Rethinking Same-Sex Marriage

Posted June 30, 2011

Like any radical, progressive or socialist, I celebrated New York State’s (NYS) legalization of same-sex marriage as a step toward full legal equality for LGBT people. All the while, remembering that the Federal Defense of Marriage Act excludes married gays and lesbians from the federal benefits that come with marriage.

However, the way in which same-sex marriage legislation was won in NYS leads me to rethink my political assessment of the issue. For a number of years, I have disagreed with many on the left who argued that while we should support the right of same-sex couples to marry, the focus of the mainstream LGBT organization on marriage was an adaptation to hetero-normativity and tended to ignore the substantive social and economic oppression of queers. I believed that this attitude might lead radicals to abstain from mass, socially disruptive struggles for marriage equality as a democratic-civil right.

Despite what some on the organized left are arguing, the NYS same-sex marriage legislation was not the result of mass mobilizations and struggles. There have been no mass demonstrations, sit-ins at County Clerks offices or even dissident local officials officiating at same-sex marriages in defiance of NYS law. Instead, mainstream LGBT organizations in NYS engaged in a tepid lobbying and TV/radio ad campaign. Orchestrated by militant neo-liberals NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg– who are in the vanguard of an austerity drive against working and poor people in NYS–the legislation passed because of the role of traditionally Republican corporate executives and investment bankers.

In light of this, I have to say that the comrades who were much more critical of the LGBT movement’s focus on marriage equality were right. Their critique that the focus on same-sex marriage was part of the increasingly assimilationist politics of the LGBT middle classes was correct. In fact, it supports arguments the Canadian socialist Alan Sears has made that marriage-rights was the last step in winning full citizenship for queer people in a neo-liberal/lean world. Cuomo and Bloomberg– along with significant segments of NYS capital (including Xerox and a number of Wall Street firms) — have succeeded in re-cementing the support of an increasingly privileged segment of the queer community for the neo-liberal politics of the Democratic party.

The victory for legal equality in NYS is quite ambiguous and very bitter-sweet.