Beyond Either/Or: More Thoughts on Marriage Equality

My post yesterday about marriage equality attracted so much attention my website crashed…twice. And traffic isn’t showing signs of slowing. Obviously, people are hungry for debate. Many make enlightening arguments on both sides of the issue. I’ve learned a lot from reading them. And, if my email box is any indication, some people get really angry when you say that marriage equality is unlikely to eradicate fundamental structural inequities.

I’m fine with the anger. I get it. Exclusion from marriage is a slap in the face of same sex couples. It says our love and our families aren’t legitimate in the eyes of our government, never mind to the many cultural institutions licensed by our government that condemn same sex unions. Criticizing efforts to defeat that kind of disrespect, not to mention the material consequences that result from exclusion, are going to make some people feel like you’re belittling them.

Further fanning the flames, there’s the way the issue has been framed by the mainstream media. They obviously thrive on over-simplifying and polarizing social issues. In the case of marriage, they’ve turned it into an either/or proposition. You’re either for marriage equality, or you’re against marriage altogether. Or, worse, you’re against same sex couples.

This kind of framing robs us of the opportunity to have a more robust discussion about marriage, family, and the strategic priorities of the LGBT movement. Instead, as I wrote in my last post, it traps us into a fight for the right to use marriage as a shield against wrongs, including simple prejudice, that no one should have to suffer. I won’t begrudge anyone a shield in a society where slings and arrows are business as usual for some, but I think we’re better than that.

That’s what got me to write the post in the first place. I aspire to a both/and approach to the issue. Why?

Because while marriage equality is an improvement, it won’t result in substantive structural change, or at least not as much as some other possible approaches to the problem of exclusion. For instance, marriage may protect our parental rights, but not if we fall into poverty. In most states in the country, marriage equality won’t protect us from being fired for our sexual orientations or gender identities. In fact, getting married might just be the flag that brings injustice to our doorsteps. And, just as winning inclusion in the military does nothing to stop unjust wars, winning inclusion in marriage does nothing to change the way the tax code disadvantages unmarried couples.

And our marriage laws will continue to reflect a narrowly chauvinistic, even Puritanical, definition of family. I get that marriage the world over isn’t a Christian institution. I also understand that not all Christians are conservative (and not everything that is conservative, as in, wanting to keep things the same, is bad). But, marriage as defined by U.S. law is rooted in a chauvinistic brand of Christian values. And, marriage in the U.S. is a conservative institution, as in, it licenses unions that tend to reproduce existing norms. In a society in which it is normal to pathologize and even punish poor single parents through our welfare codes, and as normal to vilify homeless parents and remove their children as it is to lift families out of homelessness, I think that’s a problem.

So what I’m arguing for is a progressive, inclusive family values agenda. One that situates family in the context of a broader understanding of the common good. Toward that common good, busting up oppressive norms would be central. So would winning the same rights for unmarried couples as for those who marry. And recognition of loving unions would be contested in the cultural arena while  getting the state out of the business of reproducing oppressive cultural norms and into the business of creating codes that truly support all families would be a fight we’d wage in the political arena.

Marriage equality should be a step in this direction, but history indicates otherwise. The powerful have a way of accommodating conservative demands, especially when doing so kills the momentum necessary for oppositional movements to reorganize power. For instance, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a great thing that dramatically slowed the roll of the Civil Rights Movement before issues (such as the racial wealth gap) being raised by more radical factions could be addressed. For the LGBT movement, marriage may be our Civil Rights Act. A grand victory that also takes the winds out of our sails before we navigate to other desired destinations. And why not? If you live in a state that prohibits employment discrimination and the feds allow us to marry, what more does the mainstream LGB movement offer?

And, in the broader scheme of things, winning civil rights recognition is a conservative enterprise. It’s meant to bring us under the protection of a Constitution that actually makes meaningful measures to provide redress for some of our most fundamental grievances as the descendents of slaves and colonized people (either here or abroad) illegal. And that’s why you’re reading this in a blog called Race Files.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

13 replies on “Beyond Either/Or: More Thoughts on Marriage Equality”

I was going to post a comment on your original post from yesterday, but as you pointed out… site crash. But I think what I meant to say can be said as much here as it would have been appropriate there. Apologies in advance for the length of the comment.

