As March approaches and the Supreme Court of the United States of America prepares to hear monumental cases in the movement for LGBTQ equality, I have to make a confession: I don’t think marriage equality is the ultimate answer. Before I’m ushered off the advocacy stage, lampooned as a heretic and told never to speak again, I want to make myself clear. Marriage equality should and must become a reality in this country. Women and men, regardless of orientation, should know that they live in a world where their marriage commitment is one that is recognized at both state and federal levels. Because of this, as a gay man, I will throw the full force of my energy toward this campaign. However, what troubles me with the growing passion for marriage equality in both queer and straight communities is that, if we are not careful, it has the potential to diminish the real issue at hand — that LGBTQ women and men do not have moral equality with their straight counterparts in this country.
In the same way that sexism did not die after women secured the right to vote in 1920, and racism persisted after schools were desegregated in 1954, homophobia, which is the real problem I am interested in eradicating, will not end once I gain the right to legally marry a partner of the same-sex. Like pulling up a weed from the flower, token victories, while undoubtedly important, can cloud our vision and prevent us from fighting against the root of social systems that make such victories necessary in the first place. In her seminal novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston’s main character Janie is bound up in her grandmother’s dream for her future.
“She was borned in slavery time,” Janie says, “ when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me — don’t keer what it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere” (114). Like her grandmother hoped, Janie eventually made it onto a porch of her own: the wife of a mayor, the possessor of money, Janie lived a life that her grandmother thought was only possible for white women. Once she got there, however, she found herself profoundly dissatisfied. “De object was tuh git dere,” she continues, “So I got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere” (114). What Hurston captures here is profound, not only for black Americans but for the LGBTQ community as well. Janie doesn’t desire a freedom to be like the white woman, as if the white woman is somehow the paragon of success; she desires a freedom to be herself — a beautiful black agent in the world, whose future may or may not look like the ones she has seen before.
Like Janie and her struggle against racism, I want to be celebrated because I am gay, not because I suddenly look more straight. I don’t desire to sit upon the stool of marriage because it makes people choosing to live the homophobic lifestyle more comfortable with me. I do not want to be socially celebrated because I am now able to fit myself into a heterosexual, morally acceptable category. I want to be afforded a place at the socio-political table because I, as a human being — marital status and sexual orientation aside — deserve that respect. I want LGBTQ people to be recognized as morally equal agents in this world. While marriage equality undoubtedly moves us in that direction — pushing us closer to a world free of legalized homophobic discrimination — we must remember that it is exactly that: a step, not a solution. LGBTQ people deserve to be the authors of their unique futures, ones that may coincidentally look similar to the lives of their straight counterparts but that aren’t required to do so. Marriage equality must be one of our goals, but it cannot be our end.