A ‘Queer’ Argument Against Marriage

Marriage equality has become a central pillar of the modern gay rights movement. Five states and the District of Columbia offer same sex marriages and a case involving California’s ban on gay marriage is expected to end up in the Supreme Court. But despite recent advances, not all gay people are so eager to ring the wedding bells. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, self-described queer activist and author of “That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation,” says gay people should stop fighting to uphold what she considers to be the failed institution of marriage.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now to a very different story about the way we live now. It is June, and among other milestones and events observed and celebrated this month, it is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. We've got a series of conversations planned about what LGBT pride means some 40 years after the modern gay rights movement was born.

But we're going to begin with an issue that, in recent years, has become a central focus of that movement: marriage - or rather, marriage equality. Five states in the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. And a judge in California is expected to decide the fate of Proposition 8, also known as the California Marriage Protection Act, which outlawed same-sex marriage in that state. Regardless of the ruling, which is expected day now, the case is widely expected to head to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now, for many gay people - in fact, for many people who are not gay, the fight for marriage equality is a fight for human dignity. Some call it the civil rights issue of our time.

But today we're going to hear a very different perspective. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is editor of the book "That's Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation." She - and she prefers she - has written widely about and spoken about what she calls the queer culture, which is a term she also prefers.

Sycamore says that gay marriage is not only the wrong fight right now, but could also have negative consequences for same gender-loving people. And she's with us now from San Francisco. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE (Editor, "That's Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation"): Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Now, Mattilda, if I could just establish one thing here. You have a masculine voice. Is that are you a biological male who prefers the female identity, or do you just like to resist rigid gender straightjackets? If I could just ask you to clarify for that - why you prefer to be she.

Ms. SYCAMORE: Yes. I was someone assigned by the medical establishment as male at birth. But I actually identify as gender queer, which means that I reject traditional notions of male and female and prefer something that's a little more - what's the word? Subversive.

MARTIN: Okay. Fair enough. And you prefer queer to gay.

Ms. SYCAMORE: Yeah. Gay has become a narrow identity based in accessing straight privilege, whereas queer, to me, includes a wider diversity of people. And it also includes a politicized standpoint that means, you know, challenging the status quo and creating new ways of loving and living with and transforming our lives and one another, and also challenging the violence of traditional institutions.

MARTIN: Now, your book really challenges what many people have come to see as the central focus of the gay rights movement at this time in this history, which is marriage. And you say that if gay marriage is about protecting citizenship, whose citizenship is being protected?

You say most people in this country, especially those who are not born rich, white, straight and male are not full citizens. Gay assimilationists want to make sure they're on the winning side in the citizenship wars, and thus they see no need to confront the legacies of systemic and U.S. oppression. Okay, well, you go on from there. But your point is that assimilation is to be resisted. Why?

Ms. SYCAMORE: I mean, if we look at the mainstream gay movement at this point, it's centered around this assimilationist access. So, you know, the dominant issues have become accessing straight privilege. So marriage, military service, adoption, ordination into the priesthood - those are all straight issues last time I checked, right?

And what's so sad is that instead of the radical roots of gay liberation you mentioned in the introduction, we look at the contemporary gay movement and it's all about, you know, we're just like you. We don't want to threaten U.S. militarism. I mean, look at this. You know, we have, you know, two wars that are going on forever in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And meanwhile, you know, the gay marriage movement is busy, like, draping themselves in the U.S. flag at every pro-marriage demonstration. And the subtext is that we want to be part of this violence and not have to be held accountable for it.

MARTIN: You say that a gay elite has hijacked queer struggle and positioned their desires as everyone's needs. The dominant signs of straight conformity have become the ultimate measures of gay success. The question I have for you is how do you that this is a gay elite and not in fact the broad desire of a broad swath of same gender loving individuals?

Ms. SYCAMORE: If we take a look at the focus, you know, this narrow focus on marriage, right, what we're told is that this is going to give us housing and health care and the right to stay in this country and tax breaks and the right to visit our, you know, the people we love in the hospital.

But, really, it's only giving that right to people who are willing to conform to this narrow notion of a long-term monogamous partnership sanctioned by the state, which really doesn't relate to the majority of people's lives -straight, gay, queer or otherwise. And so...

MARTIN: Well, how do you know that? How do you know that it doesn't relate to the majority of people who have - you know, many people feel the family is the foundation of community. The community is the foundation of all. So, why isn't family formation or forming a family a critical and crucial aspect of life?

Ms. SYCAMORE: I think forming a family is in fact a critical aspect of life. But a family should be a chosen family. So that's something we really have to learn from, you know, queer life. You know, choosing friends, you know, choosing lovers, choosing people they may or may not be in a sexual relationship with and creating long-term commitments in order to support one another. That's what's so beautiful.

