Thinking about Gay Marriage Referenda in Georgia and Maine

Posted January 12, 2010

Following the November 4 passage of Referendum 1, which banned same-sex marriages in Maine, activist Ryan Conrad of Maine Video Activists Network interviewed members of the LGBTQ community in the state…

Transcript of 6:50 to 18:09…

I live in Augusta, Maine. This past summer, I moved from Georgia, so I moved into the final push of all of the organizing for No on 1. It’s been interesting because I was actually in Atlanta, in 2004, when the State of Georgia had a referendum on an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting gay marriage.

There was a similar, huge effort — particularly in Atlanta — organizing the gay rights movement and then its allies, trying to gain support for gay marriage. This completely gutted all other kinds of queer activism happening leading up to that point – and also created a lot of rifts within queer and gay rights organizing in Atlanta that still haven’t been healed. Ultimately the amendment passed.

In the wake of that defeat, which happened at the same time as the Presidential election, there’s been this sort of vacuum in queer rights organizing and gay rights organizing in Atlanta. People were so tapped out: financially, emotionally, psychologically. There was really a “movement depression” that has persisted.

And, that has permitted a lot of other forms of homophobia and heterosexism to advance — because the gay rights movement and the queer rights movement were washed out after the defeat of the gay marriage initiative. Suddenly there was an open space created for the haters, as I think of them sometimes, to unleash their agenda.

Since the defeat of gay marriage in Georgia, there has been, for example, the development of Atlanta’s Midtown Security Alliance. It’s funded by the gentrifying gay neighborhood of Midtown Atlanta, and harasses transgender people of color who are sometimes sex workers, sometimes not. This is one example of a particularly hateful agenda that’s proceeding unchecked. In fact, I think it has a lot of support from a particular sector of the gay population in Atlanta: the gentrifying, mostly white, upper class, male, Midtown Atlanta population.

So, I’ve come to Maine with that back history, knowing that this is one way this kind of thing can play out. It feels bad. The defeat of gay marriage feels bad on the one hand. Driving to work in Waterville, and from Augusta to Waterville, all the little “Yes on 1” signs and seeing the stickers on people’s cars. It felt like a hate vote. In a certain sense, this just gives people an opportunity to hate. And those stickers are still everywhere. That just feels bad. I just think there’s no way to feel good about that side of that campaign.

But on the other side, I felt sad, because since I’ve gotten here I’ve been trying to find a more inclusive organizing that would provide sort of better life chances for all people and not only those people who can and/or want to get married. And that’s been hard to find.

Since I’ve gotten here it’s pretty much been gay marriage, or nothing. A few people say, “we’re just waiting until gay marriage is off the table”. But it’s been really hard to have conversations with people about why gay marriage is problematic. For a long time now, I have felt that it’s a bit of a red herring. It convinces people who are emotionally and psychologically invested, and committed to some degree, in improving the lives of queer people that getting behind gay marriage DOES that. It convinces people who do identify as queer (and want to, or can get married) that that’s the way. But it’s also a way of closeting a whole lot of other people who can’t or don’t want to get married.

In the bigger picture, it’s further intensifying the gutting of state provision for things like universal health care, by putting all of the eggs in the basket of “the couple” — the sexual couple. This sexual couple might be same sex as opposed to other sex, but it still emphasizes the couple as the solution to all the different kinds of problems that I think actually we need to have a systemic solution to rather than a couple’s solution to.

I think that setting out marriage as “the solution” doesn’t speak to the way in which marriage has been “the problem” for a lot of people. It concerns me as a feminist and as a queer person to see marriage further incentivized. It may be a bigger population that marriage will be incentivized for, but if gay marriage were to pass there would be privileges that come with marriage that would keep people in marriages or coerce people into getting married when it can be a really bad deal. For example, domestic violence… nobody thinks that’s a good thing, but if people feel like they have to be married to have health care or any number of different sorts of protections, then they’re going to stay in it, when maybe they shouldn’t. That concerns me. That’s something I don’t see anybody talking about.

That is part and parcel of a really old school feminist critique of marriage, a historical materialist critique of marriage that has just kind of gone by the wayside. Now, I don’t know, it seems like everybody, or the “group think” is celebrating marriage, but marriage has never been unequivocally good for people. It’s strange to me to see that kind of cultural amnesia now.

There’s also a way in which the set up of petitioning the State for these rights and benefits gets everything all mixed up. I mean, it’s only very recent, really only since 2003, that the State hasn’t been actively, above-board, persecuting queer people. Until very recently to be publicly gay or lesbian was a crime. That has eroded a deep-seated and well-founded distrust of the State among people. There’s a tension between “queer” as sort of short-hand for LGB and sometimes T communities and people — but also “queer” as a radical, political position that is countercultural.

I think that gay marriage as an issue has shifted the emphasis on “queer” as shorthand for LGB and sometimes T communities and people, rather than a radical political position that’s, sort of, you know, countercultural and very much distrustful of the State. The State has so often been a weapon of oppression for queer folks and communities! But now, some gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans folks can look to the State for protection. There’s been a way in which “knocking on the State’s door” has become the solution to problems, that actually if you trace them back far enough, the State helped to create. And sometimes, I think it singlehandedly created them.

So, that’s another piece of the conversation that is problematic for me. After all, if you’re gay and lesbian and you want to get married — go get married! There are churches who will do that. You can find officiating folks who will marry you. Think about what it is you are asking when you’re asking the State to marry you. Why and how have some of us become so in love with the State? That’s a question I would want to ask. We need to think about the ways in which the State is still oppressing us, and certain queers (as shorthand for LGB and sometimes T communities and people), much more intensively.

We’re suffering “divide and conquer.” The State is going to concede to some people, and the history of capitalism shows that this always happens, that the State will give us this trade off. “We’re going to give rights to some of you, in exchange for the tacit agreement that you will not have a problem with the fact that we’re not going to give this to other people.”

I feel that gay marriage threatens to be this kind of ship where some people climb up the ladder, out of the water where they’re drowning, and in exchange for the ladder, they agree to pull it up after them, and leave the rest of the people in the water. And I think that’s very sad. And history… I’m not a historian, but I do pay attention to history, and history shows that that just doesn’t work. In the long run. It’s a band-aid solution, and not everybody can climb up the ladder.