Altar-ed Expectations

—Suzanna Danuta Walters

So the verdict is in and the celebrations have begun. Striking down the odious Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and allowing the challenge to Prop 8 to stand so Californians can get married, is simply the right thing to do. As I listen to the coverage, I can’t help but be caught up in the excitement, even as my feminist resistance to the marriage mania remains unassailable. As a lesbian who came out in another era, I couldn’t have imagined it happening and, more importantly, I couldn’t imagine the more generalized shift in public attitudes towards gays.

But some of the language of the pundits and celebrants reminds me of why I’ve been so frustrated at the centrality of marriage to the gay rights movement. We are being told this decision makes us “more equal,” and our families “more legitimate.” That this is the culmination of the long march of progress and we just need to get those other states to kick in and we’ll live in a happy rainbow world of official homolove.

But love is not more legitimate or good or valuable if the state makes it official, and garnering a basic victory is not the same as making the world a more genuinely amenable place for sexual difference. Girlfriend, listen up: this is a simple civil right that we shouldn’t even have to fight for, a right to enter a kinda problematic institution that was historically rooted in ownership and gender inequity. Put that on your wedding cake.

Marriage rights are not synonymous with full citizenship or true belonging. So as I listen to the victory speeches I have a smile on my face, but I also hear the voices of my friends who have pledged that we will not take part in this rush to the altar. I hear the voices of the poor, the disenfranchised, the gays of color for whom marriage is hardly the golden egg or prized victory.

I am sickened—again and again—by the wedding industry that bilks billions out of those who need these resources for health care and housing and everyday life. I shudder at the resources (both of the movement and of individuals getting married) that go into this industry, while HIV/AIDS remains a national crisis. I am reminded, again, of the vexed history of this institution and its stubbornly gendered and racialized parameters. And coming as this does on the heels of the despicable gutting of the Voting Rights Act, well, that makes this victory more than a little bittersweet. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll drink some champagne even if I won’t rush to the altar. But let’s not imagine that this is all we can imagine.

Suzanna Danuta Walters is the Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University and the author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America and the forthcoming The Tolerance Trap: Moving Gay Rights Beyond Acceptance (forthcoming from NYU Press, 2014).

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