Alex Blaze

Toward a same-sex marriage political vocabulary

Filed By Alex Blaze | September 24, 2009 6:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: anti-marriage radical, beyond marriage, bisexual, closet cases, domestic partnership, gay marriage, LGBT, marriage, New Jersey, radical, reactionary, same-sex marriage, transgender, transsexual

I've gay_marriage_protest.jpgblogged before about how we don't really have a way of describing the political diversity within the American queer population on LGBT issues. So I'm humbly proposing a few terms to discuss the way people think and talk about same-sex marriage. We're far from uniform within the queer community when it comes to our beliefs about this institution and our activism around it, and instead of starting from zero every time we talk about what X or Y person thinks about it, it would make sense to develop a meta-political vocabulary.

I came up with six rough categories, based not on polling data or studies since I don't know of any that are sufficient to this end, and therefore these terms are entirely inappropriate in a policy discussion. It's based instead on what I've learned from reading several dozen queer blogs and a dozen queer journals daily for going on three years now, as well as political discussions here on the site and among friends. Sure, there are as many beliefs when it comes to same-sex marriage as there are people in the LGBTQ population, and there's lots of diversity within these categories, but it's a starting point.

In order of descending size:

  1. Marriage-progressive. This group is the largest, in my estimation, when it comes to the number of queer people who subscribe to it. Generally, they believe that same-sex marriage is a worthy goal, but it's not the only one. They will often discuss same-sex marriage in the context of other issues for the LGBT community, like ENDA and hate crimes legislation, and are concerned with other progressive goals like health care reform and ending war.

    They're less vocal than the second category, the marriage-focused, when it comes to the issue of marriage mainly because they tend to see it in the context of other civil rights issues. They're more likely to push for and accept non-marriage same-sex couple recognition such as civil unions and domestic partnerships, but they generally believe that those substitutes are inferior to and mere stepping-stones towards same-sex marriage.

    As the largest group here, this group has some of the most prominent ideological debates going on in the LGBT population. While they all view marriage as one issue among many important LGBT issues, some don't think it's the most-pressing issue, while others do. Some are more confrontational about homophobia among straight people, while others focus more on "cleaning up house" within the LGBT community when it comes to sexism, racism, transphobia, and classism. Some may even go so far as to say that marriage should be put on the back-burner while other issues get taken care of first, with marriage still being an important goal to work on down the line.

    This group generally votes Democratic, often resides outside of coastal-urban areas, and is racially and ethnically diverse. Both queer Millennials and Boomers swing in this direction, and they usually describe us as the "LGBT community." They voted for Obama not because of same-sex marriage, but because of his stated support of other LGBT legislation as well as other progressive policy.

  2. Marriage-focused. This is the second-largest group, but by far the most vocal when it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage. People outside the LGBT population tend to think that all LGBT people think like them, and even many queer people on the left or the right who don't follow LGBT politics closely assume that gays and lesbians are all in this group.

    They see marriage as the most important goal for LGBT activism, and often have a hard time seeing any other goal (with the notable exception of DADT repeal). They often discuss the "moral" importance of marriage and its "stabilizing effects," put "family" before individuality, and sometimes think marriage will be a solution to many problems that afflict the community, like bullying, the closet, adoption rights, and economic inequality between LGBT people and straight people.

    They are less likely to be satisfied with marriage-lite solutions like civil unions and domestic partnerships, sometimes referring to them as "marriage apartheid." They also see other LGBT legislation, like ENDA and hate crimes laws, as distractions or trifles, and may even oppose them citing libertarian concerns like lawsuits, small government, "thought-control," and the individual's right to discriminate. Many support and work on a variety of non-LGBT issues, on both the right and the left, and might see marriage as less important than those other political or non-political issues.

    This group generally resides in big cities with large LGBT populations, has more Gen Xers than the other groups, and is whiter than the LGBT generally population is, even though there are people of color who fall into this category. They're less patient with the Obama administration, LGBT orgs like HRC and the Task Force, and usually describe us as the "gay and lesbian community." They vote generally Democratic, although the majority of gay and lesbian Republicans fall into this category. Those who voted for Obama did so because of general fatigue with Republicans and Bush, as well as genuine hope that Obama would repeal DOMA and DADT.

