The cover of last week’s Weekly Standard featured a characteristically provocative image: Against an ominously stormy sky, a giant steamroller bears down on the pizza parlor, photography studio, church, and cupcake shop that line Main Street, USA, crushing them under its rainbow-colored weight. The gay agenda, we’re meant to understand, has attained the force of inevitability—resistance is futile.
With the Supreme Court set to decide the same-sex marriage question any day now, many folks on the right share the fear articulated in this image and its associated story: Marriage equality is almost certainly coming, and it will have Unintended Consequences. For one thing, it will violate the personal and religious freedoms of business owners, flattening them under the unbearable mass of having to serve LGBTQ citizens. It will also probably lead to legal polygamy and all manner of other relational deviance, including the frightening realization that healthy marriages may not require monogamy, resulting in an opening up of what the institution might mean. Marriage equality will also hasten our shift to a world in which, as with interracial marriage, it is no longer considered couth to question the dignity of same-sex love in polite society. Lastly, it will of course be devastating to the children.
It’s probably no surprise that most of these consequences do not trouble me greatly. In fact, some of them seem like clear bonuses to marriage equality, while others, if they come under serious consideration, will face the same refining legal and cultural scrutiny same-sex marriage has been subjected to over the last 30 years or so. And as for the children, they usually prove to be far more adaptable and fair-minded than the parents who would use them as culture war weapons anyway.
That said, I do find myself worrying about the aftermath of an affirmative decision from the justices—but my anxieties don’t concern the decline of the righteous American empire. Instead, they’re about what the solidly established right to marriage might do to queer people and to the unique community we’ve created over the past century or so. To be sure, marriage equality is, on balance, a great good for us in all kinds of ways, both material and spiritual; but it may also have, yes, some unintended consequences that aren’t so positive.
To begin, I have a sneaking suspicion that the freedom to marry may quickly become the coercion to marry, both from outside and within the community. If marriage equality becomes the law of the land, many states and businesses may decide to do away with any domestic partnership-type arrangements that came before, forcing couples who might not otherwise want to marry to get with the program. Some of these couples will find this uncomfortable for ideological reasons—many folks, especially on the radical queer end of the spectrum, still find the institution off-putting. But as the Human Rights Campaign pointed out in a recent press release imploring the business community to retain the option, others may wish to maintain domestic partnerships because getting married would effectively “out” them to their communities, putting their jobs and safety at risk in areas lacking LGBT discrimination protections. To paraphrase Foucault, visibility can often be the trickiest of traps.
There’s also the question of marriage becoming a mark of “success” or “seriousness” among queer people—a hierarchical framing that has long plagued the straight world. In the past, being single, being partnered but open, having a community of lovers, or being monogamously devoted to one person for life were all legitimate options in the queer community, mainly because there was no arbitrary endgame like marriage. Because young gays and lesbians did not grow up with marriage as a realistic “goal” (nor with the pressure of family expectations), they were able to imagine and discover many other romantic ways of being. That may well end, or at least lessen in prevalence, and from where I sit, it would be a loss.
On the activism front, it’s hard not to wonder if, in the wake of a win at the court, a certain class of queer—wealthier white gay men in particular—might not jump from the LGBTQ ship into the mainstream as quickly as possible. In my recent long-form piece on the state of gay identity, “What Was Gay?,” scholar Mary Gray described this group as being “one layer away from full citizenship,” the layer being the social respectability and wealth consolidation mechanism that marriage affords. Once these men (or mostly men) have passed this final hurdle, the thinking goes, they may be much less likely to feel any affinity with the queer folks still struggling behind them—often for sorts of inclusion connected to gender and racial justice that are much more threatening to the status quo than marriage ever was. This potential exodus would mean not only an increase in the rolls of the Log Cabin Republicans, but also a major shake-up in the financial and organizational makeup of mainline LGBTQ activism, which has long been defined, for better or for worse, by the money and efforts of such men. To be sure, a recalibration could be healthy—but it won’t be easy.
I also fear that maintaining the support of straight allies for the larger LGBTQ movement will be a challenge. So much of the momentum for marriage must be attributed to the fact that it is a fundamentally happy cause. Celebrating love is always in style, and, assuming you’re not truly homophobic, it’s difficult to maintain aversion to the same-sex sort for long. Love is also conveniently visual, even meme-able: There’s no question that same-sex marriage has benefited heartily from the essentially parallel rise of social media, in which sharing a treacly proposal video or an anecdote about a couple being turned away at the county clerk’s office can be Liked—and amplified—with the click of a mouse. But the issues coming next for the LGBTQ movement—transgender protections, religious liberty laws, employment discrimination—are far more complicated and far less cute compared with marriage. Will allies continue to “share” our concerns when they aren’t as clicky? That remains to be seen.
If I had to choose one thing to fret about most among all of these, however, it would be marriage equality’s effect on queer community. I do not think it’s outlandish to see the married couple as the primary unit of straight life. While queers have enjoyed pairing off as well, the inability to formalize—and therefore lionize—those configurations meant that queer sociality tended to be much looser, more about deep friendships and chosen family than tightly bound nuclei. I’m of the opinion that this situation allowed for the production of a unique culture in which being “gay” or “lesbian” or “bisexual” could mean much more than just romance or sex. Of course, it’s possible that marriage equality won’t end all that, or that queers might bring some of this communal sensibility into marriage. Maybe. What’s certain, though, is that marriage equality will change things for us all. As we celebrate the great achievement of those changes, we should remain attuned to all the consequences, both joyful and troubling, as well.
Other great articles in Slate: