As we wait for the Supreme Court to offer its rulings on DOMA and Prop 8, a noticeable division has arisen between the mainstream LGBT agenda, and those of us who prefer and advocate for a more radical politics, namely for queer people of color. The tension is justified and wholly understandable. Many argue that the “gay marriage” movement is essentially an agenda that privileges and is spearheaded by wealthy white men, and accordingly usurps media attention from more pressing issues affecting queer populations of color, such as violence against trans people, youth homelessness, and HIV/AIDS. These arguments are absolutely correct, and I agree wholeheartedly. But as a result, it has become trendy for some to vehemently undermine, if not oppose, the significance of marriage equality for queer people of color. Quite curiously, marriage equality is now being oriented as some sort of “oppression vacuum,” wherein the premise seems to be that if marriage equality was off the table, the aforementioned issues would be getting their due attention. Ironically, this viewpoint actually seems to put a lot of stock in marriage equality, and a lot of faith in the mainstream media as a whole. My purpose here is not to respond by championing the wonderfulness of marriage equality, but instead to caution against oversimplification.
I should reiterate that I do agree with many of the criticisms against the marriage equality movement, however I find problem with the manner in which the conversation has been framed. Ultimately, while the institution of marriage is itself privileged and heteronormative, I think it is a mistake to position it in opposition to other queer movements. If nothing else, we must remain cognizant of the symbolic presence of marriage in this country. In the cultural imagination marriage is seen as the supreme opportunity to share and broadcast one’s love and commitment to another individual. It is an essential element to the narrative of the American dream. A dream to which, much to our chagrin, many queer people of color subscribe. Yes, the valuing of marriage as an institution should be challenged and interrogated, but in the meantime, we must recognize that there are many loving queer people in this country who actually want or aspire to be married. It is profoundly important, for many queer people of color to be able to see themselves in the very narrative of this country in which they have been raised. Undoubtedly many of us have seen the Facebook memes and blog posts about same-gender loving people of color becoming engaged, and celebrating their commitments to one another. For me, seeing two black gay men confess their love for one another through legal marriage is radical. (At least at this point in time.) So, where can we create the space to celebrate and honor the people who might want to subscribe to normative modes of being? In our haste to challenge this country and this movement to become more inclusive and intersectional, are we failing to give meaningful attention to the commitments of the very same people we are advocating for?
Additionally, there are those who rightly find problem with marriage equality as being the issue of the moment for LGBTQ individuals. But quite frankly, I think marriage equality gets put on this false sliding scale between the mainstream (read: white) agenda and those issues affecting communities of color. In essence, I do not think that the salience nor the absence of marriage equality allows for much change to be made for the more pressing matters of violence, homelessness, and health amongst marginalized queer communities. These are vast and complicated issues that will require continual and robust effort to be fixed, and these are largely issues that rarely if ever get adequate attention from mainstream media. That being said, while it is naïve to place too much stock in the positive potential of marriage equality, to fervently attest to the inadequacy of the marriage equality movement is perhaps equally unhelpful. If our issue is that the marriage equality movement is privileged and primarily aids wealthy white individuals, should we really be surprised? To act as if this movement somehow distracts or undermines other issues that still would not be getting their deserved attention fails to account for the complexity and detriment of the problems our communities face.
In short, we must resist locking ourselves in ineffective polarities. Marriage equality does not help all, but it has meaningful creative and institutional potential for those who wish to see themselves within it. But let’s not scapegoat marriage equality for the lack of attention to other issues affecting queer communities of color. There is still much work to be done, with or without marriage equality.