Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

No on 8 wasn't no on hate

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | November 17, 2008 3:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Christian fundamentalists, gay marriage, gentrification, LGBT civil rights, Mormon, No On 8, Prop. 8, structural homophobia

I tried my best to ignore Proposition 8, I mean to ignore all the attention around marriage, even as I received a voicemail message featuring a recording of Barack Obama, a message from Barack Obama himself, another announcement coordinated by various gay elected officials, and then was that really Bill Clinton? All urged me, or someone like me, to vote No on 8. $40 million can get you a lot of attention, but I do think it's now as important as ever to question what exactly all this money pouring into pro-marriage coffers is doing. One thing we can say for sure: it didn't achieve the desired result in this particular electoral battle.

If we take a look at the failed No on 8 campaign, we can see the usual "we're just like you" charade, and it seems to me that this whole gay marriage effort already cedes the battlefield to the homophobes. Accept us on your terms, without making any structural changes except for a copyedit in marriage documents, that's how this argument goes. We want to spend just as much on bridal gowns and tuxedos, diamonds and bachelor parties and showers and honeymoons, we're ready for the white picket fence and the 2.5 children and the gas-guzzling SUV, we can wave the stars-and-stripes just as feverishly as any other pro-war patriots.

In fact, we are so much like you that we are ready to arrest homeless queers for getting in the way of happy hour, to oppose queer youth shelters for interfering with property values, and to endlessly cleanse our gentrifying neighborhoods of undesirables like trans women, sex workers, people of color, disabled people, the elderly, people with AIDS and anyone else who might terrorize the great white American dream. No, we are not men lingering in toilets or alleys for a taste of cock, we are not women teasing with whips or turning tricks on the corner, we are not furious gender deviants or ferocious sexual perverts, we're just like you -- we tuck the children in at night and we wage war inside the home where no one else can see.

And guess what? I know it sounds awfully strange, but somehow this argument doesn't exactly challenge structural homophobia. In fact, it furthers the violence by declaring that anyone who doesn't want marriage and all of its centuries of baggage is not worthy of "equal rights" like food or shelter or health care or the rights now procured through citizenship -- never mind sexual splendor or gender self-determination, remember we just want platinum wedding rings and participatory patriarchy, our space in the kitchen or battering the TV during Super Bowl season. What I'm saying is that all the money and attention and energy going into the fight for gay marriage may be doing just as much to perpetuate homophobia as any religious bigots.

Sure, the messages might be slightly different. Right-wing homophobes say we all deserve to burn in hell, God hates gays, sodomy is evil, and so on. Meanwhile, gay marriage proponents systematically wipe out any representations of queerness other than the straight-friendly, job-holding, America-loving, monogamous, middle-class coupled partnership.

Furthermore, with this single-issue struggle, everything else, including anti-gay, anti-queer, and anti-trans violence gets swept under the beige carpet. Gay marriage proponents appropriate civil rights discourse while saying "it's the blacks that voted against us." They promote religious tyranny (marriage is the answer), while pointing the blame at religious bigots ("it's the Mormons").

Unfortunately, with all the protests emerging nationwide, no one is asking what on earth happened to that $40 million? Instead, it seems that marriage proponents are anxious to funnel millions and millions more into dead-end "LGBT" institutions? Are we going to continue protesting on the terms of the right-wingers, with signs like "God Supports Gay Marriage?" Could anything be worse?

(Mattilda also blogs at, and she's on tour now for her new novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly.)

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Thanks, Mattilda. A round of applause. Could we spend that $40 million on LGBTQ youth and HIV/AIDS services?

Once again, you have shown me why I am impressed with you. When you say things like:

"Furthermore, with this single-issue struggle, everything else, including anti-gay, anti-queer, and anti-trans violence gets swept under the beige carpet. Gay marriage proponents appropriate civil rights discourse while saying 'it's the blacks that voted against us'. They promote religious tyranny (marriage is the answer), while pointing the blame at religious bigots ('it's the Mormons')."

Gee, many people are not happy with those who only care about marriage.

Where he goes wrong is assuming that marriage is religious tyranny. Marriage was secular before it was religious.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 17, 2008 4:41 PM

Right-on post, Mattilda!!!