  3. Marriage-apathetic. This group of people vaguely supports same-sex marriage because they're likely to think legal discrimination is wrong, but they don't think same-sex marriage is the most important LGBT issue or even one worth their time. They don't have a problem with the institution of marriage; rather they see other problems that afflict LGBT people, like hate crimes, health and HIV issues, job discrimination, and societal acceptance, as so pressing that marriage itself appears too abstract or too frivolous for them to pursue.

    This group is the least visible (except for reactionary and closeted) when it comes to the issue of marriage and often resent how much marriage has taken from the community in terms of time, energy, and resources.

    When it comes to other issues, they can be very involved in LGBT politics and activism, often working on non-governmental discrimination issues, transgender/transsexual issues, and HIV/AIDS issues. While this group is apathetic to same-sex marriage, marriage-apathetics aren't necessarily ignorant of politics and may follow the news as closely as those in the marriage-progressive and marriage-focused categories. This group is often sensitive to racism, sexism, transphobia, and classism within the LGBT community, and are sometimes more quick to condemn prejudice when LGBT people commit it than when outsiders are homophobic or transphobic.

    This group spans generations and appears both in and out of coastal-urban areas. They mostly vote Democratic but are impatient with political insiders and will often criticize LGBT organizations like HRC and the Task Force. Many (especially straight) TG/TS and bisexual people fall into this category, as well as quite a few gay and lesbian people who find themselves on the margins of the community due to income, political ideology, or serostatus. They usually describe us as the "LGBT community," but are more likely than marriage-progressives to also use narrower phrases like "LGB people," "the transgender umbrella," and "an LGB(t) organization," conscious of the individual meaning of each term.

  4. Anti-marriage radical. This group believes that marriage is bad and that it should be dismantled for everyone. They believe that marriage is an inappropriate way to distribute resources and, therefore, shouldn't be a goal for LGBT activism. They tend to see broad connections LGBT politics and other leftist movements, like economic equality, feminism, and environmentalism, and will often choose to participate in other movements instead.

    Their opposition to marriage can come from several places. Some anti-marriage radicals believe that marriage is an out-dated, patriarchal institution that has no place in a free and equal society. Others believe that marriage takes resources away from single people and other family forms, therefore creating more discrimination than legalizing same-sex marriage would solve. Still others believe that the atomized family unit is unsustainable and therefore shouldn't be encouraged. Most anti-marriage radicals will have a variety of reasons for their beliefs.

    Their focus on other issues and movements tends to put them outside the conversation when it comes to marriage. They're more likely than any other group to be labeled traitors, generally because they challenge fundamental identity narratives of marriage-progressives (that same-sex marriage promotes equality) and the marriage-focused (that gay and lesbian activism should only be concerned with "gay issues"). They also tend to easily get frustrated with what they see as the narrow focus and limited goals of the larger LGBT community, thus removing themselves from community discussions. They are more likely, in internal discussions, to criticize prejudice within the LGBT community than they are to criticize homophobia and transphobia from outside.

    They tend to vote Democratic or third-party, if they vote at all. They span generations in much the same way as the marriage-apathetic, and are racially and ethnically diverse. They often reside in coastal-urban areas and usually call us "queer people."

  5. Beyond marriage. These are policy and law wonks from the "marriage-progressive" and "anti-marriage radical" categories who believe that same-sex marriage is an important civil rights goal, but that it's ultimately an unfair way of distributing resources and that there are many other related issues that are more important. They tend to believe that family is important and that relationships should be promoted and protected by the government, but they see stress the importance of relationships that aren't currently recognized and accepting a diversity of families.

    They're probably the smallest group I'm describing here, mainly because of the complexity of their ideology and the relatively little attention LGBT media give it. Their beliefs stem not only from feminist theory (that the relationships that are important are the ones people deem important themselves), but also from general economic progressivism (that economic protection is a necessary function of government and should work to eliminate all forms of inequality).