I think critics (from the left) of marriage equality as an important campaign and (hopefully) victory are mistakenly viewing marriage in the U.S. as some sort of monolithic institution. I’m not even talking about distinguishing between civil and religious marriage, I’m talking about marriage itself. Marriage, as a civil institution, has been and is the purview of the States. And this has led to really diverse laws in different states as to what marriage means. Whether or not you are common law married by cohabitating for X years with your partner depends on the state you live in. How divorce works, and whether a partner who is a homemaker is actually protected and receives a just settlement for their contribution to the marriage depends on the state. This isn’t bourgeois games, this is about real impacts to real people; whether or not you will be able to support your child as a single parent following a divorce may depend on whether or not you are receiving alimony or child support. This is all to say that there is no one “marriage” under U.S. law. So when you say “marriage as defined by U.S. law is rooted in a chauvinistic brand of Christian values,” it is hard for me to believe that, since marriage is not a static legal institution in the U.S. In many states, it has evolved over the past two centuries.

In terms of today’s post: You say in today’s post that you’re advocating a “both/and” approach, which I am 100% behind. But the rest of this post and yesterday’s really does speak more to an “either/or” approach. You say here that marriage equality could take the wind out of the movement’s sails, as you believe the 1964 Civil Rights Act did. I have to disagree. If one really is advocating a “both/and” approach, what you should be saying is, a successful movement fights all injustices where we see them, we build movement infrastructure and momentum, and we recognize that all victories will be intertwined, just as all defeats will be. The Civil Rights Movement did not end in 1964, because the CRM knew that that victory was not the be all end all. In 1965, they won the Voting Rights Act. In 1967, Loving v. Virginia. In 1968, another CRA, for housing. Perhaps along the way, white allies and Freedom Riders were lost. But that doesn’t mean the movement ended. A whole new generation of activists arose in the 1970s and 80s, as you’re well aware: the Black Power Movement came on strong with groups like the BPP, and inspired the Third World Liberation Front, Red Power, Brown Berets, Young Lords, I Wor Kuen, etc. Free and subsidized breakfasts and lunches as schools happened because of those later organizations, who happened because of that earlier movement. Everything builds on everything else. So, yeah, of course marriage equality is not going to end disproportionate homelessness among LGBT youth, or the deafening silence of unreported and/or unproscecuted domestic violence, or workplace discrimination, or poverty. Marriage will not end poverty or guarantee healthier families or end AIDS; I completely agree with you and all other lefty critics that marriage equality advocates who are trotting out nonsense like that should be ignored. But marriage equality IS one step toward recognizing the full humanity and membership of LGBT folk in this country, and that is important, both unto itself and because it makes other victories more possible. Addressing domestic violence, passing a version of ENDA that includes trans folks, creating better and more effective sex education programs, increasing the number of inclusive and LGBT-aware social service programs, these are all things that will be made easier if marriage equality is recognized. If folks are not seeing that connection, I really urge you to analyze the situation from a campaign perspective. If we want end result “Z,” how do we get there from “A”?

You know what these Supreme Court cases are? This is Brown v. Board (1958). The Civil Rights Movement needed that victory, that recognition that separate is not equal. No one thought that was the end, and activists who were wondering why everyone was spending so much energy and so many resources on an elite legal strategy when folks were being lynched and folks were hungry and unemployed and folks were being beaten and murdered for looking at a white person the wrong way… I cannot blame people who were critical of the strategy. And anyone who at that time thought, “great, now we have equality, we’re all done here,” they should have been laughed or shoved out of the room as quickly as folks who think that marriage equality is the be all end all should be, too. But recognizing equality is a crucial step, and whatever you might think of marriage personally, however you imagine a more inclusive civil family law system that protects single people (there are some interesting models in Europe that should be explored), it is misguided to look at marriage equality as anything but progress. Not the final victory, but definitely progress.

Scot, this is just the queer future wife of Kevin jumping in to say: God, I really, really love this Kevin.

And I second his comment, as a queer woman, as a divorcee from a gay marriage who relied on divorce law’s availability to me at a time when I was making what was well below the poverty line, and as an Afro-Caribbean-American whose family marched with MLK and served breakfast with the Panthers.

