Nathaniel Frank, director of the What We Know Project, is the author of “Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America.” Follow @nfrankresearch
This month’s 50th anniversary of Stonewall, the Greenwich Village uprising that launched the modern LGBT movement, was always going to be complicated. What may seem like a straightforward chance to celebrate progress actually masks a fault line that has divided our movement since its start: whether our goal is equality or liberation, a fight for the right to be treated like everyone else or the freedom to be authentically ourselves. Do we seek belonging in the world as it is (including the military, marriage and parenting) or the chance to transform the world, by throwing off repressive norms, into a place where all of us — queer and non-queer alike — can be more free?
For those who prize the latter — call them “liberationists” — nothing better symbolizes the wish to assimilate than same-sex marriage, and in reflecting on Stonewall’s legacy, they’ve often chided the movement for going in the wrong direction. Martin Duberman, an eminent historian and elder statesman of queer intelligentsia, frets that “what has been most innovative” about LGBT life may be “abandoned or wholly concealed” by the focus on marriage and fitting in. For decades, gay activists like Duberman, many of whom cut their teeth in the counterculture of the 1960s and helped pioneer the sexual liberation of the 1970s, wanted little to do with marriage, finding it conformist, exclusionary and conservative. It would leave behind those who didn’t have, or want, a spouse. It seemed a sell-out to mainstream culture and a threat to the almost utopian alternatives these activists sought: vanguard communities built around bonds of sex, friendship and caretaking that didn’t rely on the approval of their elders or the state.
The liberationist critique is not new, but it has gathered strength in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court case that effectively ended the debate over same-sex marriage by legalizing it. A well-reviewed new book by gay psychologist Walt Odets, “Out of the Shadows,” bemoans the “mimicking and misrepresentation” of marriage, urging that the unique forms of LGBT life “not be relinquished to meet the expectations of a pathological society.” A New Yorker column argues that same-sex marriage is “a right held most dearly by affluent whites.” The rhetorical question of Duberman’s recent book title pithily summarizes the liberationist critique: “Has the Gay Movement Failed?”
With President Trump’s rise and the attendant backlash against minority rights of all stripes, it can be tempting to regard marriage equality as a luxury that missed, or even derailed, the more radical struggle for LGBT freedom begun at Stonewall. After all, that 1969 rebellion against cops who raided a Manhattan gay bar, in which demonstrators hurled years of derision and abuse from society back upon their oppressors, contained a world-changing early promise. Yet the notion that access to marriage — and other key markers of first-class citizenship — was a minor achievement or a side show to the larger LGBT agenda is an unfortunate and dangerous instance of revisionist history. These accomplishments haven’t just lifted the fortunes of millions of gay men and lesbians. They’ve helped achieve precisely the kind of liberation that Stonewall’s most ardent liberationists envisioned: the freedom to be ourselves.
Marriage as a goal was never uncomplicated for the LGBT community… Read more via Washington Post