    They tend to understand and care more about family law than anti-marriage radicals, but they are also further to the left than marriage-progressives. They are often labeled traitors by the marriage-focused because they challenge their foundational narrative that marriage is the only legitimate way to organize society. They are concerned with other issues facing the LGBT community, especially adoption law, but tend to see less of a distinction between LGBT people and straight/cis people and therefore are less likely to see any law as explicitly LGBT. They are generally OK with civil unions and domestic partnerships, and often support having both marriage and civil unions available to everyone.

    Beyond marriagers generally vote Democratic because of many progressive/leftist issues. They trend older than the LGBT population generally, but can be found in and outside of coastal-urban areas. When I'm talking about this category, I'm referring to more than just the people who wrote the famous Beyond Same-Sex Marriage manifesto, although many don't have the language to put with their beliefs. They're also not all wonks and include a lot of queer radicals, hippies, New Deal leftists, and feminists. They usually refer to us as "the LGBT community."

  6. Reactionary and closeted. This could very well be the largest category, but it's at the end since they're often difficult to tell apart from straight homophobes. They oppose same-sex marriage but support, often with lots of energy, opposite-sex marriage. Not all of them are closeted, but those who aren't think that their political ideology and sexuality require them to constantly prove their loyalty to movement conservatism.

    While there are famous people in this category, like Larry Craig and Ted Haggard, both of whom oppose same-sex marriage while at least being gay and bi men in behavior, most shun the spotlight and don't participate in LGBT discussions, making it harder to estimate how many people there are in this category. And since their beliefs on marriage stem from internalized homophobia, they're easily dismissed by those in the other categories.

    Along with the anti-marriage radicals, they're the only group here who opposes same-sex marriage. They're easy to distinguish, though, since they only oppose marriage for LGBT people, don't subscribe to any recognizable feminist ideology, and often avoid the conversation entirely if they can.

    They generally vote Republican, if they vote at all. They are racially and ethnically diverse and trend older, even though there are many younger adults in this category. These people are unlikely to believe that any other LGBT issue is important. They tend to live outside of coastal-urban areas, and use cringe-inducing phrases to refer to us like "homosexuals," "the homosexual community," and "the gays."

Obviously, this isn't meant to be exhaustive. There's plenty of diversity and debate within each of these categories and people who lie at the outskirts who may identify with more than one.

I would put my own politics with the beyond marriage folks, since I do think think that there are plenty of relationships worth protecting and plenty of better ways to distribute rights than with marriage. The Bilerico Project's readers probably mostly come from the marriage-progressive category, a few people from the other categories as well, except for reactionary and closeted folks.

What do you think? Is this list an adequate way of describing LGBT's diverse opinions on marriage? Where would you fall in these categories?

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Regardless of which group you place yourself in, there never has been any issue that got the gay agenda on the front page of every paper in America, and on every talk show like same sex marriage has. Marriage helps all the LGBTQ issues by doing this. The mainstream media either ignored us, or only reported things like "park arrests" until the marriage issues came along. One interesting thing about the marriage issue is that it truly has been a grass roots movement. Individuals who wanted marriage tried to get the licenses, and then sued. The original couples were not backed by the big organizations. Lots of organizations told the couples to wait, that the time was not right. Of course, that has all changed now. Second to getting all of America talking about our agenda has been the whole debate on "Don't ask, don't tell". There are certainly lots of other really important issues that we as a community face, but these are the two that grabbed all of America's attention, and then got them looking at the rest of our list.
My point is that regardless of how one stands on either marriage or DADT, they are necessary to be prominent in the public debate, or else the public will not seriously dialog on the rest of the issues.
I think that the wars should end, but these are not really gay specific issues. By this definition, there is really no issue that does not affect the LGBTQ community in some way.
This is an interesting post, but the platform/descriptions for each are so long, that the reality is they do not help much in terms of making a shorthand descriptor.

I agree with Drake. The categories cover the most frequent positions we see LGBT people take, but the categories are probably over-defined.

