Brandon Humphries
Stephanie Coontz
What’s Love got to do with it?
May 27, 2006
Three Sides to Every Story
            Marriage among same-sex couples has been a controversial issue as most can see by watching the nightly news. But what is perplexing is the controversy among the Queer community itself regarding how to deal with this issue, or whether to deal with it at all. Arguments for and against same-sex marriage take a completely new dynamic when put in the context of the Queer community. It becomes less about the struggle for civil rights (as it tends to be framed when the issue is discussed among the public at large) and more about the fundamental validity of the institution of marriage and whether it will actually help or hurt the Queer community. While the value of marriage can be debated, there is still something to be gained from the recognition of same-sex marriage, even if the reasons are pragmatic.
In recent news, the debate over same-sex marriage has ignited a political fire storm not just in places like San Francisco, but all over the United States. Even people in the gay and lesbian community think twice about the concept of same-sex marriage:
Given the history of our movement, calling the legalization of same-sex marriage a “win” is strange in itself. Marriage is one of the more anti–gay liberation things we could ask for. When riots broke out at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, it was not because we wished the state to play more of a role in our lives but because we wanted to be left alone. When we went to court to overturn sodomy laws, it wasn’t to invite the state into our bedrooms but to kick it out. Now we’re asking for the option to invite the state to step into our most personal relationships, to obtain the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that come with civil marriage. (Sperber)
Many of the arguments against same-sex come from the ideas of Queer Theory. Essentially, Queer Theory supposes that sex, gender, and classifications of sexual orientation are all socially constructed as opposed to being innate characteristics. Having these characteristics be social constructs leads to the assumption that they are not permanent or hard-wired. Now this is not to be confused with the idea coming from the religious right that sexuality can change and therefore should be heterosexual. Queer theorists take a much more libertarian approach in that sexuality may be fluid, but individuals should be free to make the choice to be whom and/or what they want to be.  This principle of freedom can be extended to include freedom from not just blatantly oppressive laws, such as sodomy laws, but freedom from social expectations and assumptions as well. This is accomplished by challenging gender and sexual norms, sort of going against the grain as it were. Any thing “different” or “Queer” is valuable in that they perform this work of undoing assumptions of heterosexuality, maleness, and femaleness that disempower the people that do not fit into a given category. But it is interesting to note that there is risk in this view:
Many young gays and lesbians think of themselves as part of a ‘post gender’ world and for them the idea of ‘labeling’ becomes a sign of an oppression they have happily cast off in order to move into a pluralistic world of infinite diversity. In other words, it has become commonplace and even clichéd for young urban (white) gays and lesbians to claim that they do not like ‘labels’ and do not want to be ‘pigeon holed’ by identity categories, even as those same identity categories represent the activist labors of previous generations that brought us to the brink of ‘liberation’ in the first place. (Halberstam, 19)
By advocating sexual fluidity for all you essentially run the risk of not only alienating those who fought hard to make sexual non-conformity tolerable, but also creating the same system of privilege you claim to be opposing by creating a rift between the “post gendered” and the those that still adopt specific gender and sexual identities. Additionally, Queer theory also analyzes the "Queer" aspects of media (such as in literature, music, art, etc.) that are not necessarily sexual. In this case, "Queer" is used to mean "strange" or "different" in the sense that a particular work does not fit within the general rules of a particular category yet is still classified as being a part of that category (Halberstam).
            Contrast these views with that of the modern LGBTQ movement, which is often embodied by magazines like OUT and The Advocate and organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The reasoning here is based on the assumption that same-sex desire is, for the most part, something unchangeable and innate, often articulated as probably genetic (which may or may not be the actual case). This contrasts with the Queer Theory ideas that sexuality is nothing but a social construct that privileges some at the expense of others and should therefore be diminished as much as possible. The ideas and critiques coming from Queer Theorists, such as Michael Warner, are seen as “bickering”:
In my experience, many of the grassroots activists feel that such national organizations do not take seriously the needs of the ‘common Queer’. Their agendas are driven by political expediency rather than by understanding of what the majority of lesbians and gays find politically most relevant to their live. All of this bickering and infighting does not serve us well. (Javors, 297)
Also in the mainstream LGBTQ community there is a parallel drawn, often with some controversy, with the Civil Rights movement for African Americans. Sexuality is often looked at as something that is unchangeable as skin color and just as innocuous, therefore itshould be treated equally under the law. This makes some sense especially considering that even if sexuality was not something to be chosen, what someone does as far as their sex life has little to do with the lives of anyone else. There are also some 1,049 laws at the State and Federal levels that LGBTQ people unfairly have absolutely no access to only because of their sexuality. They include access to military stores, assumption of spouses pensions, bereavement leave, immigration, insurance breaks, medical decision of behalf of their partners, tax breaks, automatic inheritance, child custody, divorce protections, domestic violence protection and the list goes on (Bederick). Many people really do need these benefits if not the public validation that a marriage would provide.
