Knowledge for the next generation’s movement
In my career as a journalist, I have probably written more about the fight for marriage equality than on any other single topic, covering it nationally for ten publications over seven years (The Ventura County Star, The New York Times, Out, The Advocate, The Village Voice, Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Gawker, BuzzFeed, The Guardian, and, with this post, Contexts). In just two presidential administrations, gay and lesbian couples seeking the right to marry have gone from being wedge scapegoats used by President Bush to whip up votes from his bigoted base, to being celebrated by President Obama with a White House bathed in rainbow colors.
My interest in marriage equality was initially very personal: my parents’ interracial marriage had once been illegal, I am gay, and when I started covering the movement, I was in a relationship with a foreign citizen. (He eventually left the US, before marriage could have been an option to keep us together.)
Yet over the years, I’ve become increasingly critical of the ways the marriage equality movement was at odds with queerness, as it encouraged LGBT America to downplay sexuality and embrace a straight, Fordist notion of being “normal.” I’ve never thought marriage equality was unimportant, but in my reporting I’ve become aware of its conservative nature and of the ways it overshadows challenges LGBT people face which can’t be fixed by getting hitched. For example: No LGBT groups or even AIDS service organizations were part of Occupy Wall Street, not even its call for universal healthcare access — a goal which would greatly address HIV/AIDS and the disparate impact it has on LGBT people (especially gay men of color). Instead, gay rights groups pursued marriage as a vehicle to increase insurance access, a goal which leaves out all single uninsured people and those not able to marry someone with a job offering spousal health benefits.
Similarly, issues like HIV criminalization, LGBT youth homelessness, and LGBT immigration issues of the unmarried have been left largely ignored by the likes of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT organization (and a shamefully self-acknowledged “White Men’s Club”). Black Lives Matter, though started by and filled with queer people of color, is also off the radar of most LGBT groups, who have found it easier to raise money off of smiling couples than to address the police brutality and systemic racism.
Sex has also been politely scrubbed from homosexuality during the marriage movement. When I wrote about monogamy in same-sex couples for Gawker in 2013, I relied upon the work of the Gay Couples Study at the Center for Research + Education on Gender & Sexuality in San Francisco, which has found that about fifty percent of gay male couples are openly non-monogamous. It occurred to me at the time that, as excellent as the research is (CREGS has been interviewing over 500 male couples for more than six years), the data could only tell us so much about the sexual practices of same-sex couples. The population was only from the San Francisco Bay Area, there’s no data about women, and the participants’ sex lives were shaped in an era where marriage equality was largely or entirely unavailable. The literature of the field is so scant, no literature review is yet possible.
To understand LGBT families as sociologists, journalists, or even simply as humans, we are going to need to study a full generation from June 26, 2015. The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law has done excellent work on LGBT families across a broad spectrum of research, but until last month, it was all done in the context of an access to marriage which was largely unavailable in most of the country. Just as good research can now look at mixed-race families post 1967’s Loving v .Virginia, a generation or two will be needed to see how LGBT families do or do not conform to American familial norms. (I’m especially curious, in the coming decades, to test a theory I’ve long had: that young heterosexual Millennials, close to their out queer peers, might decide to adopt the openly non-monogamous sexuality which has been associated with gay male culture.)
It’s going to take time even with marriage. Hopefully, government institutions like the Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control will follow the excellent examples of CREGS and the Williams Institute and invest appropriate funds for the study of this newly legalized demographic. But as writers, scholars and activists, this is a huge opportunity to broaden our scope of inquiry with one issue largely solved. It would behoove us now to actively study the many issues (homelessness, legal employment discrimination, violence against trans women, police profiling) not fulfilled by marriage, and to train our eyes on the systemic challenges LGBT people face which can remain invisible even when in plain sight — as marriage once was.
Steven W. Thrasher, a Contexts board member, is in the American Studies program at NYU. He is the Senior Opinion Columnist and Writer At Large for the Guardian US. Follow him on Twitter at @thrasherxy.