I'm clearly M-A --- same-sex marriage is on my radar screen only because it is on the national radar screen, and personally it probably won't affect me one way or the other.

OTOH, I have just a shade of M-P, to the extent that I do not want discrimination codified into law, such as with FMA, DOMA, and the state constitutional bans.

Yeah, the descriptions are a bit long, but I wouldn't say that they're over defined. They're simple definitions with long descriptions. I put the definition of each at the top with "this group believes" and then put in descriptions with "they tend to" or "they generally believe...."

Because, as you point out, if I made up definite categories with short descriptions, most people would be like, "I'm not anywhere!"

Well, my point with this was to be descriptive, and I tried to phrase the post in a way that wouldn't take sides.

Thanks for commenting.

Well Alex it is a move toward more articulate discussions on the issue. It will most likely see lots of modification. I am somewhere between your descriptions of Marriage-progressive and Marriage-apathetic but leaning more toward the M-A.

I'm glad people aren't just saying, "This is how you see the debate? On what planet do you spend most of your time?"

As Yasmin points out below, the point is to get people to realize that the debate isn't just "for" or "against" same-sex marriage.

As anyone who's read my pieces on Bilerico and elsewhere can tell, I'm an AMR, anti-marriage radical - and I'm glad to see us differentiated from the beyond marriage folks. I'm sure we'll all have disagreements about the definitions, but I agree with Rob that this is an important conversation to have. I also think it's important to NOT have simplistic and jingoistic definitions for categories that cannot and should not be easily defined. The community conversation around marriage has been hijacked by a vocal and conservative pro-marriage minority and it's time we started unpacking the rhetoric and the fictional histories that some of us have constructed around gay marriage.

For me, the biggest problem with the so-called "debate" on marriage is that it has so far been portrayed purely as a one-sided conversation: you're either for marriage if you're part of the GLBT (barely Q) population or against it, in which case you're the straight homophobe. We need more complexity in this discussion, not less. I hope this is the start.

You call for "more complexity to the discussions" because as anyone in politics will tell you, complexity KILLS an issue, and you are anti-marriage. Ronald Reagan was called the great communicator because he could boil down a huge debate to a single phrase, and the people understood. There comes a point in your anti-marriage debate, when it is plain and simple, anti-gay, anti-lesbian. Many people would benefit from it, and yet you wish to deny them. Your rhetoric is more akin to the Eagle Forum, or Glenn Beck.

I smiled because I thought this was directed at me for a minute....

It's strange to hold up Ronald Reagan as someone to emulate and then use "Glenn Beck" and "Eagle Forum" as insults. I don't see much space between them - Ronald Reagan was a homophobe who let tens of thousands of gay and bi men die of AIDS without trying to do anything to stop it. He never spoke about it, true, but I don't think it's better to be in a position of power and think that it's great God's punishing homosexuals with AIDS than to have relatively no power and say it aloud.

The fact that he was also glib doesn't help any.


Alex's post, as I understand it, is not part of a conventional political agenda. It's a way to initiate a much-needed and long-time overdue conversation within (and outside) the queer community. We have not had that conversation; said conversation needs to happen; it's fine to disagree with each other. So chill, okay?

As for the rest: *shrug* I don't know...who's more like Glenn Beck here? The person who rabidly paints anyone who dares to disagree with the marriage agenda as "anti-gay, anti-lesbian?" The person who reminds us of Sarah Palin's inflammatory rhetorical devices? Oh, and yes, the person who supports Reaganesque politicking? Why, yes. And that would be...?

I don't think that Yasmin wants to kill the topic with complexity. I have to disagree that Yasmin is anti-gay or anti-lesbian and though you didn't include anyones else I don't think that she is antii-bi, anti-trans or anti-queer (I include these because I think that she would and I know that I do.
Just because she disagrees with you on what is best and helpful for the LGBTQ community does not make her against the community. None of us have a special authority to speak for the community in absolutes. It is no help to discourse if we waste time making characterizations of the positions and beliefs of one another.

That's right, because "You're either with us or against us" has never killed an issue. Obviously when someone desires any more complicated breakdown than that it means that they've fallen into the latter category -- "against us."

