Sunday, July 8, 2007

Struggling to Be Part of the Story

This thoroughly researched but ultimately unrevealing resource from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force probably won't make any waves in the debate over same-sex marriage. If anything it is a testament to the fact that political deliberation over the topic really has stalled out. In rating the crop of 2008 Presidential hopefuls on a handful of crucial LGBT issues, the conclusions of the Task Force are nowhere near groundbreaking. Kucinich emerges as the clear champion for LGBT people. He and Gravel are the only candidates to support same-sex marriage, but Gravel is ambiguous in his support for transgender inclusive hate-crime laws, adoption by same-sex couples, and robust HIV/AIDS policies. Other than that the Democrats nail each issue with the conspicuous exception of full same-sex marriage rights, and the Republicans are categorically miserable on all counts. There is no way to equivocate when a genuine bipartisan consensus emerges: the political mainstream, left and right, is opposed to same-sex marriage. A whole six senators openly support same-sex marriage, a number that belies the growing support for marriage equality amongst voting Americans.

The opponents of same-sex marriage have been successful in large because they have managed to frame the controversy as a "moral issue" - the type of issue that centers around beliefs, beliefs which cannot be authoritatively challenged or established. LGBT activists and their allies obviously see the issue as one of discrimination and social policy. But the language of inequality rarely makes it into mainstream discussions of same-sex marriage, even in the apologia of lefty candidates.

For example, John Edwards on same-sex marriage. He has described it as "the single hardest issue" and the site of many "personal struggles." He has told audiences that supporting same-sex marriage would be a "jump" for him, but that, ultimately, he is "not there yet." Obama's stance is similar. He writes in The Audacity of Hope that,"It is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided."

Consciously or not, Edwards and Obama play directly into the interpretation that sees same-sex marriage as nothing more than a "cultural" or "moral" question, akin to asking whether an explicit piece of art is lewdly pornographic or genuinely expressive. And in this sense, their framing of the debate is oddly similar to that of the religious right - the issues is another battle in a culture war, in which the real questions are not about people or policy, but about what culture we will produce, consume, and tolerate. Their meditations on the issue make the straight-speaker the primary subject of the political narrative on same-sex marriage. Rather than telling a story about people who suffer indignity, social marginalization, and deprivation of economic privileges that are often crucial to the functioning of family life, the Democratic front-runners are making the moral odyssey of the oppressor the center of the debate.

This is surely a trend to be resisted. The debate over same-sex marriage should not be about the soul-searching of privileged heterosexuals, and whether or not they have strength of introspection to extend equality to same-sex couples. The narratives of queer women and men struggling for equality should be inescapable when the issue of same-sex marriage is raised. Thats why projects like 10Couples are so important. They show same-sex couples of varying positions in structures of racial and class privilege, all living lives that are somehow marred by exclusion. These types of narratives are hard to shrug off. Oregon's Supreme Court decisions show the exact types of legal contortions that must be conceded in order to make a case that discrimination in the arena of marriage is constitutionally acceptable - and even then, the Court was not convinced that barring same-sex marriages constituted effective or humane social policy.

People like Obama and Edwards who take themselves to be allies of the queer community should be pressing the conservative opponents of marriage equality as hard as queer activists are pressing the courts. But beyond merely disappointing LGBT constituents with soft stances, they themselves engage in an unacceptable kind of oppression, akin to cultural imperialism, when they monopolize the policy debates with their own stories and leave no space for narrative representation of the oppressed. bell hooks has observed similar trends in feminist conceptions of solidarity. White and middle class women, she argues, claim sisterhood with women of color and working-class women. But those privileged women continue to control the movement, to focus on their own goals and narratives. At best, acknowledgment of privilege comes as an intense catharsis - but even then, the focus is on the emotional experience of the privileged, not on a substantive political challenge on behalf of the underprivileged.

True allies do not behave in such a manner. Real solidarity entails a willingness to make political action for the oppressed the priority in a movement, even taking actions that don't seem comprehensible from within one's own narrative because they are the only way to genuinely treat the claims flowing from the narrative of the Other. Genuine solidarity is much like an ethic of service, a commitment to do for the oppressed what they cannot do for themselves. It is not about understanding the narrative of the other 100% - such a total comprehension of the subject position of one differently situated in structures of privilege. When we occupy the position of privilege within a movement, we should see the ultimate test of our solidarity in our willingness to act for the oppressed on the basis of precisely those things which our privilege prevents us from grasping entirely.

Or to phrase it in the language of organizing - Rule number one of being an ally should be: Check your privilege at the door. The system is built for you, and takes the validation of your experience as given. This is a movement to challenge that system. As a result, this movement is not about you. It is about justice for the oppressed, and the stories of their oppression should never have to compete with the history of your alliance for centrality.

I phrase the rule thusly speaking to the heterosexual allies of the LGBT movement. When I theorize as a feminist, an anti-imperialist, or an anti-racist, the lesson is mine to learn as well. To serve in solidarity is the price of privilege.

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