This past weekend my Facebook and Twitter feeds were awash with rainbow colors and expressions of patriotic love for the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).
The Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges granting “marriage equality” to same sex couples coincided with Pride weekend in many places, including Houston, Texas, where I have lived a good part of my life. My straight friends were particularly effusive in their expressions of joy on my behalf, as if Obergefell v Hodges were the decisive moment when people like myself finally achieved equality.
It was as if this moment were marked somehow out as sacred.
The Court’s majority opinion, as it turns out, does invoke the “sacred”. Citing Loving v Virginia, the landmark 1967 case ending miscegenation laws, the majority argues that the individual’s right to choose a marriage partner is “inherent in the concept of individual autonomy” because such a choice expresses the “yearnings”of “our common humanity.”
These yearnings for “security, safe haven, and connection” make marriage “unlike any other union in importance.” Indeed they make it a “sacred space” of stability marked off from the surrounding chaos of politics and the market.
The majority cites a paragraph from Book 1 of Alexis DeTocqueville’s Democracy in America designating American marriage as “the image of order and peace”that both serves as a refuge from the “turmoil of public life”and shores up a sense of stable selfhood that “the man of the house (sic!)” carries with him back into that turmoil.
Marriage is thus “a keystone of our social order.” It constitutes the exception to the rule of a society composed of the vying interests of autonomous decision-makers, the space where competition ceases and peace and “connection” reign supreme. For DeTocqueville, this space is precisely established because it is where the head of the household rules and all other members obey, where democracy yields to patriarchal authority.
Outside in the marketplace a “man” is nothing special. At home he is king, and is supported by a chosen companion whose mission in life is to support rather than to contend with his every decision. The SCOTUS majority discreetly avoids mentioning this aspect of DeTocqueville’s analysis of wedded bliss.
My own relatively muted response to the ruling has much to do with such a theology of marriage which, though certainly soft-pedaled by the court, is hardly covert. The concept of “marriage equality” is premised on the notion that a sacred, “safe” space can be achieved by autonomously choosing one’s own marriage partner.
But the coherence of this claim always rested on an assumption of gender inequality. And the data on marriage and divorce indicate that, even in the Leave it to Beaver days of the 1950s, the degree to which such stability could be achieved had more to do with economic stability and class privileges than anything else. For many, the free decision to marry more often initiates a protracted struggle to protect the hope of a sacred space that never materializes, along with that cruelly elusive hope fueling a reluctance to take steps that might transform the larger public sphere in the interests of social justice
I cannot celebrate “marriage equality”as the majority opinion understands it without buying into this kind of privatized vision. And if I celebrate it in this manner, I am venerating a false promise that underwrites an inherently unequal economic regime.
I am celebrating a theology that, although it may have my own Protestant roots, also clashes with my own understanding of Christianity. I am celebrating the privilege and obligation to defend a sacred space that can only ever be imagined by identifying with those who stand on the pinnacle of a social pyramid secured by an economic policy that valorizes unfettered competition.
Imagining myself in this way means seeing myself as having arrived at that pinnacle, and obligating myself to defend that safe haven for the partner I choose. The image of Jesus I draw from the New Testament, tradition, and scholarship does not fit this “safe haven” kind of theology. “Blessed are the destitute,”says this Jesus, “for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
And the image of God that Jesus’s story implies, according to Paul, is as follows: “God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are.” (1 Cor. 1:27-8)
The hope I draw from this collection of images is not the hope for the lifting of legal sanctions that prevent me from participating in the struggle to defend the sacred space of stability. It is a hope for the nullification of that order. And it is a hope that fosters identification with the many who remain excluded from it either by law or de facto rather than with the few who seem to have become victors in that struggle.
My own sense of “pride” also conflicts with such a theology. The history of the LGBT movement manifests a tension.
On one side, there is the impulse to imagine oneself as one gender object choice away from occupying that place on the pinnacle of the social pyramid that is one’s birthright by virtue of belonging to the universal, the raceless (“white”) race, the (male) role as head of a household. This image suggests that the goal for the sexual dissident is to move from outlaw to outcast to insider by the domestication of that dissidence. One longs to become the character of Will on the now classic sitcom Will and Grace.
On the other side, there is the impulse to picture oneself as cast irrevocably into to the vast and subterranean depths where myriad strange couplings and alliances hidden from a gaze fixed on the pinnacle of the pyramid can be glimpsed.
This scenario suggests that the goal of the sexual dissident is solidarity with those with whom one shares a sense of being outside looking in, even, in some sense, outside oneself looking in. Instead of aspiring to be Will, one aspires to be Sylvia Rivera, the Puerto Rican – Venezuelan transgender prostitute and veteran of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements who reportedly threw the first Molotov cocktail at the Stonewall riots.
Or one identifies with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power’s (ACT-UP’s) Majority Action Committee which, while never overcoming the highly focused “drugs into bodies” priority advanced by the activist group’s highly visible white male members, spawned multiple initiatives that contest the boundaries of “gay”identity politics, including the still-functioning radical nonprofit Housing Works.
The goal of normalization conflicts with the goal of solidarity. At crucial moments in the history of the LGBT movement, e.g., Stonewall in 1970, ACT-UP in the late 1980s, the solidarity impulse breaks through, only to be quickly overtaken by the domestication impulse. The Pride celebrations are an example of how that happens.
Although “Pride” is a kind of quasi-ethnic festival that increasingly attracts a mainstream crowd and provides revenue for restaurants, bars, and other vendors, it wouldn’t exist were it not for the fact that people who were not respectable gays fought the police during a raid on a place that was not a respectable gay bar.
The “marriage equality” movement belongs to the normalization impulse. It was spearheaded from the beginning by some of the wealthiest members of the gay community as well as some of the most reactionary, including ACT-UP nemesis and conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan.
At a White House Pride Reception just prior to the announcement of the Obergefell v Hodges decision, a single Latina activist interrupted to protest the brutalization of transgender women in ICE detention centers all over the United States. The president’s response, i.e., that you don’t act like that when you’re invited to someone’s house, repeated the same theology of sacred space that animates the SCOTUS majority’s opinion.
The people in those detention centers, while now legally entitled to that sacred space of stability and intimate peace, have no actual access to it. The quest for inclusion in that space at the pinnacl is a fool’s quest. Our task is not to squeeze into that space, but to collapse the pyramid.
Don’t get me wrong. I am happy about the decision. Extending marriage rights to same sex couples does advance the cause of equality, because marriage in our society has privileges attached to it that no other kind of union between people does.
But the theology of marriage that uniquely attaches these privileges to it is deeply flawed and deeply embedded in the inherently exclusionary political theology of nationalistic “free market” capitalism.
So if I get invited to your big gay wedding, I’ll go and I’ll greet the bride and bride or groom and groom. But don’t be surprised if, instead of hanging out with the people in the tuxes and dancing the night away, I’m out back smoking cigarettes with the help.
That’s where I’ll find my people, and where I’ll find my Lord.
Alan Jay Richard, Ph.D., is an independent scholar and activist currently affiliated with Realistic Living, a nonprofit community in rural north Texas that experiments with new forms of collective Christian practice. He has been involved in activism since his work with the AIDS group ACT-UP in Syracuse during the late 1980s, leading to a 20-year career in public health epidemiology and research. Since leaving that career to work in the religion field, he has also been involved in environmental and anti-poverty activism. Along with his Realistic Living work, he serves as president of Citizens Organizing for Resources and Environment, and facilitator for the Fannin County Good Food Project, an effort to address rural food insecurity. He is currently interested in developing educational and spiritual formation paths for unconventional and subversive ministries.