The Supreme Court’s decision on June 4th in favor of Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple, was undoubtedly a setback for many LGBT advocates. In an overwhelming 7-2 majority, the Court demonstrated they value one man’s religious entitlement to discriminate more than the dignity of gay couples seeking services from a business otherwise open to the public.
That fact, to be sure, is a tough pill to swallow. Yet for many queer activists on the Left—who have been critical of the mainstream gay movement from the beginning—this outcome is not altogether surprising.
“We are in the middle of a full-throated backlash,” said Kate Kendell, the director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, in an interview with Time. “It will get worse before it gets better.”
Although you will be hard-pressed to find signs at Pride Parades this month questioning the value of marriage as an institution, now more than ever queer people should ask ourselves: Why do we want a piece of their cake anyway?
In their article, “Marriage, the Final Frontier? Same-Sex Marriage and the Future of the Lesbian and Gay Movement,” researchers Mary Bernstein, Brenna Harvey, and Nancy Naples argue that the movement’s singular focus on marriage has blinded us to more pervasive forms of oppression faced by queer communities. They contend that while “marriage equality may grant social protection and inclusion to a narrow range of happily assimilating ‘normal gays,’” the prevailing belief that our fight ended with the legalization of same-sex marriage is “obfuscating the continued operation of inequality.”
In other words, marriage is not the end-all of LGBTQ equality, as evidenced by the outcome of the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling. Indeed, given our current political climate, one could argue the fight for marriage has, in fact, spawned an unintended reactionary movement intent on stripping away legal protections for some of the most vulnerable members of our community—for whom segregated “straights only” wedding shops is the least of their worries. Issues plaguing LGBT people like homelessness, suicide, substance abuse, and workplace discrimination have not magically disappeared now that more of us have the option to get married.
Since same-sex marriage became the law of the land in 2015, conservatives have wasted no time in waging battles in the name of “religious liberty”—and with alarming rates of success. Legal advocacy organizations like the Liberty Counsel have co-opted the language of tolerance to recast fundamentalist Christians as a new religious minority in need of protection—despite the fact that Evangelicals comprise 25.4 percent of the US population and are the largest group within the Christian faith.
Consider, for example, a memo issued last year by Attorney General Jeff Sessions allowing employers to claim broad “religious exemptions” from federal non-discrimination laws, essentially eliminating workplace protections for large swaths of LGBT Americans. The ACLU estimates that in 2016 alone over 100 legislative measures were proposed at the state level to codify similar religious exemptions into law.
And that’s just the tip of the Trump administration’s massive anti-LGBTQ iceberg. Let’s not forget: the transgender military ban announced by the President on July 26, 2017; or Education Secretary Betsy Devos, who, in February of last year, had a hand in rescinding federal guidance on protecting transgender students in public schools; or the amicus brief filed by the Justice Department supporting the firing of a Long Island skydiving instructor because he was gay. And the list could go on…
Homophobia and transphobia are not just PC terms hurled around by uptight liberals and millennial snowflakes. They refer to deep-rooted fears and hatred of queer and trans people in our society that extend beyond mere language. In many cases, our very lives are at stake.
A report released by the Human Rights Campaign found that since 2013 more than 102 transgender people have been murdered, 87 of whom are people of color. And, more disturbing still: over the past five years, the number of trans homicides has been steadily on the rise.
Last month, in Denver, Colorado, Chris Huizar and Gabriel Roman, ages 23 and 19 respectively, were walking home from a nightclub holding hands when suddenly they were attacked by a stranger yelling “Fuckin’ faggots!” as he stabbed them in the neck, back, and hands. One wonders if news of this attack weighed on the minds of the Supreme Court justices as they decided the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
Incidents of anti-trans and anti-gay violence are more common than any of us would like to believe, and it seems that strides toward marriage equality have occasioned more than deterred such heinous acts of hatred.
