only that he has a son,
and that being brown and trans means being 4 times less likely to find work]
but who needs money for bread when you can eat wedding cake!
Watching the videos and images of gay and lesbian couples marrying in Utah showed an almost entirely white population. Very few, persons of color, appeared in those images. Of the couples I know who married in those first few days, the majority by far were white, male, and professional. Salt Lake City, like most American cities, is a diverse place and I know lots of persons of color in our city who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender. But I didn't see them in the images of couples getting married.
A while back, there was a segment on CNN between Anderson Cooper, Andrew Sullivan and Evan Wolfson discussing marriage. On the one hand, it's an historic moment - three gay men talking about gay marriage on a national network. On the other hand, it's three very privileged gay men talking about marriage. Watching the clip, it's inspiring and troubling. Can you imagine any other topic on which CNN would host a discussion for which the panel would consist entirely of edcuated, professional (and married) men? Is there something about gay politics that blinds us to the lived realities of African-Americans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders, Asian-Americans and First Nation's Americans? (Not for nothing, I find the concept of two-spirit powerful and potentially liberating, but as a white man, I'm uncomfortable when I hear other gay white men talk about themselves as two-spirit. When does cultural interaction and borrowing become appropriation?)
For a great many gay, white men, the only area of our lives in which we have experienced discrimination is sexual orientation. Sexual orientation can be a big deal, a source of discrimination, alienation and othering. The widespread acceptance of marriage equality symbolizes and cements the idea of gay men as members of the cultural mainstream. Throw in some non-discrimination laws and for gay white men the legal battle is largely over and the cultural battle all but won. Let me put it differently - no one has discriminated against me because I'm a white man, with a good education and a good job. The one place in my life in which I've faced anything other than acceptance is around my identity as a gay man. White, gay professional men have the resources of time and money which allow us to sit on boards, attend meetings and donate money, which means we (all too often) set the agenda. Marriage equality is a big deal to us, so it became a big deal to everyone else, by default.
Many lesbian friends tell me they face far more discrimination as women than as lesbians. Certainly, the lesbian couples I know benefit from the legal recognition of their marriages. But, legal marriage doesn't create equal pay for equal work.
My African-American and Latino friends tell me that they're not opposed to getting married but marriage does nothing in terms of racial justice, and the current approach to marriage among gay men (at least) is just an extension of white privilege. I'm not deliberately excluding lesbians of color, I haven't had the opportunity to have the conversation yet; my instincts tell me I'll hear that racial, gender and economic justice are more pressing issues than getting married. I honestly haven't had the chance to hear a womanist critique of same-sex marriage. (Not related to the issue of marriage equality, I want to recommend the book Womanism Against Socially Constructed Matriarchal Images by Dr. MarKeva Hill; not only is Dr. Hill a friend, but she's frighteningly brilliant and the book is profound and informative.)
The Inclusion Center for Communty and Justice in Salt Lake City uses a mnemonic device for remembering and identifying the function of prejudice - "A fast car goes vavoom." AFASHCAR (g) - Ageism, faithism, ableism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, appearanceism and racism (genderism). Genderism has been added lately to refer to the idea of seeing gender only through the lens of the experience of cisgender persons. VAVM are the ways in which prejudice epxresses itself - V - "verbal" is talking about "those people", A - avoiding "those people", V - when the first two are no longer options, violence against those people culminating in M murder.
The folks at the Inclusion Center also have mnemonic device for thinking about privilage - You Avoid It - uavoidit. U - unearned advantage, A - access to resources, V - validation from society, O - opportunity, I - inclusion in mainstream values, D - disproportionate distribution of power and resources, I - ignorance of privilege is possible, and T - taken for granted. As a white man, in our culture, I have privilege. The question is whether I will choose to be aware of privilege and do anything about it.
When thinking about the impact of marriage, at least in our culture, it is difficult if not impossible to separate from questions of who has privilege and who doesn't. It's not unfair to see gay white men seeking marriage as a result of people who already have lots of privilege upset because they were denied - "I'm a white man, you can't deny my anything - I want to get married to the love of my life, you have to let me."
The image of the successful, professional white, gay male couple is relatively easy for mainstream America to integrate into its worldview. The image of the successful, professional white lesbian couple is easy for mainstream American culture. It's a small adjustment. Start adding other isms - lower income, race, different faith and it gets very complicated very fast.
A fundamental underpinning of any form of bigotry or discrimination is the idea that some person or group of persons are less than other people because of some part of their identity. To take one example, heterosexism and sexism interact to mutually support one another. The idea that women are less than men supports the idea that gay men (who supposedly have feminine qualities) are less than straight men.
Who benefits the most from marriage equality is, unsurprisingly, the people who already benefit the most in our culture. Once we get marriage equality, will white gay men disengage? Will we conveniently forget sexism and racism? Will we stay engaged and remember that oppression is a system and just because we've mostly erased the negative way it touches our lives we can't stop working toward greater justice? A truly inclusive and just society won't happen by accident.