            Controversial author Michael Warner’s argues that the history of marriage is one of oppression and privilege that taints its very concept, and that marriage is merely a means to create “good gays” which creates a sense of sexual shame among those who do not partake in marriage. Hence, marriage for same-sex couples should not be something to strive for:
The question is a real one; the situation is one of profound historical dynamism. But we cannot take for granted that marriage will result in progress on the package of privileges, prohibitions, incentives, and regulations that marriage represents. (Warner, 127)
This is better seen as a critique of marriage rather than a reason to not pursue it. Granted, marriage does reinforce many negative social ideas just by its mere association. Women have often had to play second fiddle to men in heterosexual marriages, Betty Friedan describes this quite well the unsatisfying life of a housewife in the Feminine Mystique. But at the same time marriage is changing and so is its meaning, at one point the meaning of marriage did not include interracial couples:
A last flurry of legislative activity followed the national uproar caused when Jack Johnson, the first black professional heavyweight boxing champion, married a white woman and then was prosecuted and convicted under the Mann (or White Slavery) Act of 1910 for inducing a white woman to cross state lines for purposes of prostitution. (Chauncy, 63)
This of course would be overturned in Loving V. Virginia but it casts serious doubt on the validity of what we have come to count on as the “traditional” idea of marriage. Marriage doesn’t, and possibly never did, mean 2.5 kids with a picket fence and very little sex. Marriage today is supposedly viewed as this bond between two people, something that is good and should be strived for. It may have a less than desirable history but it is still seen as something ultimately good in the public consciousness. It is something “good” that is being denied simply to keep a certain group (heterosexuals) in a state of privilege. While Queer Theory seems to have an extreme desire to diminish unfair privilege, it seems to turn a blind eye to it in this form.
            Perhaps it is more about saving face. I would guess that it would not have been a primary issue for the Queer community had it not been for the vehement opposition and proactive attack from the groups that decided that this would be their issue. It is literally as though a fight has been started and Queer people have passed the point of no return. The opposition has shown a deep misunderstanding and fear toward the Queer community, embodied by its strong opposition to same-sex marriage, which cannot be ignored. Just look at Sen. Rick Santorum:
If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual (gay) sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. (Pittsburg Independent Media Center)
Although the future cannot be predicted, it still seems to be a battlefront that cannot be ignored, lest this type of thinking continue.  It puts the entire Queer community into a precarious position of having to choose between defending itself against blatant attack from Christian conservatives concerning marriage (or more recently adoption) while at the same time having to decide what issues should be dealt with first. Do we divert our resources (most obviously money) to challenging the homophobic Senator who insists on amending the U.S Constitution to ban same-sex marriage in order to shore up his political base, or do we spend them on lobbying for HIV/AIDS research?
 Even if you view same-sex marriage and opposite-sex marriage as this inherently unethical and unfair institution, then wouldn’t granting it to same-sex couples be the first step in dismantling such a large social institution, especially when considering the vast number of heterosexuals today who are choosing not to marry? Just look at the UK:
Marriage is in terminal decline, Government figures showed yesterday. Within 25 years, nearly half of all men in their mid-forties and more than a third of women will not have walked up the aisle. In the same period, the number of people cohabiting will have more than doubled to nearly four million. (Womack)
It would seem that marriage already has its own problems so why would the Queer community want to be apart of that? For that matter why should the Queer community concern itself with something that seems increasingly unpopular, especially if current attitudes are as ambivalent as they seem to be toward getting married, Queer or not? It is not necessarily about participation but more that it could set a precedent of equality in the minds of the Queer community and its opposition. The fact that the barrier would be broken could lead to a precedent being set in the minds of everyone in America much the same way that the famous Brown V. Board of Education decision did for racism.
            The issue of same-sex marriage goes much deeper than the shout match between two talking heads on CNN. In reality there should probably be three or even four talking heads.  But most importantly, there is no clear-cut right answer. There is a romantic attraction to the concept of marriage that many in the Queer community desire a great deal. There is also repulsiveness to it that many flee from. Maybe marriage is not the end-all and be-all issue of the Queer community. There is a need for us to reconsider what is of importance when there are still people who are suffering because of widespread homophobia, racism, and HIV/AIDS. Perhaps that is the best reason for Mr. Warner’s arguments, to get us to reevaluate what is important and what issues should be handled. Since most of us don’t have a choice of which issue to take on, same-sex marriage is still going to be an issue that is going to have to be dealt with, if not only to save Queer peoples political faces, but to possibly even change some attitudes. Worst-case scenario is that people might have a few more options than they did previously.
Works Cited
Bedrick, Barry R. United States. Office of the General Counsel. General Accounting Office. Categories of Laws Involving Marital Status. 31 Jan. 1997. 20 May 2006 <>.
Chauncey, George. Why Marriage? New York: Basic Books, 2004. 63.
Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place. New York and London: New York UP, 2005. 19.
Javors, Irene, and Renate Reimann. "The Marrying Kind?" Queer Families, Queer Politics: Challenging Culture and the State. New York: Columbia UP, 2001. 297.
"PA Senator Rick Santorum Makes Homophobic Remarks." Pittsburg Independent Media Center. 12 Apr. 2003. 11 Oct. 2005
Sperber, Jodi. "Winning it all." The Advocate. 15 Mar. 2004
Warner, Michael. The Trouble With Normal. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999. 127.
Womack, Sarah. "Marriage on the rocks as fewer say I do." News.Telegraph. 30 Sept. 2005. 11 Oct. 2005 <>.