Sunday, August 20, 2006

Gay marriage: Retreat of the Exclusionists

After twenty-five years of obscure gestation, the gay-marriage issue moved front and center a decade ago. During this period I supported the goal of gay marriage. My commitment came with two provisos: that it be done in a way that the change would be accepted by the American people, and that it be achieved within the framework of a broad set of options. To me these provisions signify fairness and pluralism.

In maintaining this position I had to joust with my colleagues at the IGF, the Independent Gay Forum ( I have been associated with this group for a number of years, though mainly as a dissident. Hence the paucity of my contributions posted on that site. They have been kind enough to list my own site,, on their sidebar. So it seems we agree to disagree.

While the larger aim of the IGF has been to generate a nonleft approach to homosexuality, it has developed a particular focus on gay marriage. The majority of the members support what I term an Exclusionist approach. This is to say, the only form of coupled relationship that should receive state sanction is full marriage. In this way gay marriage will be, so it is hoped, seamlessly merged with traditional heterosexual marriage. This is often presented as a conservative step, part of a larger effort to “save” marriage, widely perceived as endangered. Indeed, some IGFers actually favor making divorce harder to get.

And here we turn to what for me is the most repellent aspect of the Exclusionist approach. As soon as gay marriage is secured, the protections of domestic partnership and civil unions must be swept away. To some extent this tendency to excision is happening in Massachusetts, though not out of high principle, but from a desire of business firms to save money. Since not all the couples in domestic-partnership arrangements will elect marriage, the employers will pay out fewer benefits.

What is the reason for seeking to herd gay men and lesbians into marriage by denying other means of securing their benefits? As I noted, it is presented as a conservative solution. But is it? In this light the deafening silence of conservative politicians and pundits is remarkable. To the best of my knowledge only one of the latter group, David Brooks, has endorsed gay marriage. The politicians, including Al Sharpton and Robert Reich, have all been Democrats.

The real reason for the Exclusionist position is I think different. In common with some other gays, sometimes termed assimilationists, they dislike the acting out on display at gay pride marches and other public events. Above all they hate “promiscuity,” though sexual pluralism has been prevalent among gay men for generations. While there is a reluctance to say so, the Exclusionists clearly wish to t a m e gay men. In principle this aim is little different from the earlier effort to cure us, by turning us into heterosexuals. The difference is that gay men are allowed to have gay sex—but only if they get married. In discussing the matter with leading Exclusionists I have argued that this is a grotesque and unworkable demand. All to no avail, as they seem unshakeable in their convictions. But it seems that a dose of reality has come their way.

Common to many sectors of the gay-marriage movement-—not just the Exclusionists--is a powerful tug of wishful thinking. This reflects a general psychological tendency to hope that some desired change will bring a whole range of other improvements. We have all been visited by such thoughts as the following--“If only I could get that ideal job” or “If only I could move permanently to Italy as I have always longed to do”—-then, as the mechanism of wish-fulfillment has it, everything else in my life would be perfect. In reality, things rarely work out that way.

That is how it is, it seems to me, with same-sex marriage. For a few couples, the right to marry might prove marvelously transformative, but for most it dturn out to be a modest, but valuable advance, significant for its symbolism, and also for the tangible benefits. The halo effect is not guaranteed. For most the change will not mean that one will always be happy, be able to discard one’s alcoholism, and so forth.

So too for gay men and lesbians collectively. Gay marriage is not a magic bullet that will get rid of homophobia, including the insidious internalized homophobia that lowers self-esteem. The good news is that homophobia is in retreat. But its final disappearance is many years away, and will result from a combination of factors, of which gay marriage is but one.

With the setbacks in the high courts of New York and Washington State it was clear that we had reached a crossroads. Most are ready to abandon the elitist strategy of obtaining gay marriage by court fiat. Never a good plan in itself, the strategy was largely responsible for engendering the huge backlash we have experienced in the heartland.

