Gay marriage: good for election coffers, not so great for equality
After Barack Obama's sudden conversion, gay couples who mimic heterosexual relations will be more equal than others
IT STARTED with lesbian couples in Vermont in the mid-1990s, freaked out they'd lose their babies. Vermont Freedom to Marry was born, and is now the most powerful Democratic organisation in the state, most certainly responsible for the victory of Governor Peter Shumlin, elected in November 2010 and, nine months later, the first sitting governor in the United States to preside over a same-sex wedding ceremony.
Fairly early on, gay marriage lobbying groups realised that whatever else, they had a gigantic money-raising machine on their hands. Not long thereafter, the right wing realised the same thing. John Scagliotti, maker of Before Stonewall, a famous movie about the birth of the gay movement, says he reckons gay marriage is so potent a fundraising tool because whereas it's hard to visualise anti-discrimination, it's not at all hard to visualise two men or two women saying, "We do."
So Obama didn't really have too much of a choice, though it wasn't risk-free, since there are a lot of straight voters out there, as in the state of North Carolina which recently voted overwhelmingly against gay marriage, who simply don't like same-sexers getting hitched.
But many of Obama's key organisers felt he was selling out on the issue. 'Obama's gay marriage stance sets off money rush' was the headline in the Chicago Tribune. According to MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, one-out-of-six of the 'bundlers' in Obama's fund-raising machine is gay. (Bundlers are fundraisers whose success at bringing in specific amounts of money is tracked by the candidate they are supporting. Often, they receive honorific titles for surpassing certain thresholds.) Now they'll be toiling with tripled ardour, and the recent huge Hollywood fundraiser hosted by George Clooney probably saw a last-minute surge in big contributions.
Cynics suggest that the timing of Obama's announcement that "I've just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married" might have had something to do with that event.
I think gay marriage is an incredibly boring subject, though I do like to hear right-wingers say that it will bring the whole edifice of western civilisation crashing down. It's hard these days to find such messages of good cheer. I don't yearn for such a union, so have no personal stake in the issue. Occasionally, my gay friends tell me they've got married. They never seem especially exuberant.
So the liberal progressives glory in Obama's "courage" and many a doubting heart about the President's betrayals is lighter and more forgiving. Trashing the constitution, green-lighting torture, claiming the unilateral right to order the execution of anyone, anywhere on the planet… wiped clean off the windscreen.
There are many tricky questions, particularly now that morals and the surgeon's knife have deepened their own relationship. What happens, when someone who's had a sex change, who is already receiving domestic partner benefits at work for his male partner, goes through sex reassignment surgery and acquires the physical impedimenta of the opposite sex? Should the couple lose their benefits until they get legally married?
Many gays don't see marriage as a great step forward. Like Obama only two years ago, they say civil unions would have been enough.
"The pursuit of marriage in the name of equality," says Bill Dobbs, radical gay organiser, "shows how the gay imagination is shrivelling."
Judith Butler, professor at UC Berkeley, has exhibited similar disquiet: "It's very hard to speak freely right now, but many gay people are uncomfortable with all this, because they feel their sense of an alternative movement is dying. Sexual politics was supposed to be about finding alternatives to marriage."
As Jim Eigo, a writer and gay activist puts it, what's the use of being queer if you can't be different? "Why are current mainstream gay organisations working to strike a bargain with straight society that will make some queers less equal than others? Under its terms, gays who are willing to mimic heterosexual relations and enter into a legally-enforced lifetime sexual bond with one other person will be granted special benefits and status to be withheld from those who refuse such domestication...
"Marriage has no more place in efforts to achieve equality than slavery or the divine right of kings. At this juncture in history, wouldn't it make more sense for us to try to figure out how to relieve heterosexuals of the outdated shackles of matrimony?"
And why marriage to just one person? Why this endless replication of the Noah's Ark principle?