Get Your Laws Off Our Bodies and Your Feet Off Our Necks

Introductory Remarks for Gay Marriage Forum at ASA conference 8-13-04
Deeg Gold, LAGAI Queer Insurrection

LAGAI – Queer Insurrection was formed in 1983 from the lesbian and gay outreach committee for a San Francisco initiative campaign to oppose U.S. intervention in Central America, and was originally, and appropriately enough called Lesbians and Gays Against Intervention in Latin America. A few name changes later, we remain a queer liberation group. We publish UltraViolet, which started as OUT! in 1989; We have worked to support queers on almost every continent, we were very active in the AIDS movement, and, most relevantly for this forum, we were, as far as we know, the first group to put on a mass gay divorce, in 1996, which included a dish toss, and “go your separate ways” travel agency. And I’m going to try to explain how we, as queer liberation activists, as anti-assimilationists, view the struggle for state recognition of gay marriage.

As a queer liberation group, we of course oppose all attempts to deny queers their civil rights, including laws that discriminate against same sex marriages. We worked against the Knight Initiative, including putting out our ground breaking poster, Same Sex Marriage Isn’t Just for Queers, Straight Men Need It Most.

But let me make it clear that there is no ban on gay marriage, there is only a refusal by the state to recognize gay marriage. I knew lesbians who married in the early 1970’s. Lesbians and gay men marry, or have commitment ceremonies or throw parties, or do whatever they please to celebrate their relationships. The issue in this fight is whether the state will recognize gay people as married and accord them the over 1000 special rights that advocates of state recognition of gay marriage have cataloged. The question is not whether there is an inequality - there is, or whether the inequality should be allowed to persist - it shouldn’t, but how it should be remedied.

In 1969, the gay liberation movement distinguished itself from the rights organizations that preceded it, by declaring that we were not “as good as straight” people, we were way more fabulous, and if they, to borrow an image from the Black Panther Party, would just get their feet off our necks, we could create a fantastic and free world. We condemned their wretched straight society, and identified with other liberation movements. Gay liberation said there aren’t straight people and gay people who need equal rights, but rather the gay person in everyone needs liberating. And we made fun of their nuclear families and their weddings – I remember this huge drag-queen wedding in Yellow Springs, OH, where they did this incredible version of Going to the Chapel. And this at a time when in Ohio you could be arrested if you weren’t wearing at least three items of your birth gender’s clothing.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual relationships exist in almost infinite variety – precisely because we have not had to shoehorn our relationships into the nuclear family model. We have created relationships that work, or don’t, for us – whether they last 30 minutes or 30 years, whether they’re open or exclusive, whether they’re primary or occasional, long-distance or completely merged. There is no legitimate reason for us to seek to privilege one type of relationship.

A basic gay liberation demand has been that the state has no right to tell us who or how we should love. It was on that basis that we fought against the sodomy laws. It was consistent with the women’s liberation demand to “get your laws off my body.”

Since Stonewall, and no doubt before, there has been a tension between the assimilationists and the liberationists. We disagreed about gays in the military. Our position was that it might be a civil right to join the military (and we opposed the persecution of gays in the military) but it is a human right to stay out. Ban the army not the queers was our slogan at the March on Washington. It was in this context that some friends of ours we think originated the slogan, “Assimilation Is Not Liberation.”

While marriage privilege advocates focus on the discrimination they face relative to straight married couples, they ignore the vast inequality that the legal privileging of gay marriage will bring into our community. Up until now, the lack of legal status for our relationships has left us all to try to create whatever vehicles we could to protect each other. Karen Thompson’s seven year legal battle to bring her lover Sharon Kowalski home created new case law, and also led to people utilizing legal instruments like the durable power of attorney for health care. The Center for Lesbian Rights led the fight for second-parent adoption to deal with some of the problems that occur in establishing ownership of children outside of marriage. Hospitals, confronted with the AIDS crisis and our extended friendship circles were pressured to adopt new visiting policies.

I can not imagine surviving the early years of the AIDS crisis divided into little nuclear family-style households. It was our ability to form circles of loving friends, to recognize people who needed more support, to put someone other than our lover as primary in our lives for the time that was necessary, that enabled us to care for each other.

Marriage privilege advocates explain that by marrying, partners can extend health care and other economic benefits, immigration status and other legal benefits, to at least one other person. And I would feel a lot better about that argument if we just lined up everyone who has health care and everyone who doesn’t, and we made a match. But we all know that isn’t the case. The real solution to lack of access to health care is to build, or rebuild, a movement that creates a human right to health care in this society. And what happens to the rights and privileges you had access to by marriage when you break up?

The institution of marriage is based on property rights and inheritance. Originally created to ensure that men could establish paternity, and therefore ownership of their children, it has been modified to make women more equal in it. For example, it is now no longer legal in any state, thanks to two decades of struggle, for a man to rape his wife, although it is still a lesser and more restricted crime in most states, including California. I don’t know if the special treatment for marital rape is one of the 1000 goodies that we are hoping to gain by legally recognizing gay marriage.

Privileging gay marriage will give some clear benefits to some queers. And those who advocate this strategy expect my support. But I want to understand something. What exactly has their willingness to enter into the most heteronormative of relationships done that should give them 1000 more rights than I have? I’m not trying to brag, but I’ve been an activist for social justice since I was 10. I’ve been hit by cops, I’ve walked picket lines, I’ve attended hundreds if not a thousand demonstrations, and I imagine I’ve attended well over a thousand meetings. I blocked the Golden Gate Bridge and Stopped the opera to stop AIDS. I’ve been a queer activist for 34 years. So why, exactly, should I not have those same rights? I’m not married, I don’t want to be married, but I have friends who need health care and there are certainly days that I’d like any help I can get to emigrate.

There is an alternative to arguing for privileging gay marriages equally with straight ones, and that is to make the argument we have been making since Stonewall – neither the church nor the state has a right to tell us who or how we will love. Instead of fighting to legalize gay marriage, we should be opposing conditioning any right or benefit on relationship status. During the Knight campaign, we produced this satirical pamphlet supporting the Relationship Equality Act, but perhaps its time has come.

I have no idea how this legal fight to recognize or ban recognition of gay marriage will play out. To me it seems pretty clear that the religious right wants to have it both ways – they want to define marriage by their religious doctrine, and then accord it civil privileges. It’s important that they fail. But the struggle for legal recognition of gay marriage, however heroic some of the people are being in this struggle, is straight-jacketting, it’s heteronormalizing our vision and our communities. Heterosexual marriage is nothing to seek equality with. The heterosexual nuclear family is one of the most violent places on earth. We are NOT homosexual versions of straight people and our relationships do not mimic theirs. We are oppressed peoples who fight daily for our right to be who we are and love who we will. Our struggle is not with getting some slice of the pie for a small fraction of our community, but in creating a new and just society in our image.