I agree with you on the simultaneously assimilative and alienating consequences of going all-in on marriage. On the other hand, the fact that marriage can get you $40 million is incredible, and something that shouldn't be ignored if we want to both have social/moral integrity AND be politically effective. If No on 8 can get so many people fired up about being treated as second-class citizens, it is an excellent opportunity to remind queer folks that, hey, you're actually second-class citizens in many other ways. The prop 8 fallout has really activated queer communities' frustration and anger in ways that really aren't focused on marriage so much as growing up feeling shamed, belittled, scared and getting to a point where we refuse to be continue to be forced to feel that way. I think marriage makes a good catalyst in that it has broad mainstream appeal, and provides the more transformative, inclusive agendas you allude to, if organized effectively, potentially a lot to work with. But I agree, if it's marriage or nothing, it just becomes a question of who gets thrown under the bus.

The fact that marriage can get you 40 million and what mattilda mentions can't should be a condemnation of the gays priorities, not a celebration of it.

If gays are willing to let transwomen die because they want to assimilate and act like racists, what does that say about gay folks?

Thought so.

Despite having a similar set of reservations about marriage as the main policy issue for the LGBT community, I went to the local anti-prop 8 rally. What was fantastic about it was that it was not primarily about prop 8, but rather more generally about celebrating queer relationships (including a couple of people who wanted to get married). This was really nice, but I suspect because the rally was not organized by the mainline LGBT advocacy groups in the state. I think there is space to co-opt the interest in activism that prop 8 has prompted and build a broader platform.

Thank you, Monica and Brynn!

Andy, I absolutely agree that organizing against societal homophobia is important but this stranglehold of marriage actually furthers structural homophobia rather than fighting it.

It is positively puzzling how you can equate support for equality in marriage with opposition to a broad and generous social policy.

I have no interest in overthrowing the patriarchy or deconstructing the fabric of the social order. I'm interested in being treated like every other American citizen/resident and then being left alone.

I have no desire to stifle your dissent. Actually I find it quite helpful in framing my own outlook. I will probably never buy into your entire agenda or you into mine. I'm not going to ask you to do so. I am going to ask that you stop demonizing the people who don't share your views or objectives for gay America.

Nicely stated, and a valid point. The whole idea that acheiving marriage for all couples, same-sex and otherwise, embodies the struggle for equality and an end to discrimination against gays is a scary one, for exactly the reasons you pointed out. I'd like to think, though, that acheiving marriage equality will strike a blow that will weaken America's willingness to sweep LGBT issues under the rug. As long as we're all treated as second class citizens, we have to rely very heavily on others to herald and champion our causes.

Matthew Shepard was one man, but his tragic death focused millions of people on something they perhaps hadn't considered--that hatred and discrimination didn't end with the civil rights movement.

Perhaps there is so much volume to the fight for gay marriage because it's something that has garnered attention on a national stage. Sure, it's just one issue, and doesn't necessarily solve all our problems, but it's something. And it's publicity that we couldn't have gotten otherwise.

Perhaps we need to elevate ourselves as a community so the rest of the country can't so easily brush us aside. Studies have shown that people are more likely to support a cause when they can associate a face to it. There is more support for John and Fred than "the gays".

Perhaps we'll both be surprised, and as more openly gay people grow up, get married, join the PTA, or get elected to public offices, the LGBT community will achieve equal stature as well as rights.

Marriage equality promotes homophobic ideas because the people who want it aren't queer enough for your ideology? Huh?

I challenge you to produce one instance of anyone, at any level, in the marriage equality movement, suggesting that our cause is more important than any of the three ideas you've come up with so glibly to 'better spend that $40 million'.

You know that no one thinks that, let alone says it. The money trail, the fact that it's possible to raise (and apparently waste) big bucks to try to preserve equality, indicates that a lot of people apparently place a great deal more importance on marriage than you do. But that doesn't equate to those of us who work on marriage NOT also working with queer youth, or elders, or on AIDS services.

Marriage seems to be very important to parents, the wealthy and people who eventually expect to die. If you're not in any of those categories, feel free to put something else first. But don't wave your gayer-than-thou credentials around as if your self-interested choices are morally superior to the self-interested choices of those who live different lives than you do.

Also, you're welcome for all the options, and get off my lawn! Hmmph!

Greg, I'm merely trying to point out hypocrisy. Even the phrase "gay America" sounds scary to me, like a personalized brand of colonialism.

