Trigger warning: heterosexism, cissexism, transmisogyny
The recent politicking around a Kentucky county clerk’s refusal to provide any marriage licenses (as long as she would have to hand them out to same-gender couples) has a strangely familiar feel to it. Jim Obergefell, the titular plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, gave his pen to the Human Rights Campaign to call for signatories in support of the various couples denied marriage licenses by her. It’s intriguing to note that not all of the couples involved in the suit against their county clerk are even same-gender. While the shows of support for all of them are quite kind, these are marriage-minded politics that treat the relevant needs and rights of LGBT people as an important but added on complication.
The comments on a YouTube video of one of the same-gender couples being denied their license makes it clear how peripheral their status as LGBT is within this understanding of what’s happening. Instead, as they make clear, it’s about love, or civil service standards, or almost any other reading of the situation that downplays their identities which fall outside of hetersexist and cissexist norms and creates LGBT politics that put the focus on something other than being LGBT.
This isn’t to deny the importance of accessing among other basic civil services and rights, marriage, for LGBT people. But there’s a well-worn specificity here, that among the various legal statuses and processes, marriage is beyond central, it’s dominating. From the image conscious use of a figure in the fight to expand marriage rights to the political focus on making the use of those marriage rights as accessible as possible, the marriage centered notion of what are LGBT rights appears to have just been reborn in a post-Obergefell era with the HRC as midwife. Far from clearing the air and recasting the structure of how LGBT people will politically interact with each other and the cisgender and straight mainstream, this casts a doubt on the transformative effect of the spread of marriage equality.
It wasn’t clear that this was going to be the outcome a scant few months ago. Even the HRC itself engaged in a membership and donation drive in August that emphasized that their upcoming legal focus would be on anti-discrimination measures for LGBT people in workplaces, schools, and other spaces. Marriage was a part of their program, but it was mainly part of a broader set of rights compromised by civil discrimination with a clear indication that other forms of discrimination would likely take up a larger portion of the discussion. Securing the right to marry specifically was a distant concern, presented as one that would mostly concern electing supportive candidates rather than confronted the already elected, like Davis.
The HRC wasn’t alone in dipping a toe into a less marriage-focal set of LGBT politics. The Victory Fund, which has long fundraised to increase LGBT representation in local and state governmental bodies, sought support for two lesbian candidates for Nashville’s city council in late July. Caitlyn Jenner came out and began conversations both between trans and cis people and within the trans community about trans visibility. Over the summer she also drove a national conversation on trans athletes. I have myself been personally involved in efforts to redesign California state parental laws – which deliberately intended to make them more accessible to both married and unmarried LGBT parents.
Even on the other end of these and other issues of LGBT rights, there were the perennial debates about trans women’s legal right to use women’s restrooms and the Family Research Council began to prepare for fights around particularly workplace-focused anti-discrimination measures. The post-Obergefell terrain of both LGBT and anti-LGBT politics was vast and open to discussions that extended beyond marriage and marriage rights, and yet the HRC has apparently decided to fight the same battle once again on the same terms with the same names even.
This kind of complaint – that LGBT politics are dominated by a debate over marriage to the exclusion of other issues in large part because of the HRC’s political choices – is itself pretty stale to many LGBT people because this has been such a recurring problem. Beyond that overwhelming sense of familiarity, however, this is a structuring set of priorities within our communities. As I noted last week, part of what I was advocating for in California was that LGBT parents didn’t have to pay additional costs to parent – to conceive, to adopt, to be safe, secure, and stable families. In sharp contrast to that, David Moore, one of the people denied a marriage license by Davis, was broadcast on national news reminding her: “I pay your salary.” This echoes how he and by extension all other LGBT people are expected to financially bargain for acceptance. This specific type of marriage-focused politics seem like they’re quite capably reinforcing the idea that we should pay more to access what is a right for cisgender and straight people, and encouraging LGBT people to think in those terms. After all, that very line of thought came out of Moore’s mouth.
In short, we have been standing at a crossroads within LGBT politics. We can broaden our communities’ conversations, imagine a brighter future, and hopefully ultimately build that better world. We can have a political sense of self that moves past “I pay your salary” to one where it doesn’t matter what one pays, we’re still human and we still have rights. Or we can perpetuate what feels like little more than a remix of the same debate about marriage, with the same socio-economic implications for LGBT people, the same limits, and the same pitfalls. The rights of a mix of same-gender and male-female couples in Rowan County, Kentucky, are already being spoken for and advanced by organizations that fight for civil rights on a broader platform, namely the ACLU. Why does the HRC need to have to repeat the same priorities, the same focuses, the same conversations that lead to the same places when someone else can advance them?
As of this writing, Kim Davis’s county office has been handing out marriage licenses to the long-waiting couples. They still don’t have her signature on them, which a county official has said will be valid without that. Davis is facing jail time for refusing to perform mandatory duties to her clerk position. The fight for this specific form of this specific right for this specific license in this specific county appears to be near its end. Maybe the HRC and other LGBT organizations will have another chance to choose what they will prioritize how they will prioritize it from here on out. Maybe this isn’t a post-Obergefell world, but a post-Lund one.
This article’s featured image is of David Moore and Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis from an earlier confrontation in July, from here.