The queer politics of equal marriage

Nicki Smith

On Friday my Facebook page lit up with rainbow colours as my friends and colleagues celebrated the ruling of the United States (US) Supreme Court that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. After years of battle for marriage equality, it is undoubtedly a hugely important development that same-sex couples in the US are no longer formally excluded from the legal status, cultural recognition and economic entitlements that come with the right to marry. On a political level I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision, and on a personal level I love the fact that my friends and colleagues have spent the weekend toasting same-sex couples on Facebook. It is, without question, a happy moment.

I agree, however, that we should only do two cheers for equal marriage.  Like Roger N. Lancaster, I am holding back a cheer because, as so many queer scholars and activists before me have noted, equal marriage is simply not synonymous with sexual justice. Indeed, in recent years a great deal of queer scholarship has been devoted to critiquing – rather than championing – the equal marriage agenda. As Lisa Duggan, for instance, contends, queer politics in the US have come to be dominated by a wealthy, gay elite who define sexual equality very narrowly in terms of legal equality rather than more broadly in terms of economic and social justice. Similarly, Joseph DeFilippis argues that it is ‘beyond maddening’ that tens of millions of dollars have been pumped into the fight for equal marriage when there are so many lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and questioning/queer (LGBTQ) people who are in poverty, homeless, unemployed or incarcerated. The sense of triumphalism that characterises much of the reporting surrounding the Senate’s ruling is not only misplaced but is potentially damaging for queer politics and activism, for it is as if the messy business of sexual struggles can now be neatly contained within the safe domesticity of the marriage ‘contract’. And yet for queer, trans* and feminist scholars (myself included), this is simply not a case of ‘job done’ in the pursuit of sexual justice.

Quite the contrary: a central thrust of both queer and feminist theory in recent years has precisely been to critique marriage as a cultural, political and economic institution. Queer scholars are particularly interested in the concept of heteronormativity, which they use not (only) to refer to heterosexism but (also) to interrogate the valorisation of marriage and the nuclear family. Seen in this context, the equal marriage agenda clearly reinforces, rather than destabilises, heteronormative power relations. It is no accident, for instance, that equal marriage has been achieved in the UK under the very same government that brought us the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. As I have argued elsewhere, the Housing Benefit social sector size limit represents not only the cultural priviliging of heterosexist, married monogamy but also the forcible, state-sanctioned imposition of that ideal. Those who fall outside of the nuclear family (such as single parents) are not only placed on the outside of social acceptability but are, quite literally, penalised by the state for this. Given that David Cameron has been forthright in his support for equal marriage – and has even articulated it as part of his vision for Britain – then we need to ask questions about what boundaries are being drawn by the equal marriage agenda, who is being placed on the outside of such boundaries, and what work those exclusions are doing in reproducing neoliberal austerity politics.

To be sure, the answer cannot be to deny same-sex couples the right to be married, and so Friday’s ruling unambiguously marks an ocassion to be celebrated. I am not, therefore, attempting to champion marriage inequality on queer grounds. But, with Pride Month 2015 having now drawn to a close, we also cannot pretend that sexual justice either equates to, or is exhausted by, the right to be married. Among other agendas, queer theory makes space for difference and so allows for the possibility of unmarried equality. When we value and include, rather than denigrate and exclude, the unmarried, the childfree, the single parents, the families of choice, and all of the other ways that so many people live their actual lives – that’s when I will heartily enjoy doing a third cheer.

[This post is reblogged with permission from the Political Studies Association].

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