Why for Some, SCOTUS Same Sex Marriage Ruling Just Doesn’t Feel Right

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.

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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.

19 replies on “Why for Some, SCOTUS Same Sex Marriage Ruling Just Doesn’t Feel Right”

Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, Scot! This is such a great piece that articulates some of the concerns that have been bouncing around in my head watching the celebrations yesterday from the sidelines.

And it is such a relief to not be the only party pooper in town 🙂 . I got somewhat irritated yesterday with all the love = marriage talk, which, imo, ignores all the many ways we can love each other and imposes a normative institution on me that I’d rather see dismantled than expanded… Marriage is about a legal structure, not about love.

Commentary like yours allows room to extend the discussion to things like the mostly uncelebrated (and largely lamented) rise of the single parent family, queer-headed or not, the social inequalities between single and two parent families, and the largely unacknowledged reminder that single parents pose: In a culture that doesn’t care for children, where extended family connections have been eroded, etc, two parents are often not enough (economically, emotionally, et al.), whether they are married or not.

So appreciate this. It really is at the foundation of much of our economic policy re: families, isn’t it? We punish the single parent family and privilege conjugal couples…well said.

We seem to forget that heteros have taken what was a conservative institution and dramatically modified and liberalized it to respond to changing societal norms and individual needs over time. No fault divorce? Yes please. Atheist? No church wedding required — ever. Even the Pilgrims insisted on that. Woman as property? Completely overhauled in just my parents’ lifetime (as my parents’ divorce can attest). Capacity to plan parenthood? Under attack in key areas by religious conservatives, yes, but still largely valued by Americans. I’m not saying it’s perfect. But gay marriage is just one iteration of the continued liberalization of a fundamental legal structure. It’s entirely conceivable that the Windsor victory could be a factor in achieving universal health care for all Americans, regardless of their marital status. Activists and organizers involved in an array of issues can — with imagination and enterprise — leverage a seemingly “unrelated” issue to expand an array of freedoms. We know this, because the fight for marriage equality has done it.

I hear you and agree, but I’m making a cultural argument here. Legally? Yes, absolutely. This is a great step forward. Culturally, though, I think there are many other issues to consider.

I love your words & your sentiment. We must include all in this fight for equality, married, unmarried etc. As a gay American I hope to be inclusive of all not just some. <3

I think the lack of support for the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) in light of the expectation that DOMA would be overturned by SCOTUS speaks a lot to the point that you are raising here. While one part of UAFA was about creating immigration benefits for couples who have entered into same-sex marriages, another part of it proposed that people could use other ways of proving the legitimacy of their constructed family relationships for the purposes of immigration, without changes to existing marriage legislation being necessary. As far as I was concerned, that should have been the easiest clause for bipartisan support, as it basically said “we aren’t coming after whatever definition of “traditional marriage” matters to you. Here’s an alternative way of looking at immigration reform.” But I saw absolutely no public commentary explaining why various people and groups objected to the inclusion of LGBT people in comprehensive immigration reform. All I saw was an extension of the generalized lashing out at gays and lesbians on principle, with no engagement with the possibility of reconceptualising families as something other than conjugal couples possibly raising children.
I think that changes to marriage laws, including the extending of marriage benefits to gay and lesbian couples, all work towards expanding the norm towards more inclusivity, but I agree with you that they just don’t go far enough quickly enough. And I’m annoyed by arguments that point out just how quickly these changes have happened in comparison to other social changes. “Wait your turn” is never a valid reason for making someone’s life harder than it should be. Surely society should be about making it as easy as possible for people to live good lives?
I am a lesbian who is half of a married binational couple, and so I really needed yesterday’s DOMA ruling. I’m celebrating this weekend. But I’m also committed to not stopping here, to not closing off the conversation, and to trying my very best to always ask what people need live better. It doesn’t fix things, but I hope that it keeps me honest.

This is great. I hope people will read it. Very useful analysis. Thanks!

Thank you for your perspective. I agree with much of what you say, and look toward the day when any kind of “normativity” isn’t required in order to live a peaceful life in which we are all respected. I ask you to consider rephrasing this paragraph:

“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.”

Trans folks are still classified as mentally ill, and gender expression is miles from being protected in most states and federally.

thank you!

Thanks for bringing up the trans issue. I think we too often overlook the trans part of LGBT, and reduce a whole community to a letter.

I am thrilled to find Scot Nakagawa’s well-written article and the comprehensive comments that have followed. I am het, 65, atheist, feminist, always single, childfree and, oh yeah, I almost forgot, white. ;-)…jeez !
I can’t thank you ALL enough for articulating my deepest values so clearly. The feelings&ideas churn, smolder, burst into flames, die back to hot hot embers and….explode into hilariously serious Raw Sugar, the musical performing duo of myself, Linda Noel Schierman and Kirsten Anderberg. Just wanted to mention we will be “out there” again, soon . . . and to thank you.

as one of the proponents in the Canadian case I have to say that the choice denied is never a choice. I fought for the right to say yes – or no….That is, however we choose to define, redefine, or radicalize loving relationships if the right to marry is culturally and legally impossible then all we have is an empty second best.

No argument here. I’m trying to argue for both, and, as a strategy, not either or. I just think we need to expand our definition of family within the context of the law so that we can protect more people, including the majority of U.S. families that don’t fit the nuclear family, two in a conjugal relationship and maybe kids definition. Those families remain outside the the protection of marriage, even as it has been and, hopefully, will continue to be reformed.

Thanks for your comment and your leadership. Both are appreciated.

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