In massive acts of civil disobedience, queer-positive officials launched gay marriage for their constituents this month. Diverse queer opinions about the value of marriage aside, the officials did one thing indisputably right: acting in the public interest, they took action against the deep American well of hatred against queers emerging in the marriage debate.
The act undertaken by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom so shocked the queer community that thousands of us dropped everything and crossed state lines to get officially hitched, including plenty who hadn’t previously been interested in marrying but were moved to participate.
Newsom’s act so shocked our government that it was forced to go on the offensive. Forgetting that he’s not the Holy Father, George W. Bush called for a Constitutional amendment to codify the one part of marriage that comes solely from religion: its heterosexuality.
That’s what acts of civil disobedience do––expose a conflict so starkly that people are startled into action, and no one can pretend to be neutral. Tienenmen Square’s tank-blocking students launched a sudden international response to decades-old repression. Irish queers’ insistence on being visible on St. Patrick’s Day brought the homophobia of the NYPD, the courts, and the Catholic Church into plain sight, out from the closed corridors of power. Civil disobedience is the opposite of invisibility, of going along.
Direct action became a finely honed weapon against those who tried to invisibilize us, climaxing with office takeovers by thousands of ACT UPers and insanely media-savvy Lesbian Avengers’ actions. But later, the community fell prey to apathy, assimilation, and the AIDS deaths of many of our fiercest. Some would say we’ve gained a foothold in politics, courted by electeds on some issues even if we’re still sold out in other ways. Regardless, it’s our loss to have traded the power of queer bodies in the street for an ethereal electoral clout that depends largely on the weight of our pocketbooks and our success in seeming “normal.” It’s been our loss to tie our fates to politicians and institutional machinery we don’t control.
We’ve missed something of ourselves, too. Refusal to play by the rules of power, often exemplified by disobedience, was a crucial tie between queers and people battling other kinds of bigotry. Although queers are people of color, immigrants, low-wage workers, IV drug users, and other targeted people, as a community we’ve been historically reluctant to unite behind those oppressions.
At the same time, much of the queer vanguard has been people from the margins––think Sylvia Rivera, Leslie Feinberg, Audre Lorde, the ball queens who brought music, fashion, and fierceness, the kids who left behind middle-America to forge queer family in the West Village. So for many white or middle-class activists, dying-in, kissing-in, dropping a banner, and generally declining to be polite were important declarations of solidarity, refusals to trade justice for race or class privilege. And when the queers who disobeyed were heroes, queerness meant a street-based sort of pride. We weren’t stuffed shirts playing the American respectability game. We were confronting real problems, because as outsiders we could see that the system wasn’t made to work.
Thousands of queers have been schooled in solidarity through civil disobedience. In our sparring matches with cops we’ve learned the system’s spooky feints and jabs. How those trying to repress us will try first to divide us: immigrant queers from citizens; employed queers from the jobless, queers on medication from queers without it; gender-fuck queers from boy and girl queers; “bad queers” from “good ones.” Queer direct action culture, which does still exist, teaches activists not to put that kind of identifying information in the hands of authorities––in other words, not to use that privilege at all.
This is the core of the queer civil disobedience that smashed queer invisibility and tapped our strength: eschewing respectability based on the privileging of some people over others, and embracing solidarity with those who don’t even have the option of accepting or refusing power. But the upward mobility of queers has made that rebellion dangerous and increasingly rare––the more “respectable” we are, the more moneyed, engaged in party politics, the more we have to lose by disobeying, and by linking ourselves to people who are, plainly speaking, still seen as trash.
Which makes the orderly civil disobedience of marriage a strange animal. It’s certainly courageous, and brings a sense of relief that queers can still show up in the hundreds for meetings if they care about something, rather than relying on the Empire State Pride Agenda or the Human Rights Campaign to decide the community’s course. For those of us who have been struggling to keep grassroots queer action alive, it feels miraculous.
But it seems to contort us in new, frankly sinister ways. For one thing, it is totally focused on the act of queer coupling––not queers left behind despite the rising tide for others, or queers getting clobbered by HIV all over again, or any other kind of queers being marginalized as parts of the community are actually getting some respect. The only hints of parallel issues are the explanation that health care is too expensive to forgo the privileged rights that couples enjoy in accessing it, and the hope that marriage will address the immigration troubles of binational queer couples.
But there’s no reference to the vast injustice of class-segregated hospitals, closed borders, or any other larger issue. Unlike other campaigns where we’ve at least talked about who will be left behind––think of the push for SONDA, New York State’s queer rights legislation that bypassed trans people, or the tensions between upscale gays vs. queer pier youth in the West Village–– there’s no mention of what will happen to unmarried queers whose rights might now be pitted against those of officially-recognized couples, or of queers whose problems aren’t solved by marriage.
The language of organizing reflects this strangeness. E-mails waft around containing a mixed word palate alternately suggesting resistance and a suburban activity guide––a meeting at the Center for couples to organize direct action. When before has action planning been done by “couples only?” And words are absent: other queer missives highlight the national crackdown on immigrants, queer and otherwise; repression of queer activists as part of the larger assault on free speech; the urgency of doing our AIDS organizing alongside prison advocates or youth of color. We locate our work in the world we share. But the marriage cry for civil rights seems uncomplicated by its relationship to other struggles.
Beyond the language, it’s the act of civil disobedience that’s beautiful and terrifying, queers en masse tasting their own resistance. Many have cried assimilation at the push for marriage, but we don’t have to argue, now we’ll find out. Will the hundreds who turned out at the Center last week be back once they’re married, demanding adoption rights for unmarried queers, or universal health care? The thousands who bravely broke the law on principle in San Francisco––will they do it again for someone else’s rights?
If yes, then the right to marry is about self-determination, and a blazing victory. If no, then marriage was a golden calf, and for the sake of being “equal,” we’ve sacrificed our outsider’s vision, and we’ve used our most cherished weapon of resistance to do it.