Ah, marriage equality. Historian, pioneer of LGBTQ studies, and social-justice advocate Martin Duberman knows that a majority of LGBTQ people – or a majority of those who make their opinions known – cared about that issue. They wanted it on the agenda.
He’s not happy about that. In his new book, Has the Gay Movement Failed?, he describes the goal of marriage equality as assimilationist. So, too, is open service in the military, another cause promoted by the Human Rights Campaign, the largest and richest gay organization. It wasn’t always that way. After Stonewall, Duberman explains, radical groups such as the Gay Liberation Front pursued the more daring and ambitious goal of transforming society instead of fitting into it.
Martin Duberman does not think that benefits and protections should be doled out based on marital status. And he believes that we should all be able to decide for ourselves who counts as the important people in our lives and how we want to live.
“From the beginning, the leaders of the gay marriage movement fought for those who looked exactly like the “ideal” straight couple – a two-person monogamous unit. Nontraditional families need not apply – no blended households of spinster siblings or senior citizens, no polyamorous lovers, no adult children serving as caretakers to elderly parents, no extended kinship networks or cross-generational partnerships…Most important, in terms of sheer numbers alone, no “queer” notions would be entertained about ending the assorted privileges that attend state-sanctioned marriage and instead making them available to everyone as universal rights. As the writer-activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore plaintively asked, “When did our dreams get so small?””
The dream of marriage equality counts as a small one in several ways. For one thing, it privileges a small, unrepresentative segment of gay Americans, and marginalizes the others. “Most gay Americans,” Duberman notes, “are working class.” Their chief issues include “health care, homelessness, deportation, lack of full-time employment, low pay, and violence in the workplace,” not marriage equality.
By positioning gays as “just folks,” just like everyone else, Duberman asks, “are we disguising or disavowing the many ways in which we do in fact stand culturally apart from the mainstream – essential ways, of value not only to ourselves but also potentially to the mainstream?”
A related way that the dream of marriage equality counts as small stuff is that it discourages critical and original thinking:
“To become more like them would be to forget our own singular history and the special insights and perspectives that derive from it, giving us, as spies in the culture, a unique perspective for evaluating and critiquing aspects of the mainstream culture.”
The Human Rights Campaign is now moving on to new issues. In 2017, the group announced that it was pursuing the kind of “comprehensive LGBTQ rights bill our families have been waiting for.”
Duberman’s heart is not melted by the sentimentality of “our families.” Instead, he is repulsed:
““Our families”? That’s a chilling phrase. Not only does it exclude single people (unless they’re parenting), but it makes no mention of outreach to any of the more innovative family structures that have been proliferating across the country…”
No Assumptions Get a Pass – Not Even the Flattering Ones
It is tempting, when you are advocating for a group that has been stigmatized and pummeled, to take easy wins where you can get them. Martin Duberman does not do that. He interrogates every presumption, even the comfortable and kind ones. For example, rather than embracing the slogan, “Gay Is Good,” Duberman calls it fatuous:
“That sort of self-aggrandizing sloganeering is a disservice on several levels: since life is hard for damned-near everyone, it suggests that we’re somehow immune – rather than uncommonly susceptible – to the everyday hazards of being alive. It also keeps us from acknowledging to ourselves the particular pitfalls of being gay – an essential first step in learning how to cope with them.”
As for “Gay Pride,” Duberman believes it “should be seen as an aspiration, not a settled accomplishment.” He argues that when LGBTQ people feel isolated and depressed, society’s “lethal mistreatment” of them shoulders a nontrivial share of the blame. “Why don’t we,” he asks, “wake up politically, mobilize our collective strength, and actively assail the engulfing walls of prejudice that enclose us…?”
Duberman has long been a proponent of thinking outside of the nuclear family box in considering how to live or who to count as family. And yet, he questions what he calls the “common mantra” that friendship networks are better than conventional families. Sure, he acknowledges, that is sometimes true. But even in networks in which everyone is gay, some people will still get rejected for some of the same kinds of characteristics (race, weight, income) that can get them rejected anywhere.
Do you expect Duberman to be onboard with the assumption that homosexuality is inborn? That, he says, is an edict from the Human Rights Campaign. Based on a deep dive into the relevant “scientific” literature (the scare quotes are Duberman’s), he demurs. In the ten pages that close the chapter, “Equality or Liberation?”, he offers a critical appraisal of writings on the “cause” of sexual orientation and spells out more complex ways of thinking.
As you may have surmised, Duberman is not a single-issue, LGBTQ-only advocate. His vision of social justice is far-ranging, encompassing issues such as “racism, a guaranteed annual income, universal child care and parental leave, prison reform, immigration policy.” He wants LGBTQ activists to team up with groups championing those causes, even if, as he acknowledges, those groups show little interest in reaching out to them.
What Martin Duberman wants is what the Gay Liberation Front wanted all those years ago:
“…more than incorporation into the status quo – more for the country as a whole, not just for gay people. It hoped to raise consciousness nationwide about ingrained American racism and imperialism, and it challenged as well a national mindset that equated heterosexuality with normalcy, the nuclear family with optimal human happiness, and dichotomous gender roles with divine intervention.”
[Note: This post was adapted from a column originally published at Unmarried Equality (UE), with the organization’s permission. The opinions expressed are my own. For links to previous UE columns, click here.]