On June 26, 2015, at 7:30 AM Pacific Standard Time, I was half asleep when my mom and her girlfriend announced the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling: Same-sex marriage is a legal right. Within hours people were putting up rainbow flags at the Berkeley Repertory Theater down the hill, partying on Castro Street in San Francisco across the Bay, and posting Facebook statuses that celebrated the ruling and mocked the haters. At the same time, many LGBTQ nonconformists repeated a concern they had articulated previously about other issues: Because marriage is socially connected to gender imbalance, the fight for marriage rights was part of a trend in mainstream gay activism to join in traditional, conservative American life.
They have a point. Since the advent of homophile groups in the 1940s (organizations that made up what would become the modern gay rights movement), conforming to preexisting heterosexual society has been standard practice among many advocates of LGBTQ rights. In some cases, this was a matter of following the law. For example, in the 1950s a lesbian group called the Daughters of Bilitis had police officers on their backs making sure nobody broke the anti-cross-dressing laws. It was also, however, a matter of tactics. Beyond the individual rules about how many articles of gender-appropriate clothing you had to wear at all times, the leaders of the homophile movement had the idea that showing people how normal and average gay people were would encourage them to accept homosexuality. Some activists even suggested that gay men should marry gay women for companionship and to fit into mainstream society!
This conformist attitude isn’t hard to find in modern LGBTQ activism, either. The 21st century so far has seen two main trends in American gay rights advocacy: demanding marriage and demanding to join the military. Second to that are issues like allowing transgender people in the military and making the Boy Scouts more queer-friendly. And while those things are great, the focus of attention on these particular institutions is like saying, gay and trans people are normal! We’re conservative, patriotic Americans! We want to conform to gender roles, marry and settle down behind a suburban white-picket fence, fight for our country, and send our sons to the Boy Scouts!
Just to give one example, on the same day that the Supreme Court affirmed marriage equality, I went to walk in San Francisco’s Transgender Pride March. I saw so many of my metaphorical transgender siblings holding up signs calling for better healthcare coverage of transition, for an end to the mass incarceration of trans women in male prisons, for more attention to be given to the disproportionate number of murders of trans women of color. In short, I saw that even though marriage equality is the law of the land, and even though we have safe spaces to celebrate the gay and trans communities, there’s still so much work to be done.
To draw a parallel, slavery was officially outlawed in the nineteenth century, and many racial segregation and Jim Crow laws were outlawed by the 1960s, but to this day, black Americans (and other nonwhite ethnic and racial groups) still suffer from discrimination, police brutality, and poverty on a scale that white Americans do not. Marriage equality is only one step.
At the same time, though, the legalization of same-sex marriage is an important step, and one we should celebrate. Marriage, in our society, is the joining of two people into one household. Our government, for the convenience of these married partners, recognizes these marriages legally, understanding that the two people are together as an economic unit and that, because they are so close socially and emotionally, they may be treated as family for things like hospital visits. If we ignore the religious and political reasons that make people value certain romantic and sexual relationships above others, then from a completely logical, legal standpoint, it makes no sense to recognize some, but not all marriages. It especially makes no sense to choose whether or not marriages should be recognized based on the sex of the people getting married. Now that same-sex couples can get married, they can get easier access to medical records in case of emergencies, adopt children more easily, file taxes together, inherit each other’s possessions, and get government benefits for their dead spouses, to list just a few examples. These types of things will make life a lot easier for a lot of non-heterosexual people.
Beyond that, though, the Supreme Court’s ruling is a symbol that the population at large is feeling increasingly supportive of LGBTQ people and our rights. No, it’s not everything, but it’s a step that’s part of a trend. Probably, over time, better anti-discrimination policies, support services for queer and trans youth, greater societal acceptance, and other good things will follow for the LGBTQ community.
So go ahead, celebrate! Change your profile picture to a rainbow! Go to someone’s finally-legal wedding! And don’t forget to keep channeling your queer-positive advocacy energy into the areas that still need work. I’m so excited to see what the next step is for making our country a little bit better.