A few weeks ago came a promising development that has received wide publicity—and rightly so. The gist is revealed in the following press release:

“Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Activists Offer New Vision for Marriage Debate “

“Hoping to move beyond the narrow confines of marriage politics in the United States today, a coalition of leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists have issued a major statement titled, Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Families and Relationships. Endorsed by over 250 notable signatories, the statement offers a new vision for securing governmental and private institutional recognition of diverse partnerships, households, kinship relationships and families. While the document supports efforts to secure marriage equality for LGBT couples, it also states that "marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others." The signers say that the struggle for marriage rights should be part of a larger effort to strengthen the stability and security of diverse households and families. Authored by a group of nearly twenty LGBT and queer organizers, scholars, lawyers, funders and writers, Beyond Same-Sex Marriage advocates for a flexible set of economic benefits and options, regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender/gender identity, class, or citizenship status. The document calls for:

-- Legal recognition for a wide range of relationships, households and families - regardless of kinship or conjugal status.
-- Access for all, regardless of marital or citizenship status, to vital government support programs including but not limited to health care, housing, Social Security and pension plans, disaster recovery assistance, unemployment insurance and welfare assistance.
-- Separation of church and state in all matters, including regulation and recognition of relationships, households and families.
-- Freedom from state regulation of our sexual lives and gender choices, identities and expression.

“One of the statement authors, Kendall Thomas, Nash Professor of Law at Columbia University, says Beyond Same-Sex Marriage links the current campaign for marriage equality to a democratic vision of social justice for all our families. Thomas adds that "its defense of what we owe alternative families recognizes and respects the lives of ordinary people who struggle daily in communities across America to build and sustain networks of mutual care and commitment."
“American University Law Professor Nancy Polikoff, who has written and litigated cases about lesbian and gay families for 30 years, says that "all family forms other than the heterosexual nuclear family are excluded from the legal advantages that married couples receive." Polikoff lists denial of health coverage, hospital visitation, medical decision-making, pension and social security survivor's benefits among these legal advantages. "The solution that Beyond Same-Sex Marriage proposes" she says, "is to change our laws and policies so that marriage does not receive 'special rights' denied other family forms." Authors of the statement observe that the LGBT movement's focus on marriage equality as a stand-alone issue has "left us isolated and vulnerable to a virulent backlash." They back same-sex marriage equality as a way to secure rights and benefits for some LGBT families, but say that the LGBT movement must "respond to the full scope of the conservative marriage agenda by building alliances across issues and constituencies." “Joseph N. DeFilippis, Executive Director of Queers for Economic Justice, observes that "the fact that this document was signed on to by non-gay celebrities, as well as academics, LGBT activists and organizers, lawyers, and world-renowned artists, speaks to the great hunger for a strategy that is different, and more expansive. It is obvious that people feel that our current strategies have failed to recognize the ways in which we actually lead our real lives, and the protections that all people deserve, regardless of whether they are coupled." Beyond Same-Sex Marriage notes that "U.S. Census findings tell us that a majority of people do not live in traditional nuclear families." The statement cites single parent households, senior citizens, blended and extended families, adult children caring for their parents, close friends or siblings living together, and care-givers for those living with extended illness as constituencies who "will be helped by separating basic forms of legal and economic recognition from the requirement of marital and conjugal relationship."
"For the African-American community, marriage has never been the only way we make or define our families," says Kenyon Farrow, Black gay activist . "Beyond Same-Sex Marriage can shape policies to give dignity and protection to all of our families." Loraine Hutchins, sex educator and co-editor of Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out, says "the relationships of bisexual people often get neglected and misunderstood in the larger debate over same-sex marriage. Finally an inclusive statement that highlights all the ways we make families and love each other, and asserts their equality and worthiness."

The full text of Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Relationships and Families, along with a current list of signatories, is available at It includes a short Executive Summary, as well as the full document.

At its core the BSSM statement reflects what I believed for the last ten years. I happily signed it.