Matthew, my point is that unfortunately the marriage is not a starting point for these broader struggles, but a dead end -- or worse, a sprint in the wrong direction.

PhoenixRising, my point is that the gay marriage movement actively takes attention, resources and energy away from anything that doesn't relate to a very narrow goal of accessing straight privilege. I believe this agenda actively creates homophobia by endlessly presenting a sanitized, straight-friendly version of gay identity as the moral imperative, and censoring any other queer options.

I really like your posts because they provoke me to think about how I've come to see things the way I do.

Ever since marriage emerged as a gay liberation struggle, I thought it was the wrong issue to pursue partly because it emulates straight culture. Also, I think the notion of making a vow, or entering into a contract, about how one will feel about another person for life is silly. The issues you raised are but a few of an array of things we could better expend our energies upon.

That said, I realize that some in our community want the option to marry. And the contractual benefits for these people may trump the downside of assimilation into straight culture. But the gauntlet was dropped when a constitutional amendment erased rights from a specific segment of the people. This should not be ignored.

For me, the injustice is that marriage confers rights. Rights that are status-based. Hardly equality. Returning marriage to the religious domain as a sacrament, and requiring 'everyone' to enter into a civil contract to gain parental, visitation and inheritance rights would be a start. Let each religious denomination decide for itself how it wants to handle marriage.

Assimilation into straight culture has always been a hard issue for me to settle in my mind. As discrimination caused us to create our own subculture, gays developed something really special. And I think that specialness is worth nurturing and preserving. I like associating with gay people, whether I know them or not. There is an unwritten understanding among us about the commonalities of life experiences.

But, keeping gay subculture in a cocoon, separate from the main (heterosexual, patriarchal, capitalist... ) culture, creates an 'us' and 'them' dichotomy. 'Us' and 'them' is what feeds culture wars.

Yes, I attended the march and rally here in San Francisco and called friends to let them know about the events. But that does not mean that my focus is limited to the issue of equality.

I volunteer at Project Open Hand, an organization that provides hot meals every day to PWA's, those with cancer, seniors, and the home-bound disabled. Also, I use what is left of my disability check each month to distribute 20 bag lunches a week to homeless people that live in Golden Gate park. Granted, it's not much, but it is more than nothing. I don't ask the people I meet if they are gay. I ask them if they are hungry, and if they say yes I give them food and drink. There is never enough to go around.

So yes, there are innumerable ways we can work to improve the human condition. And being involved in one struggle does not erase our other efforts.

Mattilda, I think that any discussion about same sex marriage has to begin with the recognition that it’s not a fight we began. It's a fight consciously used to keep us off balance and to drain our resources from other issues.

We consistently lose because Republicans and Democrats see opposition to SSM as a key wedge issue to consolidate a mass right/christist base and win elections. Both parties pander to that base and we lose becasue we get double teamed. No on 8s self appointed leaders were blindsided for the umpteenth time by a combination of powerful regimented cults and both party’s candidates.

Same sex marriage doesn’t seem to be on top of the totem pole in our communities, which I suspect revolve around hate crimes and anti-discrimination legislation, an end to the war and a plan to stop the recession from becoming a depression.

That said, when we come under attack we have to defend. I think No on 8 and the other groups did a lousy job because their allegiance was to Obama, not to our communities.

In general I think the next step it to create a LGBT left around a specific set of goals, one of which is defense of the right to SSM. And if SSM activists want to push their agenda I think they deserve the support of the whole movement but our main focus should be for an inclusive ENDA, for hate crimes and hate speech legislation and for immediate withdrawal and bailouts for working people.

I think we need an organization unequivocally independent of both parties with a commitment to alliance building with unions, the antiwar movement and civil rights struggles. Not to fuse with them, to but to ally with them.

In that context the question of SSM can be addressed when it comes up but as part of an overall political offensive on our part, instead of an endless series of defeats where a self appointed leadership gets blind sided by politicians like Clinton and Obama

I'm troubled by the idea that we shouldn't strive for marriage rights because it's a "straight" institution and that we're somehow betraying ourselves by wanting it.

I'm not anti-hetero, anti-Christian, or anything else. I have more important things to worry about than trying to get ahead while striving to maintain some specifically un-straight identity.