Personally, I'd say I'm at times in category 1, 3, 4, and 5 and I definitely spend time fighting for same-sex marriage, sometimes against my better judgment. However, a complicated approach to marriage equality is the only way I can see my own rights being someday recognized. A simplistic approach will lead folks to one day declare victory and be done with it. Whereas a complicated approach might give people enough of an understanding how the institution of marriage effects several different groups -- and when a day of victory arrives perhaps some of the fervent marriage equality folks will continue on to fight for marriage equality for all people, not just monogamous LGB folks.

To clarify: "I also think it's important to NOT have simplistic and jingoistic definitions for categories that cannot and should not be easily defined." Which is to say: I think Alex's teasing out of the categories in more substantive terms is exactly what's needed.

No disrespect to your overall position, but it seems to me a bit divorced from reality to describe those in favor of same-sex marriage as "conservative."

Well done Yasmin. Though I am not an anti-marriage radical and would most likely fall into the beyond marriage pigeonhole, I agree that more depth of discussion is necessary to the debate, not simply soundbite style categories to push us into.

Ignore the bashers, sister, because you dared to attack the sacred cow of gay marriage, you looked into the heterosexual assimiliationist model of gay living's window and shouted 'the emperor has no clothes.'

Hi Sam,

None taken :-) I should have teased that out more (and I'll expand further in a future post). What I meant was that, in general, the arguments made in favour of same-sex marriage, especially by the marriage-focused, are generally conservative arguments in favour of a generally conservative view of marriage as a stablilising, unifying, pro-family institution and such proponents will often (as I know too well) go so far as to paint even the reasoned and reasonable critiques in extremely conservative terms.

And their tactics - usually of exclusion and rabidly painting people who disagree as "anti-gay/lesbian" (for evidence thereof, see above)- are no different than that of straight conservatives who paint critics of war, for instance, as anti-American.

I did not hold Reagan as an example for gay rights. Rather, I thought that most people are familiar with the fact that he was nick-named "the great communicator", whether you agreed with his positions, or not, because of his ability to simplify complexities in the public debate. The public is not moved by policy wonks. I am not calling this ideal, it is just a fact.
There is a huge diversity within the LGBTQ population of America. I think that as a group, legislation and policies that benefit many people in terms of recognizing, respecting, or advancing their rights, should be supported by the LGBTQ population at large. This is called a coalition. It is how the world works.
Instead, Yasmin, as we all know ad nauseum, is anti-marriage. I have no problem with this. She should not get married then. However, I know lots of LGBTQ who want marriage for many reasons, and I think that it is anti-LGBTQ for people like Yasmin to fight against them, to deny them this equality.
Just like people say about abortion, if you don't like it, don't get one, but keep it legal for those who want this.
Elsewhere on the web, Yasmin is described as totally anti-establishment, anarchist, down with the system, etc. This is her right. However, most (probably everyone but a handful) are interested in working within the US Constitution, the American democratic system, etc. ,and are not trying to desttroy social institutions equally across the board for all, straight and LGBTQ. Yasmin wants to destroy marriage, and create a Yasmin-topia. Fine, but is this really a serious discussion? She opposes immigration reform that help[s gays, she opposes lots of things that many would argue are helpful to many in our community. She can not be taklen seriously, and it is a waste of time for her to be here, because she ultimately is anti everything and does not accept social-governmental structures as they either exist, or as they many evolve supported by most of society.

"Yasmin-topia": yet another great t-shirt. I need to start writing these down.

Here's a suggestion: Instead of wasting precious webtime bashing me, how about we go back to having an excellent and much-needed conversation about the categories that Alex has thoughtfully explicated?

Once again, this post isn't about how to mobilise for or against gay marriage - it's about how the conversation is shaped by our different ideological perspectives, how GM became what it is today, how we feel about the links, connections, disruptions, etc. between our different perspectives. And so on.