I am happy ANY day that a law that says or implies that I am anything less than a full citizen of this country gets struck down. Because it is a step for me, even if it is not all the steps that I, and people like me and people not like me, need. We should celebrate our victories wherever they occur, so that we have energy for the many, many difficult battles ahead.

Um, yeah, I’m not arguing that marriage equality not be advanced. If federal laws are changed, I too plan on marrying. I’m only raising concerns, having no power to influence the court or to deter a movement, I’m raising a set of questions I’m hoping will inspire a dialogue that might, for people not as invested as you in moving forward a broader agenda, push us to think more broadly. I think what I’m saying is, let’s start to frame a broader agenda within which marriage equality is a part, and fix the ship while sailing.

I was an activist on this issue in the 90s. I was an opponent of the North Carolina measure prohibiting marriage access to same sex couples. And I am a hopeful court watcher, keeping my fingers crossed for a good result.

I’m also a community organizer 30+ years into a career that includes demanding expanded visiting hours in prisons I would rather see closed, and marching against racial violence, when I don’t believe that police responses alone resolve the root problem behind hate crimes. I believe that change often happens in increments. But I also believe that pointing out the dangers in certain approaches is useful. It helps us chart our steps more carefully.

Thanks for the comment.

Just to be clear — I don’t think either of us thought that you were arguing against the advance of marriage equality. But speaking for myself, it did seem to me that you were problematizing/interrogating whether the advance of marriage equality had a definite relationship with the advancement of equality overall. And I mean equality broadly in terms that I think we’d agree on (socioeconomic, (dis)able-bodied, trans etc.). I think the tricky thing is ensuring that we don’t conflate the marriage equality movement, as a whole, with the people within it (who often tend to be lighter, richer, XY-er and more powerful) who don’t care to build solidarity with other parts of the equality movement. A glaring example is the way well known “gay rights” organizations traded on transfolks’ safety in exchange for achieving their narrow goals.

In either case, I think the real disagreement, is over the question of what constitutes “conservative goals.” I suspect (and I could be wrong) that I am more fluid in what I consider part of radical movement building than you are. For me, it really depends on who is doing it, why, and how. I don’t agree with the fundamental premise that marriage is a conservative institution, either.

And I think this connects to my bigger difference from you, perhaps, which is the following. I felt your post yesterday lacked any real acknowledgment of the reason most people get married. It’s not for the economic benefits, although that can be a factor. It’s because of the spiritual component that it represents to so many of us. It is a ritual that has spiritual and emotional meaning to people. One of the great things about queers participating in it is that we are queering that meaning, evolving it, and moving it beyond what the Religious Right wants to insist that it is. And, I think it would have enriched the discussion that you are trying to start for you to have brought that out. No one ever talks about how straight people get married for the money, not as a group anyway. But I hear that from people on the radical left on a regular basis. I am not putting those words in your mouth, but noting that it’s worth refuting them up front. I’m not sure I can appreciate the light that that seems to uniquely shine on gay people, as if they are somehow motivated by something different from straight people. I don’t think you intend it to look that way, but I do think it can easily sound that way.

Of course, your time as an activist is much appreciated. We all work hard in our own ways, and these disagreements, and discussing why we have these disagreements, from our spaces of existence and experience, is important. I definitely agree with you about that.

Agreed. This is useful. I’d hoped to add to this discussion by framing an argument that sounds less like a diatribe and more like a treatise on strategy precisely because I think people get married for a lot of different kinds of reasons, love not least among them. In that light, this is useful feedback.

I think I have a pretty fluid sense of what it takes to move a radical agenda. I’m a very reality-based. I’ll take a discount on train tickets as a victory. The question is, do our victories leverage more or less political opportunity. On the marriage question, I think both, and that there should be discussion of the potential downside which, I think you agree, is evidence in those “lighter” types you referenced but who, in my past experience working for a national LGBT civil rights organization, are pretty critical even when they tend, not everyone but as a group, to exert a more conservative influence.

On that conservative vs radical question. I think I understand that word “conservative” in a very particular way since most of my activist history involves working against racial violence and organized white supremacist groups. I sort of view things on a continuum, with conservative in the middle, and liberalism and authoritarianism on either end. I know that’s an oversimplification, but descriptions of matrixes can get, well, you know, complicated.
Anyway, I don’t generally engage in back and forths with people who post comments, but I found yours intriguing and useful so decided to engage. Thanks for posting.

