For some, it will come as no surprise that I support marriage equality (being two letters out of LGBT myself). However, a very large part of my social circle is made up of social-justice-types, and funnily enough most of these people are either sort-of against the marriage cause or very, very cynical about it.
This seems to be the standard position amongst the social-justice-types I hang out with (or Facebook with). I’ve felt pressure at times to conform – at one point, defying this pressure, I made a point to state my differing opinion loudly and clearly, and it created a clearly uncomfortable moment in the group.
The argument which social-justice-types seem to use against marriage equality is that marriage is a problematic institution, so therefore we should abolish it and not try and let LGBT people access it too. Others just point out that there are so many other more important things that we need to fight for, such as LGBT homeless or the terrifying suicide rate amongst trans people.
Let it be known that I agree with these arguments – to a point. I don’t agree with them to the point that I’m going to stop celebrating marriage equality victories, or doing what I can to move the marriage cause forward, though.
I have quite a few reasons for that. One reason is that I don’t believe abolishing marriage is a realistic political goal right now, and even if it were, there are so many more interesting things to fight for — such as helping LGBT homeless or reducing the terrifying suicide rate amongst trans people, for example! See what I did there?
My main reason for supporting marriage equality is this: Marriage inequality is the most visible, obvious way in which the law discriminates against LGBT people, and as such it has immense symbolic power.
Social-justice-types will be the first to tell you that symbols have meaning. We fight against the misgendering of trans people by the media; we boycott businesses which make homophobic ad campaigns; anti-racist activists are currently fighting to abolish the Confederate flag in the USA. We do this because we know that by changing the way we are publicly treated by society, we can change what is considered acceptable. This, in turn, has a powerful effect on the attitudes that people have towards us.
With all this in mind, I don’t see why so many social justice activists are seemingly so disinterested in the most public, obvious, famous, institutional gesture of discrimination against LGBT people there is.
The passing of marriage equality laws is a massive signal to the people of the affected country that discrimination is no longer considered acceptable. It’s basically going from the state tacitly saying that LGBT people are inferior to non-LGBT people, to saying that they have the same rights. (We still need to abolish e.g. “gay panic” laws which give murderers of gay men and trans women lighter sentences – but few people actually know about these laws, making them less powerful as symbols).
I did a little Googling to find some research to back up my assertion (which in itself is not based on research, instead on what I think are some fairly logical understandings of how humans work).
Though I think there must be something better out there – e.g. measures of LGBT acceptance in countries/states before and after marriage equality laws were passed – this study does seem to hint at that:
We asked a random sample of Iowans about their opinion on legal same-sex marriage just days before and after the Iowa Supreme Court decision was announced. ….
We find that the new policy sent a strong signal that the state’s previous law banning same-sex marriages was discriminatory. Certain groups … were most likely to change their opinion … For example, respondents between the ages of 18-25 increased their support by 4.4 percent and non-evangelicals increased their support 3.4 percent. Having LGBT friends or family increased support by 6.5 percent, all other factors held constant. These changes in opinion are substantively large considering the short time period between the telephone surveys.
This study shows support for same-sex marriage before and after marriage laws are passed. Though it’s not exactly the research we are looking for, it seems reasonable to think that people who are more favourable to same-sex marriage are also going to be more favourable to LGBT people as a whole.
This is my main reason for supporting the marriage equality cause, and it’s a big one. For me it’s big enough that I feel genuinely celebratory every time marriage equality is passed in a new state or country, not that I can find many people to celebrate with amongst my cynical leftist friends. (In case you’re wondering, I’m teasing you, guys :P).
I have a few other reasons. One is that marriage does have some genuine benefits for some people. Even if there’s lots to criticise about it, it’s nice to be guaranteed visitation rights in a hospital. On a personal note, I’ll soon marry my Russian boyfriend which will allow him to have a visa to live with me in Germany. (That said, it’s an opposite sex marriage, both on paper and in real life).
Marriage is also emotionally a big deal for many people, and while I’m unsure why the government needs to be brought into it if it’s just an emotional thing, I feel it’s insufferably grinch-like to try and take away that happiness from people.
Besides this, there are benefits to marriage that I think shouldn’t be there, but while they are there, same-sex couples should have them too. For instance, in many places you can only adopt a child if you’re married, or it’s much easier to adopt if you’re married. Also, in Germany if you’re married you pay half as much for health insurance, a significant saving.
Ultimately I have to wonder at the tendency of social justice types to always shoot down a celebration with “Yes but –“. When people were making their Facebook profile pictures rainbow coloured in support of LGBT rights, some people were arguing that cis-straight people had no right to do that because “appropriation” for some reason*. When Caitlyn Jenner got her Vanity Fair cover, social justice types were making a big deal about how she’s rich and republican. When John Oliver made his excellent video promoting trans rights, someone was complaining that he didn’t mention the specific plight of trans people of colour.
*Others among us were just, you know, happy to see that so many people were making a show of support for us.
Usually these arguments have some merit, but I have to question the context they’re brought up in. Firstly, in this context they sound like a giant “yes, but”, which somehow tells us that the good thing was not good after all. Secondly, it has this grinch-like “I’m not gonna let anyone celebrate anything!” vibe about it.
While it’s fine to criticise things and put provisos on things, I think we can still celebrate good things happening, and we can still recognise that they are good, even if they have some problematic elements too. I mean, I don’t think I’d even like Caitlyn Jenner in real life, but I’m ecstatic at the amount of visibility she’s brought to the trans community. Yes, yes, the thin, conventionally attractive, rich trans community… but it’s still the trans community. Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover was a good thing.
And so, yes, I think marriage equality is awesome. Yes, I’m going to be happy whenever a new country passes marriage equality. Yes, I’ll go party when it happens in Germany. I even have a little map from ILGA on my bedroom wall showing the advance of marriage equality in the world. If you have a problem with this, all I can say is: you’re a grinchy grinchy grinch. Nyaaah.