Not surprisingly response from the Exclusionists has been negative. The following comments, which represent my own views, benefit from the debate between Jonathan Rauch, the most assiduous and resourceful defender of the Exclusionist position, and Robert George, a professor at Princeton and conservative opponent of gay marriage. Full texts of these incisive contributions are readily available at the site.

As George rightly notes, “Rauch recognizes the statement’s potential to damage his cause, and he labors mightily to stave off the harm.” In my view the defensive effort has failed.

First, the authors of “Beyond Same-Sex” marriage are not opposed to gay marriage, as Rauch implied. “What they’re saying has no particular link to same-sex marriage.” Nonsense. The signers are for gay marriage as part of a larger array of options. What they are against is a particularly narrow version of it. Here again Robert George is on the mark: “Rauch’s insinuation that many or most of the signatories are actually opponents of same-sex marriage is falsified by the statement’s explicit recognition of ‘the struggle for same-sex marriage rights’ as ‘part of a larger effort to strengthen the security and stability of diverse households and families.’ So while it is true that the signatories want more than gay marriage—it is part of a larger struggle—they want gay marriage.”

Supporters of gay marriage often present their cause as one of equality. Indeed, but Exclusionism is not equality. The BSSM position does represent equality, for it extends the vision of a range of solutions for gays and lesbians, for heterosexuals, and for those in between. Above all it suggests a way forward, and not a return to a mythical past, which in my view is what Exclusionism represents.

Jonathan Rauch suggests two reasons for doubting the bona fides of those who have signed the statement, first that they are not experts in the field of gay marriage, and second that they are “radicals.” He states the first point as follows: ”Few if any of the signers have been leaders of the gay-marriage movement.” What does this have to do with the price of wheat? Or oats? Surely any informed citizen has a right to comment on an important public policy issue. And what qualifies one as an expert? As a senior gay scholar, I have written many thousands of words on the issue. I signed the statement without qualms. I don’t think that it matters whether I am an expert or not. What matters is the quality of my arguments.

As to the claim that the signers are radicals, this verges on a McCarthyist allegation of guilt by association. We should be beyond this now. Of course, many of the signers are progressives. Others, however, such as myself, are not. .

Robert George makes another valuable point. “[Rauch] observes that the signatories to 'Beyond Same-Sex Marriage' do not want marriage to be privileged over alternative family forms. Same-sex and multiple-partner ‘marriages’ should be recognized as marriages, they believe, because ‘love makes a family.’ But even people who are not, and perhaps cannot be, married can love each other and express that love sexually. Therefore, the signatories insist, law cannot justly treat them as if they are not a family. That is a form of invidious discrimination—just like discrimination against same-sex partners in historic marriage law. Now one can disagree with their premise—I certainly do—but if we accept their premise-—a premise that is central to any principled argument for abolishing the requirement of sexual complementarity in defining the marriage—-their conclusion becomes difficult to resist.”

Coming close together, the defeats of the high courts and the BSSM statement authored by Joseph DeFilippis and others indicate that we are at a turning point. Rauch and others can still staunchly defend their Exclusionist program. But it is not relevant any more.

There must be no more judge-shopping, seeking to attain gay marriage in individual states by legal fiat. And we must not allow ourselves to be stampeded into adopting a narrow, Exclusionist definition of same-sex marriage.

The drafters of the statement have taken a great step towards a much-need maximization of arrangements for couples. It will take some time to work out the theory of these changes. So be it. We have been waiting quite a time now for gay marriage. Surely we can wait a little longer, and get it right.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. Sometimes I wonder (as a gay man) if the fight for gay marriage is just for the sake of fighting. Victory is nice but we need to be more thoughtful and pragmatic about it.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Sir-real said...

indeed, your article is poignant. in response to the comment posted by fc 7-57-04, thoughtfulness and pragmatism are essential but unity and coherence of vision on the part of the entire community is essential as well...

keep up the great writing...

7:40 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home