Editor's note: Guest EthnoBlogger Nick Mitchell comments here on the ways in which the mainstream gay rights' movement focus on marriage equality is pitting queer communities and communities of color against each other.  The Law only extends so far, Mitchell argues, and we need to broaden our view of queer advancement to include closer attention to real social equality.  Nick Mitchell is working on a Ph.D. at UC Santa Cruz, where he teaches black cultural studies and feminist theories. He blogs about race, sexuality, queer politics, and education at Low End Theory.  

Right before the National Equality March of a couple weeks ago, a group identifying themselves as Queer Kids of Queer Parents Against Gay Marriage! issued a hell of a statement. It’s really worth reading.

For me, what the queer kids are saying here is so important because they reach beyond what is the typical queer critique of same-sex marriage—that marriage is an outmoded, oppressive, restrictive, and bankrupt institution (still an important critique these days). They're trying to move beyond the liberal gay politics that equates social equality with the capacity to serve openly in the military. And they’re moving beyond this critique and that politics in a call for alliances that might look bizarre—at least to some—in the name of community.

 But the queer kids only gloss a few issues that need to be clarified. The mainstream LGB—I seriously hesitate to add T for reasons I won’t mention, but since that’s what they tend to say, LGBT—movement seems to be simply infatuated with The Law. Totally hot for it. Tempestuous as their affair with The Law has been, Marriage Equality and Human Rights Campaign (HRC) can’t, or at least seem unwilling, to look beyond it.

The Law is certainly hot these days, and we all know that it, um, gets around. And you didn’t expect any different. But when it jumped in bed with the Mormons, Prop 8 passed last year. Marriage “equality” advocates knew exactly who was to blame—the blacks! Well, okay. Black homophobia.

I think I get it. The mainstream LGBT movement (and it’s probably wrong to refer to it in the singular.) has a right to be pissed, especially since it really isn’t asking for much. Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine a form of legal recognition more anemic, less materially consequential, than its grand Marital and Military goals. Its preference is for issues, like marriage, that they believe can be solved by The Law—or at least by legislative means. Yet by focusing so narrowly on their relationship with The Law, they increasingly measure their successes and failures in its terms of that relationship, anyone standing in the way is easily branded as an enemy to equality—an obstruction to justice.

Since the issue of same-sex marriage is being so persistently connected to “equality,” maybe the question should be, equality for whom? Why, when marriage equality advocates were frustrated, was the reflex to blame black and other communities of color when those communities could be allies, not enemies, in the search for equality? Even though the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force later exposed this explanation as a myth, it’s a myth that makes a difference. It’s a myth that tells us that communities of color and LGBT communities are essentially at odds with one another. It’s a myth that lets The Law—and its partner in crime, The State—off the hook far too easily, far too uncritically.

The Law is important, no one doubts that. We all have some sort of relationship with it. But not all of us are in a position to embrace it—to kowtow to it, even—like Marriage Equality and HRC do, and that should probably tell us something. Even though same-sex marriage seems to promise equality under The Law, it’s hard to argue that that equality is equally meaningful to all of us, whether we consider ourselves members of LGBT communities or not. And here’s the thing: the fact that so much of the mainstream LGBT imagines equality and justice through the eyes of The Law has some serious implications.

(Hate) Crime and Punishment

Even more than a single-issue campaign like Marriage Equality, HRC has been at the forefront of mainstream LGBT struggles for rights and equality. In fact, HRC is actually interested not only in finding more ways to put people in prison for anti-gay and anti-trans violence, but also by equating beefed up jail sentences with “justice.”

With the possible exception of the marriage legislation they've helped to push through state legislatures in Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, and other states, HRC's biggest victories have been with hate crimes legislation. It wouldn't be hard to argue that criminalization gives HRC the moral high ground on which other claims are based. By putting the victims of these crimes on display, they are able to make a claim for the righteousness of their cause as a whole. But as Jason Lydon notes, hate crime laws don’t “distinguish between oppressed groups and groups with social and institutional power.” They do not emphasize healing or support for survivors of violence, to say nothing of their friends and families.

Hate crime laws have even less to do with short- or long-term strategies of actually engaging with communities to change the conditions that produce anti-gay violence, to say nothing of violence at large. HRC’s strategy is almost entirely top-down, relying on Law, criminalization, and punishment to pursue justice and equality.

But again, equality for whom? Many of the solutions that HRC’s strategy provides potentially reinforce and deepen social inequality. Adding years to someone's sentence by classifying their act as a hate crime seems to fall into a simple—yet no less dangerous—formula: more years=more justice=more safety. But while hate crimes legislation appears to combat homophobia on the surface, it can also have the result of entrenching it more deeply. The criminal justice system that HRC’s strategies legitimize is the same deeply racist system that handed out three- to ten-year sentences to the New Jersey 4, four black lesbians who had the gall to defend themselves against an attacker. It’s the same “justice” system that, forty years after Stonewall, is still targeting queer women of color who dare to be out at clubs.