I'd understand if Pete's comments were actually directed at a post *I* wrote. But they're not. This is Alex's post; it's an excellent post for starting an excellent conversation; we need to get back to it. Taking this time to needlessly bash me instead of, oh, explaining why you feel the way you do about your category (should you believe you occupy one, and if not, let us know why you think you don't) says a lot about the paucity of your position.

Um, just want to point out that we aren't talking to legislators in this forum. As I understand it, Alex posted this for the purpose of having a dialog about marriage that is more nuanced than what usually passes for discussion on that topic, not for the purpose of generating talking points for the general public. If you'd rather not break it down any further than "for 'gay marriage' = good" and "against 'gay marriage' = bad", nobody is making you. But this is a discussion that I feel the queer community needs to have, so don't begrudge the rest of us trying to have it.

Besides, do you really think that making personal attacks against a woman who holds a position critical of marriage is the best way to attack the position she holds? This is Bilerico, not Fox News, you know...

I have to disagree with your sentiment that Yasmin cannot be taken seriously. While i find that my opinions and views differ from her views I take her seriously primarily because she generally has a viewpoint to which I have not been exposed sufficiently. I find that to sit and consider her views most often helps me clarify and better articulate my own views.

I'm a pretty strong M-P with a touch of M-A, I guess.

I have a question for Yasmin, though.

Being that Illinois has most major GLBT protections (hate crimes, t-inclusive ENDA, etc.) I really would expect Illinois to be more "M-F" but I don't get the since that even some long term couples are M-F. It seems like most of the MFers (lol) are on the coasts. Or am I wrong about that?

Interesting observation about the coastal thing.

Hi Chitown,

Hmm, that's interesting, and I hadn't actually thought of that. Yes, I'd agree that most here are not focused entirely on marriage as THE issue. I'd add that my own sense of that is based on my inner and outer circles, not on any scientific survey. But I think you're right, and I think that might be representative of the fact that you can't really be a Chicago/Illinois LGBTQ person/couple without also somehow being connected to any one or any number of issues (health care, housing, etc.) Which means it's impossible for you to actually think that marriage is the be-all and end-all of queer issues. (btw, I don't want to conflate Chicago with Illinois, but there's something to be said for sheer numbers in Chicago)

The coasts, I'll hazard a guess, are more apt to fund marriage-focused groups/non-profits. In Illinois, we seem to have fewer of those. I can think of Equality Illinois, off the top of my head, as an organisation that's mostly focused on marriage. But even folks there are not fanatical about it, and can and will talk about intersections.

Lambda Legal focuses a lot (too much, IMHO, natch) on marriage, but they're also concerned with other legal issues and representation and they're not Illinois-based. There aren't a lot of grassroots groups that focus on marriage. There are a lot of non-profits, like Broadway Youth Center, that work on queer issues but are committed to considering the impact of poverty and homelessness on their populations. And that focus precludes marriage as a solution/focus. Gender JUST, of which I'm a part, works on queer issues but does not see marriage as any kind of a solution, and we're also concerned with a critique of the neoliberal city that is Chicago.

The more intersectional work you do, the more critical you become of the way the neoliberal city/state operates, and the less relevant - and even insidious - marriage becomes. Speaking to my Chicago/IL experience: I know lots of queers who are out as such and whose work is inflected by their queerness, but who look at issues untouched by marriage - the breadth of the prison industrial complex, for instance, or the possible onset of the 2016 Olympics (which most of us think would be disastrous for the city).

In contrast, you've got more groups on the coasts elbowing each other for marriage attention, and perhaps before they've had substantial protections in place. People from the coasts can speak more to this, but it strikes me that perhaps queer activism/rights is/are more likely to be defined *by* a focus on marriage than in Illinois. I'd also add that having more protections that aren't related to marriage (though I wouldn't call HCL any kind of protection, but the opposite) also means that you don't have to subscribe to the notion that marriage will solve your problems of, for instance, employment or housing discrimination.

Two cents!

Thank you! Excellent and valuable article. You've taken a tangled and confusing subject that lies beneath the surface of the larger issue and provided another more ordered lens to help focus view the larger picture.

I would fall into the category of those who think we should not refer to LGBT people as "QUEERS"