25 June 2011

History and Gay Marriage

"The President has long believed that gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and legal protections as straight couples. That's why he has called for repeal of the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" and determined that his Administration would no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA in the courts. The states should determine for themselves how best to uphold the rights of their own citizens. The process in New York worked just as it should."

After hearing that the bill passed, Mary Rodriguez, in white, cheered at the Stonewall Inn in the West Village, where the gay-rights movement began more than 40 years ago. Photograph © Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times.

The opening passage I've lifted above is from a statement the White House released in response to the vote last night in Albany (the capitol of New York State) to legalize same-sex marriage. If this is Obama's position - and apparently it is - I wonder if he recalls the phrase "Jim Crow," which was the system by which States in the American South institutionalized the bigotry of the white population toward African-Americans for decades and decades. Among the problems with Obama's unwillingness to look to history for lessons that might guide us moving forward is that he ends up looking like a fool. In the current debate this means that state after state can enshrine religious bigotry in law by withholding equal protection of the laws from gay citizens. After all, New York is one of just six states (plus DC, of course) that have legalized same-sex marriage. And, according to this report in The New York Times: "Dozens more states have laws or constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage." Does Obama think "the process" worked just as it should in all those jurisdictions too? And, as The Times also reports, let's be perfectly clear too - the NY legislation was carefully drafted to insure that private and religious organizations can continue to discriminate against gay and lesbian citizens. This accommodation enshrines bigotry.

Having said all that, I am ambivalent about the entire preoccupation with marriage. Legislation allowing gay men and lesbians to marry is important insofar as it allows them certain legal rights and privileges that might otherwise be withheld from them. On the other hand it also clearly is an example of the normalization of gay liberation - homosexuals now are free to be just like heterosexuals. The aims of gay and lesbian politics turn out to be not so "queer" after all. (I myself would prefer that legal status and political-economic benefits be more clearly disentangled from one's marital status altogether.) And when I saw the photo above, taken at celebrations around the Stonewall Inn last night, I wonder at the irony of that political transformation.*
P.S.: This conclusion may seem odd or unsubstantiated. And I hardly am an expert on the topic. So, what follows is a passage from this recent interview with my colleague Douglas Crimp who is extremely articulate about such matters and from whom I have learned a tremendous amount.
"I think . . . that something of an enormous shift happened in the wake (sic) of AIDS toward a conservative gay culture where issues like fighting for equal rights to marriage and to fight in the military took precedence over what I think of as a truly queer culture, which is a culture that wants to change how we think about forms of human relations in a much more general sense. I still feel very much what I learned from early second wave feminism, which was the critique of marriage as an institution and how marriage actually served governance as a way of managing the complexity of relations that are possible among people.

One of the greatest gains of the gay liberation movement and the general liberation movements around sexuality and gender was the possibility of rethinking all kinds of questions of affective relationships so that among gay men for example, if you stop thinking about finding Mr. Right, finding a lover or finding a marriage partner, and rather think about possibly sexualizing friendship, maintaining friendly relations with people whom you have had a romantic relationship or having fuck buddies, then a whole proliferation of ways of connecting with others opens up."

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Blogger Tobias L. Thaler said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZjNANezP_E&feature=related a soundtrack to this post. kinda... did you know it?
great blog by the way...

28 June, 2011 11:32  

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