Queering the Gay Agenda

Two new books argue for an LGBTQ movement that benefits queer people beyond marriage, money, and family.

Rainbow picket fence surrounding a white picket fence.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Sharon Lapkin/Moment/Getty Images and Benjamin Rondel/Corbis/Getty Images.

This piece is part of the Legacies issue, a special Pride Month series from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read an introduction to the issue here.

When the Supreme Court overturned criminal bans on same-sex intimacy in Lawrence v. Texas, Justice Antonin Scalia decried the decision as a product of the so-called “homosexual agenda.” While that phrase is often used to conjure the specter of something sinister, Scalia was, of course, correct: There really is a gay agenda—one concerned with combating LGBTQ discrimination. But perhaps to Scalia’s surprise, that agenda—at least as embodied by prevailing LGBTQ equal rights discourse—has often been a relatively conservative one that aligned with and reinforced traditional, market-friendly values.

As we celebrate 50 years since the Stonewall riots, two new books build on the body of work critically examining the history of LGBTQ rights discourse by offering concrete suggestions on how to make the movement more attentive to the economic and racial consequences of our advocacy choices—choices that we all contribute to. In a way, Libby Adler’s Gay Priori: A Queer Critical Legal Studies Approach to Law Reform and Liz Montegary’s Familiar Perversions: The Racial, Sexual, and Economic Politics of LGBT Families offer roadmaps for how to queer the gay agenda.

Montegary focuses on LGBTQ families and examines how such families are described through the law, but also through other social endeavors, including the Family Equality Council’s Family Week in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Rosie O’Donnell’s R Family Vacation cruises; and the growth of LGBTQ-focused investment firms. What Montegary documents is that over time, the archetypal LGBTQ family was drawn in a very narrow—indeed, straight—way that reinforced established norms. Queer difference—the idea that our diverse, intersectional sexualities and gender identities may break down and reimagine a host of restrictive social norms—was often obscured, wealth accrual and whiteness accentuated.

For example, when LGBTQ-focused investment firms tried to recruit and provide financial advice to queer individuals, they simultaneously endorsed privatized health care and the nuclear family as the central distribution points for wealth and social welfare benefits. Rather than challenging the fact that the state neglects to provide health benefits to people regardless of their marital status, LGBTQ enterprises cemented that framing.

Montegary also examines how, in an effort to combat conservative fearmongering about the effects of same-sex parenting, children were at times called upon to symbolically and literally testify that same-sex parents don’t mess up their kids. But the narrative created by LGBTQ rights discourse arguably suggested that parents have no influence on their children at all. That is, instead of foregrounding how having same-sex parents might—just might—help create space for a child’s critical examination of identity and broaden a child’s horizons about a host of social inequities, the discourse of gay normalcy unwittingly reinforced essentialist views of identity formation, ignoring that we are all (at least partially) products of our environment and socialization.

Adler’s book documents how LGBTQ equal rights discourse has, through its choice of priorities and how it pursued those priorities, elided forms of oppression affecting many subpopulations within the broader queer community. Formal equality objectives have predominated in movement litigation—with marriage being the clearest example—at the expense of efforts focused on securing housing and health care for those in the most precarious social positions, including queer homeless youth among others.

Put differently, LGBTQ rights discourse has at times ignored redistribution in favor of equality—equality that most directly benefited those already in relatively privileged positions (white couples who may largely conform to traditional notions of femininity or masculinity and can more easily navigate the heteronormative workplace). Noting parallels with the civil rights movement, Adler observes that pursuing formal equality seems to rarely result in transformative economic redistribution. At the same time, Adler notes how well-intentioned movement advocacy has embraced tropes regarding LGBTQ identity—tropes of sameness—that, by definition, exclude many and limit societal understanding of real queer difference.

After painstakingly outlining how LGBTQ identities and priorities have been narrowly constructed and the material consequences of those constructions, both authors gesture toward a way forward. Recognizing that there is no panacea, Adler invites us to shift priorities, focusing on the poorest and most marginalized sectors of our communities while at the same time resisting and challenging the prototypical frames of gay identity—the picket-fenced same-sex headed household. For instance, Adler advocates confronting issues such as LGBTQ youth homelessness from a wider angle—not from an anti-discrimination lens but by comprehensively recognizing the background laws that may restrict the options available for LGBTQ youth survival. Laws criminalizing camping are a more obvious example, but Adler also points out how even benevolent laws prohibiting child labor may, without appropriate exceptions, unduly restrict the ability of homeless youth to support themselves. (Of course, a broader state-sponsored social safety net would arguably be a more direct way of protecting the lives of LGBTQ youth in precarious social positions.)

Similarly, Montegary wants to challenge what it means to be a family. Rather than continually reinvest in discourse and legal enterprises that enshrine the two-parent nuclear family as the principal form of social support, Montegary argues, we could imagine family and community in ways that don’t economically privilege only those who wish to participate in the institution of marriage. Moreover, she encourages us to acknowledge that, yes, queer parents may influence the identities of their kids—not through some nefarious recruitment scheme as the right might have us believe, but by freeing the children’s imaginations of their own identities. This influence need not be feared, but should be embraced.

As with any incremental reform project, the books have limitations. Adler laments that the so-called child welfare system does not treat parents’ discouragement of homosexuality as abuse or neglect, implicitly endorsing policing of families by a system that is, as Montegary notes, sometimes deployed with devastating implications for families of color. Montegary’s attempt to repurpose a word that has often been used to degrade queer people—pervert—is more distracting than clarifying, in part because Montegary never clearly defines what she means by the term. And with their focus on institutional actors (namely, movement organizations and LGBTQ-operated corporations), both authors arguably gloss over important forms of resistance already being used by those most intimately affected by the social structures they critique.

But on the whole, each book’s descriptive account and their separate prescriptions are important contributions toward a more emancipatory queer agenda. They serve as timely reminders that the legacy of Stonewall is still unfolding—and that we all have a part to play in how the discourse surrounding queer rights is written.

Read more of Outward’s Legacies issue.

Gay Priori book cover.
Duke University Press
Familiar Perversions book cover.
Rutgers University Press