Column: Same-sex marriage doesn’t guarantee equality

Allowing conservatives to co-opt gay marriage to regain votes dilutes the broader intentions of the LGBTQ movement.

Jon Huntsman became somewhat of a folk hero for scientifically-minded conservatives and moderates during the Republican primaries. His open defenses of evidence-based science education and environmental politics, not to mention his differing opinions on foreign policy, set him apart from a field of Republican presidential hopefuls obsessed with neoconservative fantasies and anti-Obama polemics. Plus, he was a seemingly likable, goofy guy with less of Mitt Romney’s corporate artifice and Michele Bachmann’s crazy-eyed Midwestern appeal.

To my Facebook friends who identify as conservatives or right-leaning in general, Huntsman was (and still is) adored and gave hope that the party wasn’t entirely deluded or misguided. And while he fell out of the limelight after dropping out of the presidential race, he came back into view last week with his editorial for The American Conservative in support of marriage equality.

Headlined “Marriage Equality Is a Conservative Cause,” Huntsman argues that if conservatives are to uphold limited-government values in a consistent way, they should reconsider their opinions on same-sex marriage or at least civil unions.

Huntsman’s notion that same-sex marriage equality can be re-thought as a conservative value, also echoed by my fellow columnist Shannon Greenwood, implies it has heretofore been presented as a liberal value. But one must be overly optimistic to see state recognition of same-sex marriage as anything other than a conservative value, one that impels LGBTQ (but mostly LG) people to fold into a historic institution that holds some relationships at a privileged standard above others.

Huntsman, Greenwood and others rightly argue that current policy regarding same-sex marriage unfairly allocates benefits to heterosexual couples, and gay couples are equally deserving of those benefits. But this still affirms the widely held belief that one is deserving of healthcare and benefits only if they’re in a state-approved relationship.

Moreover, arguments for same-sex marriage often depend on privatized, domestic notions of what an American citizen should be. Gays in the media are presented as monogamous, tax-paying, child-rearing people next door — democratically involved, usually white and with high capacity for consumption. This new iteration of gay idealism, what scholar Lisa Duggan dubs “homonormativity,” defines a new set of standards for what becomes “properly homo.”

This inclusion of LGBTQ (but again, mostly LG) people into neoliberal institutions like marriage is certainly a significant progression from how our state previously saw those who weren’t straight and gender-normative. In other words, we’ve come a long way from being dubbed Communists, dissidents to American nationalism or perverted vessels for HIV/AIDS. But this does not necessarily signify a mainstream reconciliation of what it means to have a non-normative sexuality. Put simply, it’s easier for voters to latch onto symbolic public affirmations of LGBTQ love and partnership than it is to deal with what might be visceral reactions to the reality of queer sex and partnership: our sex is different.

Making the LGBTQ movement about marriage, love and military inclusion has been effective in playing by the political and rhetorical standards that guarantee you “bipartisan” success in Washington. But we need to be conscious of the consequences of dissolving our movement into one merely based on legislative rights. We’ve become too tempted by the cheerful celebrations of gay couples kissing on courthouse steps. As a result, we’ve been complicit in co-opting broader equality for a conservative-approved reaffirmation of the monogamous, stable consumer household.

It’s our urgent responsibility to appeal to equality for everyone in the queer community — not just those whose relationships have been given the government stamp of approval. Moreover, we need to tame our optimism when we get recognition from conservatives, particularly when their incentive is to “get (LGBTQ) people to consider (conservative) reform ideas,” as Huntsman argues. If LGBTQ voters really want conservatives to uphold limited-government principles to legitimize same-sex marriage, they better prepare for the limited-government benefits their supposed emancipators would provide. 

It’s no surprise, too, that our politics can be co-opted for self-serving reasons, and we need to be aware of when we’re being used.

As blogger Yasmin Nair astutely concludes, it’s no surprise that conservatives and neoliberals are increasingly accepting same-sex marriage – “The surprise is that it took them so long to do so.”

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