I don't believe gays should have the right to be married because they're gay, but because everyone should be afforded the same protection under the law. I don't believe in hate-crime legislation because the murder of a gay man is any more heineous than anyone else, but because there should be specific punishments outlined for those who are targeted solely based on race, sexual-orientation, gender, etc.

To say we shouldn't ask for marriage because the "straights" already have it is like saying we'll be happy in the back of the bus because the straights have always sat up front.

I don't think marriage is the end, but rather the beginning. Until we can convince people we're worthy of the same legal benefits and social stature, how can we ever expect them to care about our other issues? Discrimination against the LGBT community is condoned in this country, and I don't think we all truly realized how badly until the elections two weeks ago. We remain marginalized to the point that we're not even in the stadium, much less in the game.

To say we need to keep a "queer option" is to condemn ourselves to always being on the outside looking in. We are not, nor will we ever be, a tangible majority in this country (or the world). It's biologically impossible. If we want to be a part of American culture, we'll have to make some concessions and have our voice heard from within the system itself. I don't think equality is such a bad way to start.

i'm troubled by the idea that gay critiques of marriage are always seen as just flippant anti-assimilationist views.

the fact that gays can't marry shouldn't trouble you nearly as much as the fact that
"untaxed partner benefits, social security for kids, no legal fees to adopt, etc. etc etc." are all tied to a religious institution that doesn't even reflect the *majority* of american families today. Do you want validation for your gay identity--or do you want to fight for real family equality?

Don, thanks for this thoughtful analysis -- personally I'm not interested in unity when it is used to further those with more power and further marginalize everyone else.

Bill, unfortunately I don't believe marriage is a start -- unless cultural erasure is what we're looking for.

Matthew, I'll take outside looking in :)

Or looking out.

Thank you so much for saying what needs to be said about the single-issue pursuit of marriage rights by the mainstream gay community!

scottinstlouis | November 19, 2008 3:40 AM

Certainly the subject of marriage and the desire for it is not agreed upon across all same sex loving people. (Thank god) I do actually like that fact. Marriage, as you can see in the comments here, is a debatable subject.

It is difficult to get excited about marriage in Missouri where, like many other states, we don't even have our basics covered for lgbt people in terms of nondiscrimination policies in the areas of housing, employment, and public accommodations. Forget about inclusive, enumerated categories within school policy to support youth. We don't have that either. I am happy to have sexual orientation and gender identity in the state hate crimes law but that's pretty much where it stops.

I appreciated Mattilda's offering here for sure. I do however think that there are many of connections between stability of relationship (civil documents) and issues around health care, race and class. The way the article reads is that it frames those who want marriage as exclusively rich, white guys and that's the unique person who would benefit from it. There are examples of couples who would truly benefit from legally supportive relationship recognition. See the ACLU's video It has some great examples.

I don't like the notion that the aspiration for marriage is to have the status quo wedding and the extended predictable life that follows just like the straights. For many years I didn't even aspire for a relationship because I didn't think I was suppose to. For me that was all the internalized crap I told myself as a child and combined that with the fact that when I was an adult everytime I made love (had sex) that I was breaking the law. Up until Lawrence v. Texas I most certainly was. So that way I was seen under the eyes of the law was as a sexual defiant. There is nothing about aspiring for a system that supports people through legal recognition of their relationship that shouldn't feel like justice.

For me marriage equality (relationship recognition) is an important option for me to have. My straight siblings have that option. Why not me? I personally want something more than my $10 certificate that I got from city hall codifying my 10 year relationship as a domestic partnership. This paper allows me ONLY to visit my partner in a jail or the hospital. Are you kidding me? Two places I don't want to go. Nothing to really get excited about. In fact, it is a place to start. You should know that I got that certificate on the 3rd anniversary of Missouri's 2004 Amendment vote where the only city in the whole state that defeated it was St. Louis city. No major protest here in 2004. We worked hard but it didn't matter then. It matters now.

Lastly the energy towards Prop 8, while certainly flawed in its outreach to minority and religious communities, has stirred something up. Something that wasn't there in the same way before. I think in a post-Obama victory world there is the idealized place that we believe "we can do better than before" on many levels. At the Prop 8 protest in St. Louis last Saturday 1400 people came out on the coldest day of the year so far., I appreciated that almost all of the speakers who talked about this marriage issue spoke from a justice perspective. I feel that is this place we can really build upon. Who would have thought 'marriage' would do this to folks? Not me. Who put 'marriage' at the top of the lgbt agenda while ENDA (trans inclusive) remains unfulfilled? Not me. Hello?! Basics not covered. Obviously more people would benefit from ENDA. Do that math. Finally the drivers of the train may be on the one issue course but I am hopeful many other issues will come into the station. I think that we have to. At least that's what I'm working towards.

