OFFICE HOURS: Should Activists Focus on Same-Sex Marriage?


Note: This article is part of PolicyMic's Office Hours, in which professors weigh in on topics of expertise. Ask questions and respond to the article, and the professor will reply to your comments.

The legalization of same-sex marriage in New York this June was, predictably, widely viewed as a positive thing for the gay rights movement. The work necessary to pass the bill illustrated how deeply entrenched opposition to gay rights is, even in a “liberal” state. Pro-gay rights groups felt compelled to spend millions of dollars in lobbying and advertising, volunteers contributed countless hours, and Governor Andrew Cuomo had to spend a lot of time personally dealing with reluctant state senators from both parties.


If you are not very familiar with LGBT (or LGBTQ, or LGBTQI … take your pick) activism, you might assume that everyone who is gay, or an ally, is happy with the progress on the issue of same-sex marriage. This is the perception one gets reading most standard news sources. However, some gay rights activists are concerned with, or downright angry at, what they believe is an obsession with marriage within the movement. While I feel that some of these concerns are legitimate, I ultimately believe that the fight to legalize same-sex marriage is an important one and deserves fairly substantial attention and resources. However, the degree of attention and resources it has received is problematic, and activists need to reflect and potentially reassess if it deserves all of the time and resources devoted it.


Ever since some gay rights activists began fighting for same-sex marriage, others have debated whether same-sex marriage is a good idea. Very broadly, concerns over same-sex marriage within the gay rights movement can be put into two groups. One type questions whether marriage is desirable in the first place. The concerns of most in this camp are that marriage is a very conservative, repressive social institution. They argue the gay rights movement should challenge social norms about sex and gender, and should not seek acceptance into an institution with rigidly defined gender roles that has historically resulted in repression of women, and human sexuality. In short, gay activists should challenge the legitimacy of such institutions and ultimately seek to dismantle them. (For an example of this, see Against Equality.)


The other type of concern accepts that marriage is a good social institution and that same-sex couples should have access to it. However, they worry that the gay rights movement has focused on this issue at the expense of others. For example, despite stereotypes to the contrary, LGBT individuals are at least as likely as heterosexuals, and arguably more likely, to live in poverty (controlling for other demographic factors); there is still a major epidemic of AIDS in the community; and anti-LGBT violence continues.


In an article that appeared in February’s ZMagazine, journalist and activist Lisa Dettmer quotes several gay rights activists who observe that funding for individuals with AIDS has been decimated. They claim that the gay rights movement’s focus on marriage has made it easier for government officials to make those cuts. These activists also claim that it is difficult to get donations for health care clinics for LGBT individuals from the same donors who donate to same-sex marriage organizations.


I am very disheartened that fighting for same-sex marriage has used up so much time and money (pro-same-sex marriage organizations spent $43 million in the fight over Proposition 8 alone). And, if the activists quoted in Dettmer’s article are correct that the obsession within the movement (and the media) over marriage has resulted in decreased funding for other issues important to many within the LGBT community, then everyone in that community, including allies, should be concerned.


Still, I’m reluctant to go as far as these critics. Groups have to fight for same-sex marriage because anti-gay politicians and the people who vote for them force activists to fight. While gay rights activists may criticize those within the movement because they have a greater chance of getting them to listen than, say, a politician, I think they may be taking out their frustrations on the wrong people.


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