Feminism, gay marriage and the future of queer politics
It’s hard being the grouch at the wedding party, grumbling about the rubbery chicken and watered down cocktails when odes to marital bliss are as omnipresent as the tacky dresses and drunken uncles. I’m on record – as are a lot of my queer and feminist colleagues – against the overweening emphasis put on marriage rights, so I won’t review all the (necessary and important) objections to foregrounding this above all else. I throw in the rainbow-colored his and his towels. The critiques still stand but it does seem rather beside the point to keep reiterating them in the face of a Supreme Court victory that did feel kind of good, even as the declamation on blissful and transcendent coupledom (and the concomitant pathetically lonely life of a singleton) read as so much familialist claptrap.
The question is what now? Of course, there are the civil rights left unfulfilled: passage of comprehensive employment discrimination law, trans inclusion in military service, addressing the particular problems facing queer and trans youth, an end to the religious “freedom” exemption laws that threaten everything, and so on. I have no doubt that the mainstream movement will indeed pivot and turn its attention to any number of remaining “issues” that affect queers, although its ability to do so after so thoroughly investing in marriage and its associated ideologies might prove more difficult than some imagine. And hopefully the gay movement will start to include racial justice, economic equality, environmental integrity and a host of concerns that any progressive social movement must engage.
But it will not be easy to push the gay movement to a more progressive place. That is because the very discourses underlying marriage ideology undermine many of the concerns of feminism. Most pernicious is the “born this way” dictum that has seeped into arguments for marriage, popular film and TV, song lyrics (oh Lady Gaga and Macklemore, how could you?), and even our own progressive cheerleader Jon Stewart can’t do a segment supporting gay rights that doesn’t frame it around biological determinism. Feminists – and queers from days gone by – have spent more than enough time debunking biological determinism and gender essentialism. Remember, woman is made not born? Simone would be turning over in her grave, not to mention Sylvia Rivera, the radical faeries and the lesbian avengers. It’s time the LGBT movement cleansed itself of this toxic silliness. It undermines any possibility of imagining queerness as chosen and joyous. It lets hetero homophobia off the hook by assuring them that queers just can’t help themselves and that their sorry state is just a biological luck (or not) of the draw that could never “infect” them. And born this way relies on the most anti-feminist assertions of childhood gender non-normativity as the ineluctable signs of incipient queerness.
Speaking of feminism, it should come as no surprise that as gays and lesbians happily march off to the wedding chapel, many women are being (unhappily) prevented from fully controlling their own reproductive lives. The endless attempts to chip away at women’s bodily autonomy (through “parental consent” laws, through clinic protests, through the paucity of medical training on abortion procedures, through laws that force clinic closures, through bans on late term abortions – among other strategies) has rendered the idea of reproductive justice more and more vulnerable. It’s time the LGBT movement foregrounded reproductive justice as part of our political movement. Gay dollars (and not just the lesbian ones) need to go to keep women’s clinics open. Gay bodies need to protect those clinics and march in the streets. You cannot have gender or sexual freedom without reproductive justice.
So I may be throwing in the towel on marriage rights but I would like to throw down the gauntlet on feminism: queers hear this – gaining workplace and governmental gender equity, building a vibrant culture of real reproductive justice, combatting sexual violence and the everyday diminution of women’s bodily autonomy – these are a few of our favorite things. Make them yours too.
Suzanna Danuta Walters is professor of sociology and director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University. She is the editor-in-chief of the journal Signs, and the author most recently of, The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality. Follow her on Twitter @SuzannaDWalters.