We are at a pivotal moment in the fight for LGBT rights—one where we need to stop, recalibrate, and ask: Is the current course of the movement putting us on the best path towards equality and justice? How did we go from rioting against police brutality at Stonewall in 1969—where queer and trans people of color, like Marsha P. Johnson, led the struggle for our right to exist and inhabit spaces free from the constant onslaught of state-sanctioned violence—to sanitized parades sponsored by Chase Bank and Chipotle? When did our movement put all of its focus on banging down the doors to two of society’s most oppressive institutions: marriage and the military? And at what cost?
If you take a moment to examine who are the plaintiffs and petitioners in the most recent historic LGBT rights cases—namely, United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges—some common demographic traits start to emerge which tell a story about exactly whom today’s mainstream movement benefits most: white, wealthy, gay and lesbian property owners.
It’s hard to imagine that marriage equality felt like a win for Michael Johnson, a black college athlete in Missouri who, in 2013 at the age of 22, was sentenced to over 30 years in prison for the crime of being a sexually active young gay man with HIV. His was one of the harshest sentences in American history for a first time offender of an HIV disclosure law—an offense that, according to the Center for HIV Law and Policy, is currently categorized as a felony in over 30 states. Despite being a completely manageable disease, many of these states impose stricter sentences for HIV crimes than they do for killing someone while driving drunk. The fact that this case has received considerably less attention from national gay rights organizations signals that something is horribly awry in our movement.
My point is not to demonize marriage or denigrate individual married couples. I understand why marginalized groups want access to privileges they have historically been excluded from. I’m also aware of the thousands of benefits marriage affords to LGBT couples—benefits such as health insurance, tax relief, custody of children, sponsorship of foreign spouses for green cards, among many others.
However, my concern is that our emphasis on assimilation into what society considers “normal” misses the mark on the root cause of LGBT oppression. Rather than engaging in respectability politics—i.e. “We may be gay but we’re just like you!”—if we are interested in real liberation, we should focus our efforts instead on challenging the stigma and shame surrounding sex.
In The Trouble With Normal, Michael Warner decries how the gay rights movement “has chosen to articulate the politics of identity rather than become a broader movement targeting the politics of sexual shame.” In his view, we need to articulate a new standpoint that reframes queer sexual acts—broadly defined—as ethical in their own right. In essence, the real potential of queer politics rests in its ability to recast the wide spectrum of human sexuality in a positive, affirming, and empowering light. Otherwise, religious conservatives will continue to claim the moral high ground—and continue to win in state legislatures and courtrooms alike.
Instead of staking our claims for civil rights on bland appeals to normalcy—“Love is love!”—we would do better to demand recognition of our dignity because of our differences, not in spite of them. Straight people have much to learn from the creative—and at times, more egalitarian—ways we have reconfigured love, relationships, family, and desire within the queer world. In place of complete capitulation to the conformity of heterosexual relationships—relationships the Supreme Court holds up as the model for all of society—we should instead resist heteronormativity and become pioneers charting a new course forward.
This means building coalitions across differences that counter the stigmatization of all forms of sexual practices between consenting adults. This means demanding civil rights and social protections for all people regardless of marital status. This means fighting for universal healthcare, comprehensive immigration reform, criminal justice reform, the decriminalization of HIV—all measures that marriage equality is ill-equipped to address but are intimately important to a queer political agenda.
Queer politics must go beyond individual identity and beyond couples; it must become a movement guided by a more inclusive vision of community. The time is ripe for us to reclaim an ethics of queer life, which Warner writes, “At its best…cuts against every form of hierarchy you could bring into the room.”
In his concurring opinion with the majority in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, writes: “‘I just don’t make cakes for same-sex weddings.’ It is hard to see how this statement stigmatizes gays and lesbians more than blocking them from marching in a city parade, dismissing them from the Boy Scouts, or subjecting them to signs that say ‘God Hates Fags’—all of which this Court has deemed protected by the First Amendment.”…to which I reply: “Dear (not so) Honorable Justices Thomas and Gorsuch: You can keep your cake, and eat it too. Happy Pride!”
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