Scott, of course there are many people that could access certain benefits like housing, healthcare, inheritance rights, etc. from legalized marriage, but my problem is that this fight comes instead of a struggle for universal access to these basic needs, and I don't see that arising -- in other words, I don't think marriage, a fundamental institution of privilege and oppression, belongs within a social justice framework.

BRAVO. If full marriage rights were granted tomorrow, 90% of gay people would be materially unaffected by it, and of the other 10%, half would be learning about gay divorce in a decade or so, just like our straight brethren.
We have an opportunity to outflank our opponents by proposed contractual and renewable civil unions, and watch straight divorce-phobes flock to a better way of doing things. But given all the issues you highlight--and I would add to them helping gays trapped in Christianist families--it should not be a first priority. Let them have their "m"-word and their outmoded institution.

Basically, What Bill said. Seems your brief response overlooks most of his points.

Also, the CA Supreme Court ruling on In re: marriages had a lot more to do with dismantling legalized discrimination than anything else, at least to my non-legal eye. That's why I -- as a feminist with a major beef with this and most institutions -- began to get interested. It seemed to open the door to broader-scale civil rights legislations. A template that could be used for that work.

Plus let's not overlook the fact that de-centering this institution from a hetero norm has wider consequences than most people are still talking about. Lisa Duggan wrote years ago in The Nation ("Holy Matrimony," Feb 26, 2004 issue):

Moral conservatives want to prevent courts and legislatures from opening a Pandora's box of legal options--a flexible menu of choices for forms of household and partnership recognition open to all citizens, depending on specific and varying needs. Such a menu would threaten the normative status of the nuclear family, undermining state endorsement of heterosexual privilege, the male 'headed' household and 'family values' moralism as social welfare policy.

This kind of analysis looks way past conventional hetero constructs and sees a much more radical potential, which progressive and radical queer activists (like me) would do well to at least contemplate. (That it's not on the minds of many of those who are advocating for SSM doesn't take away from the fact that it's salient. It just is utterly absent from the public discourse.)

If this analysis doesn't sway you from the higher priorities you note; fine; good: it shouldn't; they need more attention now than ever. But it would really help for progressives to try and see that a lot of pro SSM folks are utterly disinterested in replicating June & Ward Cleaver. To take just one variation on that point: A majority of the LGBT parents in my county are people of color and are living with incomes 17% below those of their hetero counterparts. The myriad fiscal benefits of this institution (untaxed partner benefits, social security for kids, no legal fees to adopt, etc. etc etc.) have material benefits to them, no question about it.

The hugeness of this issue right now certainly distracts from all the other major agenda items, absolutely. But as Bill says, and I agree, this feels far more like a battle that has been forced by the enormity of the christianist/right wing response. Meanwhile, the less we caricature it with left/right or radical/assimilationist reductions, the better for all of us.

Bobs Friend | January 10, 2009 9:45 AM

I've been repeatedly surprised -- unpleasantly so -- by both the venom directed at same-sex couples who want to marry and the constant repetitions of sitcom stereotypes about marriage.

Will continue supporting marriage equality but if this isn't an example of a minority group being its own worst enemy, I don't know what is. If same-sex marriage is universally legalized, no one will be forced to marry but apparently there's a sizable contingent hellbent on making sure that if they don't want to marry then no one else is going to be allowed to either.

Marc, you're right -- let them have their "M Word," they can even make it a TV show!

Polly, I actually think the fight for marriage limits the possibilities for "broader-scale civil rights legislation." Personally, I don't think there's any way to de-center marriage from a hetero norm -- it is a hetero norm. My point is not that all gay marriage proponents are interested in "replicating June and Ward Cleaver," but absolutely that the way gay marriage advocates frame the debate is a long and atrocious heteronormative access where any queers who don't fit the "we're just like you" picture are systematically shut out of the debate.

Bob's Friend, my critique is not directed at same-sex couples but at a virulent agenda for accessing straight privilege at any cost.