And there are plenty of straight people who also live very similar lives. Very few people actually conform to this notion of what marriage is supposed to be. I mean, last time I checked, you know, marriage was a failing institution. And why are gay people now propping up this failed institution instead of creating more opportunities for everyone?

MARTIN: There's a clip that I want to play you that's apparently making the rounds of a lot of gay Web sites and, you know, social media. And it's an anti-Proposition 8 video, which is to say it's in support of same-sex marriage and it portrays two gay men who after getting married adopt a - well, how can we put this - more I think they would use the word mundane suburban lifestyle. I just want to play a short clip, and this is just the message at the end of the video. Here it is.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man: If you disagree with the homosexual lifestyle, support overturning Prop 8 and make them get married like the rest of us.

MARTIN: The implication is that this will kind of tame gay people. Is that part of your fear, that there is something distinctive about being gay - or queer, as you prefer - and that that will be lost?

Ms. SYCAMORE: Well, that's interesting. I mean, it seems that perhaps with that ad the gay marriage movement is finally admitting what it's all about, which is cultural erasure. Yeah, I mean, I agree with what you're saying - you know, we don't want to become part of any of these, you know, dominant institutions that are making the lives of so many people miserable. You know, we want to create new opportunities to love and live with one another and to challenge things that unfortunately the mainstream gay movement is completely in favor of.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with author and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. She believes that gay marriage is not in the best interest of same gender loving people.

Well, talk to me about again why you're so convinced this is a group of elites who are sort of hijacking the movement as opposed to the fact that this might be the center of gravity of same gender loving individuals.

Ms. SYCAMORE: Well, what's so sad to me is that in the early '90s, universal health care, for example, was on the verge of becoming a mainstream gay issue. So many people had come out of the AIDS crisis and seen so many of their loved ones die. And they thought, oh, well, let's see, if everyone had access to health care, maybe some of the people I loved might still be alive.

And, you know, around that time, that's when gays in the military sort of subsumed, you know, the energy of the mainstream gay movement. And then within a few years it became marriage. So, just to see how far, you know, we've gone, from talking about universal access to basic needs. So things like housing and health care and citizenship and love and, you know, someone to, you know, go to sleep with at night if you want to, these are things that everyone should have. Not just people who are willing or able to get married.

MARTIN: Part of the reason that many people have embraced marriage is not just to sort of consolidate power and, you know, property, but also because this is the way that the most vulnerable members of our society - children, seniors, people who are sick - are taken care of. They are taken care of within the context of marriage. And if relationships are all about do I want to be with you today, how are children raised? How are seniors cared for? How are people cared for when they're no longer attractive or, you know, at their best and so forth? Have you thought about that? And what do you say about that?

Ms. SYCAMORE: I think if someone wants to have a long-term, monogamous coupled partnership that's loving and caring, that's wonderful. The problem for me with the gay marriage movement is it actually limits people's options rather than increasing them. And, I mean, the thing for me is, yes, obviously there is something that people can access, you know, through marriage. If people want to say I'm doing this horrible compromise, I don't believe it in any way whatsoever, but it's the only way I can keep my health care or get my partner's health care, then I say, okay, go for that. But to say that this should be the central preoccupation of an entire movement is just horrifying to me.

MARTIN: You're saying that most people you know agree with you. That is not the message that we have been getting as this issue has been discussed in recent months. I mean, we've heard a number of religious conservatives opposing marriage equality. We've heard a number of people who are conservative in general opposing marriage equality. We've not heard a number of gay people saying - opposing gay marriage. And I'm just wondering why you think that is.

Ms. SYCAMORE: What has happened is that the, you know, gay establishment marriage movement is shutting out radical queer voices, you know, queers who are opposed to marriage. Because it's very easy for them to win an argument with a foaming-at-the-mouth Christian fundamentalist conservative who thinks that all queers are going to burn in hell, right? It's much easier to win that argument than to actually provide space for queers to have a conversation among ourselves about what we think the priorities of our movement should be.

MARTIN: Where do you think this is headed? As we mentioned, Prop 8 is scheduled to be ruled on any day, and it's probably headed for the Supreme Court, and as we've discussed at the beginning of our conversation, five states in the District of Columbia have already legalized same-sex marriage. So it does seem as though the momentum is in the direction of marriage equality. What do you think is next?

Ms. SYCAMORE: Well, I actually see that, you know, over time it does seem that there are, you know, emerging, you know, even in mainstream discourse, more opposition to something like marriage and the stranglehold it has on, you know, the sort of gay establishment agenda.

To me what is so sad, if you look at, like, Proposition 8 is actually a great example. Each side spent over $20 million. And imagine if all that money went to creating a queer youth shelter, you know, or to health care for trans people or to senior housing, like, it's just sad to me to see all the resources, 'cause it's really taking away from the resources for everything else.

MARTIN: Author and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the editor of "That's Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation." Her latest book is the novel "So Many Ways to Sleep Badly" - is also out now.

Mattilda, I thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. SYCAMORE: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.

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