Divorcing queer activism from marriage

How marriage equality is harming queer communities

Written by Paniz Khosroshahy | Illustration by Rahma Wiryomartono

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” – Audre Lorde

I am queer and I am against gay marriage. On June 26, rainbow filters covered the Facebook profile pictures in my newsfeed – pictures mostly belonging to straight people – in celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage. I, on the other hand, was grieving the waste of resources that the marriage equality campaign had been. I was also laughing at how all these people had suddenly become “allies,” through just a few clicks on Facebook to “celebrate Pride!” Racists were suddenly allies. Political conservatives were suddenly allies. Misogynists were suddenly allies. Even the homophobes from my high school were suddenly allies. When, instead of celebrating, I posted articles on marriage abolition, I faced an instant backlash, mostly from straight people insisting that this was a great moment in history. But was it really? As a Black queer friend of mine told me, “We’re still dying in the streets, we still can’t breathe.”

The queer liberation movement, as all movements tend to be, has been hijacked by its wealthiest and most privileged members. For the queer 1 per cent, the white gay men who have been funding the biggest gay rights organizations with the goal of legalizing marriage equality, the fight is largely over. While marriage equality has been sucking up all the resources, however, the doors of LGBTQ youth centres have been closing. As Yasmin Nair, co-founder of the arts collective Against Equality, writes, there is simply no more money left for the rest of us.

Marriage equality is an example of what author Katha Pollitt calls Pollitt’s law: “Outsiders get access when something becomes less valued, which is why women can be art historians and African-Americans win poetry prizes.” As more people delay marriage, divorce, or never marry, it has become okay to open the doors of marriage to some queer people, instead of challenging this outdated institution at its core. Marriage equality is about creating a binary between the good and bad queers: only certain bodies in certain state-approved, long-standing, monogamous relationships are allowed to receive state benefits, immigration status, tax deductions, inheritance, and healthcare.

Many queers are attracted to the idea of marriage for these reasons, but these benefits should not depend on state-sanctioned coupling. What good is inheritance for children of queer people when the LGBTQ community is disproportionately affected by poverty? Marriage is about allowing the state to control one’s sexuality, one’s body, one’s life – the opposite of liberation. And who can say marriage is about a life-long commitment when the divorce rate is nearing 50 per cent, or that it’s about love when there are far too many unhappy married couples? Marriage is just one of many ways of expressing love – one that happens to be state-sanctioned.

Marriage equality is not progressive, but is in fact a terribly conservative project. It is about settling down, raising children, moving to a suburb, and finding stable jobs. Marriage feeds capitalism, and not only because of the multibillion dollar wedding industry, but because it creates a pattern of consumption: honeymoons, houses, cars, children that will later continue the show. Marriage equality isn’t a challenge to the system; it only makes more people eligible to become the state’s complying subjects. And this is nothing new.

As marriage-abolitionist academics Craig Willse and Dean Spade have argued, marriage has historically been used to perpetuate numerous oppressive systems. As a tool of anti-Black racism, the criminalization of familial relations outside of marriage has been used to justify the exclusion of Black children from state programs and services. Marriage was a tool of colonialism, imposed by settlers along with other European norms of gender and sexuality on Indigenous populations in order to force their assimilation. The criminalization of practices outside of marriage and the nuclear family, such as communal living and child-rearing, facilitated the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples through the removal of children from their communities.

Marriage is also a tool of the patriarchy, tying a woman economically to her husband and father, romanticizing child-rearing, and forcing women into unpaid labour. Women grow up in a mirage of romanticized images of marriage and happily-ever-afters. Women are taught to start picking the names of their future children when they’re ten years old, to run for the bouquets at weddings, and to keep in mind that their biological clock is ticking. Finally, marriage is a tool of immigration control, forcing people to stay in abusive relationships because their status depends on it.

In legalizing marriage equality, Western states also co-opt queer struggles, painting themselvesas gay-friendly, and the rest of the world as homophobic. This is ironic, since these same Western countries once ‘saved’ the nations they colonized by criminalizing the non-Christian act of homosexuality. Now, they once again use a white-saviour narrative to condemn the laws they encouraged in foreign lands. One clear example of this act, known as pinkwashing, is the Israeli regime’s effort to portray itself as gay-friendly, in order to detract attention from its genocidal crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

So if marriage isn’t the issue, then what is? It’s racism, classism, homelessness, violence, healthcare, education, deportations, prisoner abuse. It’s the murder rate of trans women. It’s queer youth homelessness and queer suicide rates. It’s the medical-industrial complex that only extends healthcare benefits to state-sanctioned sexual partners. It’s big pharmaceutical companies denying HIV-positive folks access to medication. It’s the discriminatory immigration system that denies immigration status based on lack of marital status. And no, marriage equality is not a baby step in combatting any of these. For too long, the liberal narrative of “progress” in social justice movements has pressured us into addressing only the symptoms and not the causes of oppressions. For many queers, surviving in a capitalist, white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy is so difficult that marriage is simply irrelevant.

So if you are straight and outraged because you have heard the loudest gay voices speak in support of marriage equality, if you have become a supporter for fear of being labeled a homophobe otherwise, I encourage you to read more on the topic – Against Equality is a great resource – instead of telling me, a queer person, what to think about marriage equality.

If you’re queer and you want to get married, I still encourage you to learn more. I wish you a lifelong love, but I do encourage you to consider your positionality and privilege in the queer community. Say “I do” with full awareness of the limitations of marriage equality for achieving liberation. Your discomfort with challenges to marriage equality is not really relevant – this is a systemic critique, not a personal one.