There is little room, in this uncritical strategy, to speak out against the legal system which is imprisoning transgender folks en masse—particularly sex workers and poor transpeople of color. In order to do that, it would be necessary to develop an understanding of the prison system as a whole. HRC, to their credit, will speak up about prison when transpeople are victims of violence in prison, but they have no strategy for combating the system that places so many people—trans and cisgender—in prisons in the first place. Which is to say, HRC—and much of the gay rights or equality movement as a whole—at best overlooks a great many victims when their victimhood would require a broader challenge to the legal system as a whole. At worst, it confers legitimacy upon the very legal and penal rationales that have targeted (and continue to target) LGBT folks as well as other marginalized communities.

The relationship with The Law that the mainstream LGBT movement seeks to consummate through marriage and the military (M&M) is a relationship is an untenable and exclusionary one. Untenable because for many, The Law is a source of violence, not a solution to it. Incarceration simply moves its violence out of public view. Exclusionary because M&M will do little to challenge or alter the habits of a legal/penal system that not only reinforces but often intensifies social inequality along lines of race and class.

Marriage Equality?

Equality for whom? Recently, HRC has attempted to make their politics appear more inclusive by equating the right for same-sex marriage with the rights of families. But in spite of this focus, poor, undocumented, and incarcerated families, whether LGBT or not, are more or less off their radar. The fabulous queer kids show how the push for “marriage equality,” argued for in the name of families, actually excludes most families:

“We know that most families, straight or gay, don’t fit in with the standards for marriage, and see many straight families being penalized for not conforming to the standard the government has set: single moms trying to get on welfare, extended family members trying to gain custody, friends kept from being each other’s legal representatives. We have far more in common with those straight families than we do with the kinds of gay families that would benefit from marriage. We are seeing a gay political agenda become single-issue to focus on marriage and leave behind many very serious issues such as social, economic, and racial justice.”

Why has the idea of marriage recently become so persistently linked to the idea of LGBT equality? The mainstream and, let's face it, largely white, gay movement tends primarily to face black and other communities of color only when it wants something, or to point to these communities as a problem.

For these reasons, the queer kids' call for queer solidarity and reciprocity with communities of color is especially important. It would allow us to unearth not only histories of competition but also, and just as importantly, histories of collaboration. Let's not forget Huey Newton's call, back in 1970, for Panther solidarity with the then emerging gay liberation movement. But let's not also forget that the fact that Huey paid dearly for that statement means we all have a long way to go, and a lot of work to do in beginning to grasp each other's struggles.

I don’t want to downplay or to trivialize the importance of struggles for gay community. But I don’t think it devalues those past and present achievements to acknowledge the role that “gay gentrification” has played in the displacement of working class black and Latino communities in these same cities. Now we have academic studies making a strong case that “same sex couples make better communities,” and gay blogs celebrating it. “Better” than whom?

Unfortunately, what makes a community “better” than another is not measured as much by the meaningful human relationships a group of people forge and sustain as much as it is by a) how much the property value rises when they move in, and b) whom the rising property value prevents from moving in and/or forces to move out (i.e. undocumented people, poor folks, “undesirables,” people of color). Too often, the recent strategy has been to fight homophobia by promoting homo economicus.

A Call for Solidarity

Equality for whom? Blaming HRC and Marriage Equality for the narrowness of their politics is not going to help. What it might do is trap us in the same politics of blame, competitiveness, and moral superiority that Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan, to take two of the most visible examples, have helped to make into an art. How do we—especially we who move in and between queer communities, poor communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color, but also our current and would-be allies—move away from these politics?

To answer these questions, it’s not as necessary to reinvent the wheel as much as it is to turn to organizations like the Audre Lorde Project, Queers for Economic Justice, the queer youth of color org Fabuous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE); and Gay Shame. Organizations like these and others are already deep in the process of creating coalitional movements that look critically at the law, but also beyond it in developing their goals.

Finally, if we’re talking family, we need to move away from the bourgeois, idealized notion of it. It’s not like there aren’t single-parent or poor families with LGBT parents and/or kids, even though these aren’t the families you’ll find being photographed at the National Equality March. Children of incarcerated parents, for example, are certainly interested in family, but their relationship with The Law is much different. In incarcerating individuals, The Law also punishes families—violating parents’ and childrens’ rights to choose to see, touch, and maintain a meaningful and lifelong relationship with each other. Undocumented students and their families cannot rely on The Law to recognize their rights to public education without also risking incarceration and/or deportation. More now than ever, we need to understand their struggles, which remind us that demanding legal recognition and developing a critique of the law are not mutually exclusive ways of building a movement from the ground up.

At the same time, basic familial privileges like the ability to cohabitate, privileges that middle and upper class families take for granted, are currently being sacrificed to the market as families lose their homes.

To talk about family as an abstract good, one that will be sanctified by same-sex marriage, is to perpetuate an idea disconnected from the conditions in which so many families, LGBT ones among them, are currently living and struggling. Without strategies for building and sustaining coalition, the demand for “marriage equality” becomes institutionally wedded to the bourgeois Law it should be more interested in challenging.