Can I put in a plug for you to consider, should your time and interest allow, writing a post about what you mean by “conservative”? I think it would be useful to many of us! Thanks for thinking about it 🙂

Well, I live in a state (NC) that has a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, AND allows an employer to fire someone solely on the basis of their sexual orientation/gender identity. There is definitely more to do should this SCOTUS case help move the equality movement forward even a little bit.

I have been fairly vocal in my activist community about what is going on at the SCOTUS, b/c I really can’t see how the court could find DOMA constitutional and I feel like this could be a great step forward to finally have that inequality officially recognized. But it does seem odd to be advocating for marriage when for a long time I have thought that our reliance on the nuclear family as defined by conservative Christian norms really hasn’t done us any favors as a society. But like the other commentors here, I think there is value in a victory, if there is one, on marriage equality. If nothing else, it takes away one more notion that is okay to treat LGBT people as different from straight folks.

It also can be seen as a low-hanging fruit, to a certain extent, in the court of public opinion; marriage is something a lot people in society understand, and this issue really is about bringing more people into the norm, rather than about overturning existing structures (such as advocating for non-married families). So lots of people, especially if they have LGBT people in their lives, can get behind this idea. As an activist of sorts, I do know that the people who get behind the low-hanging fruit can also be capricious in their activism, and superficial, leaving the really hard work of changing society to just a few motivated individuals. But in the big picture view, I just hope that at least some of those I meet on these types of campaigns can perhaps realize their inner activist and be motivated to keep up the fight even when the big campaigns are done. It’s a slow way of gathering more activists, but I’m always hopeful….

I do a lot of work around domestic/sexual violence, both as a grassroots organizer and with established, funded agencies. And the work can be quite different with each group. Personally, I don’t think we are going to legislate and law enforce our way out this type of violence; we need a lot more buy in on violence-free communities from the community itself in order to really hold abusers accountable and support victims. But I support a lot of that work that is done by those agencies, b/c I figure some of it moving this advocacy forward. And I also think it can bring in a lot of people who have these notions in their head that this is a problem, but they don’t know much about it. And that’s where you can meet them and bring them down the activist path; it’s how I got started, anyway.

Thanks for this comment. I really appreciate your point of view on this. I think we need a both/and approach. Let’s win marriage rights, and then let’s change the law so that those who choose not to marry aren’t penalized for that choice.

Thanks Scot for your articles. I’m a queer woman, not interested in marriage personally (same or opposite sex), though I support the struggle (financially as well as ideologically!). I appreciate how difficult the conversation is – especially having same-sex couple friends who are married or considering marriage. But I also have trans friends who, as you pointed out in the original article, are invisible in this fight. And I do think that those of us who do not share our lives in the traditional heteronormative nuclear family way ARE being marginalized. I do think that valuable resources are going towards marriage equality when other pressing issues are at hand. It’s complicated, it isn’t either/or so thank you for raising your voice and opening a forum for discussion!

Thank you, Reid. It’s great to know that some people find the articles helpful and I, obviously, really appreciate your perspective on the issues.

Thanks. I do think, although it seem so slow and incremental to do things this way, it ultimately (I hope!) will result in lasting change as you really create the movements that bring people down the path to social justice. I am not from the South, but I’ve lived here for almost 15 years now, and I’ve finally realized you just have to meet people where they are if you’re going to bring them down the social justice path. Movements are about trust and personal relationships as well, and if you develop that trust with someone on one of the more low-hanging issues, they may trust you enough to explore new social justice territory.

Ah, but NC….its tries me so. I came back here this morning to remind myself what I wrote, b/c in my email last night was info about a new bill introduced, “The Healthy Marriage Act”. Hmmm…..instead of the one year already imposed by the state, they now want to extend that to two year waiting period to file for divorce; and if you have kids, they want you to “complete courses on communication and the impact of divorce on children”. Courses taught by who, I am not sure; the General Assembly; the church (and if so, which one)? So, yeah, I support marriage equality, I do…but really as part of a broader movement to finally get the state out of personal relationships. Ugh.

I didn’t know that was happening. Need to check in with my friends at SONG. I’m guessing you know them? If not, you should. Southerners On New Ground is a fantastic organization. Love them and you seem like a kindred spirit.

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