Strategic extinction

That ever-stimulating Web site Facebook informed me the other day that two of my friends believe that gay marriage killed the dinosaurs. They’re in a Facebook group that says so. Dripping with sarcasm emboldened by pre-Proposition 8 prospects of moderate progressiveness, the Williams group’s mission statement reads: “This group is for people who understand the grave risks of gay marriage. [-] Gay marriage killed the dinosaurs. If we let liberal activist judges in Massachusetts and California set the course, the blood will run in the rivers.” The point? Gay marriage didn’t cause your heterosexual divorce; it wasn’t the needle that punctured your man-woman-two-and-a-half-children-white-picket-fence bubble and let the sanctity leak out; and it certainly didn’t wipe an entire species off the face of the earth and onto placemats and Saturday morning cartoons.

If you think about it, my friends were right: gay marriage might not be a big deal after all. In his Feb. 12 lecture entitled “Beyond Tolerance: Capitalism, Culture and the Politics of Gay Marriage,” Political Science Professor Darel Paul presented a thorough analysis detailing the demographics of gay marriage proponents. While Professor Paul’s talk lacked an endorsement or denunciation of inclusive marriage and avoided situating the institution in a larger political context, it pointed to the professional class as the forefront of the movement to legalize same-sex marriage; the implication seemed to be that the professional class has become more affirming. It was not until the question-and-answer session that Professor Paul, prompted by a colleague, considered what exactly this class might be affirming.

In fact, what is gay marriage? Is it a celebration of sexual diversity or might it just be a way of policing acceptable brands of homosexuality? Is it about redefining the institution of marriage or fitting homosexual relationships into a patriarchal paradigm? Or maybe, it’s really just about the tax benefits. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for not making people second-class citizens, and I’m willing to be convinced of the less cynical answers to the above questions. What I mean to say is this: gay marriage does not equal queer rights.

However, in the American political system, the quest for gay marriage has largely come to signify the quest for gay rights. In the wake of the November anti-queer legislation victories, Proposition 8 quickly emerged as the legal face of homophobia. Swept under the rug, for example, was Arkansas’ Initiative 1, prohibiting same-sex couples from becoming foster parents. Surely this unequal emphasis was due in part to California’s largely unprecedented revocation of civil rights by popular vote, but I would also suggest that the lack of attention paid to anti-queer legislation around non-marital issues might be strategic. That is, considering gay marriage – opposition to which we can socially sanction by cloaking questions of civil rights in religious jargon – might not fundamentally force us to interrogate social power circulations as does, for example, adoption by same-sex couples.

Or maybe legislative (in)justice is only the tip of the iceberg. In an essay, black queer theorist Cathy Cohen writes: “Homophobia does not originate in our lack of full civil equality. Rather, homophobia arises from the nature and construction of the political, legal, economic, sexual, racial and family systems within which we live.” Cohen’s formulation underscores the ways in which framings of contemporary marriage equality movements not only come up short; they might, in some cases, actually run counter to the pursuit of queer rights. Queer theorist Michael Warner argues that “people want to make theory queer, not just have a theory about queer people.” Similarly, we might ask: are we satisfied with dominant institutions shifting to accommodate queer people, or should we ask what we can do to queer those institutions? So if gay marriage didn’t kill the big friendly dinosaurs, it’s certainly not on its way toward dismantling patriarchy.

Claire Schwartz ’10 is a political science major from New York, N.Y.