Clearing a path to liberation?
“Since when is marriage a path to liberation?” asked lawyer and LGBTQ rights pioneer Paula Ettelbrick in an influential 1989 essay (reprinted in several edited volumes). “When analyzed from the standpoint of civil rights, certainly lesbians and gay men should have the right to marry. But obtaining a right does not always result in justice.”
Some responses to her question come from a country that’s had marriage equality for almost nine years: South Africa.
For several years I have been conducting comparative ethnographic research among two South African groups whose access to state marital recognition has recently expanded: those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer (LGBTQ); and those living in areas governed by systems of customary African law.
LGBTQ South Africans in my research overwhelmingly describe marriage equality as both a meaningful symbol and a helpful resource. But they also find it profoundly limited. This is especially true for poor and working-class Black Africans, whose persistent economic and racial oppression make formal legal rights almost impossible to access. (In the village where I conduct my customary law research, virtually all residents find the expanded access to legal marriage irrelevant; researchers working elsewhere have found more interest in using these formal rights, but little success.)
Rape and murder are a pervasive threat, especially for butch lesbians. In a talk at last week’s annual Congress of the South African Sociological Association, leading scholar and activist Zethu Matebeni counted 42 brutal murders of queer South Africans, with a rapid increase after marriage equality.
Lest you mistake this for a uniquely “African” problem, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs documented 20 hate-motivated homicides against LGBTQ and HIV-affected people in the United States in 2014. Eighty percent were against people of color, and 55% against trans women.
In South Africa, the racial divisions in LGBTQ lives have produced corresponding racial divisions in LGBTQ politics. In 2012 a group of Black lesbian and gender non-conforming activists staged a die-in to disrupt the highly commercialized, at the time largely white-run, Johannesburg Pride. “This is my route!” insisted one of the Pride Board members from behind the window of her Mercedes-Benz. The following year a group of mostly Black queer activists started an alternative march they dubbed “People’s Pride.”
To be sure, all major U.S. LGBTQ rights organizations have acknowledged the long list of issues needing attention beyond marriage. Many have refocused on anti-discrimination protections. In the domain of private employment, 29 states still permit discrimination based on sexual orientation and 32 based on gender identity.
This priority is truly urgent. Yet it, too, is profoundly limited. Law and society research shows that people who suspect discrimination based on already-protected grounds such as gender and race rarely file lawsuits. When they do, they don’t win much. Discrimination is hard to prove, and litigating it requires resources—all the harder to come by, in a cruel irony, without job security.
The good news is that legal protections can foster what law and society scholars call “rights consciousness,” a sense that one is, in Michael McCann’s term, a “rights-bearer.” This consciousness can promote everyday acts of insistence and resistance that carve out spaces of change.
This has clearly happened in South Africa. Vibrant and assertive queer communities, LGBT-identified and otherwise, exist throughout the country (and indeed the continent). They are part of a broad range of social justice movements, most recently including the Rhodes Must Fall movement against institutionalized racism at the University of Cape Town, a movement whose philosophical foundations intertwine “Black Consciousness, Pan-Africanism, queer politics and black feminism.”
Marriage equality did not initiate this assertiveness, but it arguably helped deepen it.
Make no mistake: LGBTQ people are agents in our struggles, both in the U.S. and in South Africa. Ultimately, however, what will most magnify our strength is greater structural security. What LGBTQ people, and the people we love most, need are economic stability, housing, health care, education, and freedom from physical danger—whether from crime or from the police.
With their grasp on these needs tenuous, many LGBTQ Americans, both white and of color, have turned to marriage to help manage the risks they face. But true liberation would make these risks manageable no matter one’s relationship status. That requires a broader agenda, one that includes LGBTQ issues while extending, as do our lives, beyond them.
My greatest hope for marriage equality is that it might clear the path to such a vision, liberating our robust movement infrastructure from narrow obsessions with gay-specific issues. It is up to all of us, both advantaged and not, to make it so.
Michael W. Yarbrough, is an assistant professor in the Political Science Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY), a Research Associate of the Department of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg, and a Board Member of CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies. (Through CLAGS he is currently co-organizing a conference on the future of LGBTQ politics and scholarship after marriage, to be held in fall 2016. Follow him on twitter at @mwyarbrough.