While most of LGBT America celebrates the legal defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act, some of us are finding this moment bittersweet. We recognize the decision is a real and meaningful victory, but we’re worried about what this victory means for those of us who wish to exercise the right not to marry, and about whether winning this right will diminish the transformational potential of the LGBT movement.
LGBT people have struggled for decades in the face of hate and exclusion to create new definitions of family, and community. Over those decades, we created intentional families as places to invest familial love, often because we had been rejected by the families we were born into. Those families of choice gave us care and support even when our government cared about us not at all, or even labeled us the enemy. And with the support of those families, we became leaders of a cultural movement that created a new moral consensus that acknowledges many kinds of families, including unmarried heterosexual couples who were also once stigmatized and excluded.
We were pioneers of co-housing and domestic partnership rights, champions of liberalizing adoption and foster care, and, years ahead of the medical establishment, we were kitchen table innovators of alternative insemination. In order to accept our unions, our non-LGBT loved ones had to see past many prejudices, including the bias against counting any families not licensed by our government and blessed by religious institutions as sacred.
The families we created were vital to surviving the AIDS crisis, as well as decades during which LGBT people were classified as mentally ill, and in which harassment by law enforcement and queer bashing were so commonplace such incidents weren’t even considered news. We want the non-traditional families we created to matter, too, not just because we want to be acknowledged and respected for our choices, but because we believe in the transformational potential that lies in defying normative traditions. After all, those traditions, even “normal” itself, have been at the heart of our oppression.
We want to be part of the discussion of marriage equality not because we’re against those who wish to marry or even the culture of marriage itself, but because we stand for ideas that have been pushed to the margins of the debate. We believe those ideas are important. Those of us who stand for those ideas are an integral part of the LGBT community.
Until we are considered important to the courts, the media, policy makers, and just plain folk, our society hasn’t accepted the whole LGBT community, in all of its diversity. And arguments that indirectly marginalize some of us by claiming we should be included in traditional institutions because “we’re just like you,” only make matters worse. In fact, they feel disrespectful.
Yet there is much to respect. What we’ve accomplished by creating not just intentional families, as important as they are, but an intentional community is a precious legacy. Our accomplishment offers evidence that diverse and deeply divided people can come together, perhaps not entirely without prejudice, but with the ability to see ourselves in one another in spite of those prejudices and build a community in which we regard one another as one people.
So while we celebrate, some of us worry. We fret and hector, lecture and scold, and have generally made ourselves into party poopers. I get that and don’t want to get in the way of anybody’s celebration. But there’s a lot at stake here.
Freedom to marry? Yes. But what we’ve created in spite of their licenses and institutions is what freedom really looks like.