Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States of America affirmed the right of same-sex individuals to marry. Celebration erupted near and far — on social media and in person, as it well should. This morning, Bree Newsome, a black woman, climbed to the top of the flagpole in front of the South Carolina Statehouse to remove the confederate flag in an act of civil disobedience. She was promptly arrested and the flag was raised again, ordered to be raised by a black worker nonetheless, within the hour. It reappeared just in time for a white supremacist rally to take place, a rally protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and assembly.
I live in a world, in a country, in a society where these various things can, and do, happen nearly simultaneously. It’s a confusing time to be sure; a time where “same-sex marriage” becomes simply “marriage” in the eyes of the state while a racist symbol already 150+ years out of its time is still protected under the law. What does this say about us? What does this say about America?
I watched yesterday as a huge majority of my Facebook friends changed their profile pictures to rainbows in support of the Supreme Court’s ruling and yet few, if any, said anything when just 10 days ago an avowed white supremacist and terrorist walked into a black church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot and killed 9 people. So what is our template as to which issues matter? Why are folks so much more comfortable showing their support for LGBTQ marriage rights than speaking out against a racist act of terrorism? These are not rhetorical questions.
It is not insignificant that many — MANY — of these same people who now present as rainbows on social media on my Facebook were some of the same people telling me that a hashtag like #BlackLivesMatter was aggressive and uncalled for because, after all, don’t “all lives” matter? Obviously the intent of the hashtag is lost on folks who seek to counter it. It is precisely that not all lives are valued the same in our society that creates the need for #BlackLivesMatter. But that doesn’t stop these same people from sliding down a rainbow and looking for their pot of gold as same-sex marriage becomes the easy placeholder for LGBTQ equality. Easy, because it doesn’t ensure equality at all.
Yes, after yesterday, same-sex couples can get married in all 50 states (assuming you don’t live in one that continues to refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite the Supreme Court ruling), but that doesn’t prevent those same lawfully wedded spouses from being fired from their jobs or denied housing in many states. It doesn’t mean those married folks won’t get called “faggot” or “dyke” or any other plethora of slurs — it just means they will get called those names while also being married.
Yes, marriage is a symbol and one that will allow some to feel more accepted and affirmed and, yes, even privileged. And symbols are important. I know growing up as a queer kid, marriage was one of the main ways people used to insinuate how different and unequal and despicable I was. That will change for many young people growing up under this new regime. At least on a state level. No religion is required to honor or accept any relationship they don’t want to — and that might continue to be one major way hate will thrive and grow despite marriage between “sinners” becoming part of the law of the land (depending on your personal religion of course).
Don’t get me wrong, I love love. I am happy for people that find love. I’m a sucker for romance and I’ve been known to tear up at cheesy romantic comedies where everything works out for the featured romantic couple we are meant to root for. Love gives us hope. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone that argued against the transformative and liberatory force of love. I also, however, don’t believe that marriage equals love. Maybe I’m jaded for having grown up in a household with both parents present, but one in which they clearly did not love each other. In fact, my parents are still together to this day and they mostly can’t stand each other. But my father believes in the “institution” of marriage above all else (for religious reasons) and my mother stays because she has been a homemaker and housewife for so long that she is afraid to take the risk of being alone. I don’t blame either of them. But they are my background, my history. They are still married, but they have two different lives. They have two different bedrooms. Marriage and love, for me, were never linked. In fact, historically marriage and love have not been linked. Marriage was never about being in love. It was about necessity, it was about property, it was about commerce.
I’m not judging folks who do want to get married or already are married here, it’s just never been one of my personal dreams. I’m merely trying to dig deeper. Marriage and love do often coexist — but it’s still a mistake to assume one equals the other. That’s why, yesterday when the news broke about the Supreme Court decision along with the hashtag on social media #LoveWins (which came default with its own rainbow colored heart emoji), I was skeptical. On the one hand, it felt amazing to be affirmed as a queer person through this kind of state recognition even if I never had any impulse to take part in it. As a cisgender white man, sexuality has really been the only front on which I’ve felt excluded, although heavily so in some cases. But on the other hand, the uncomfortable equation of love and marriage in terms of winning left me sad. Because when I look around me in this world, there is not much love present, queer or not. And when there is love, it is very rarely winning. In fact, it mostly seems that hate and death are dominating in large proportion.
I look around and see the multitude of black men and boys shot, and many times killed, by police for doing nothing. In this year alone. I see the continued, repeated devaluation of black women ever present in American culture. I see the disproportionate number of trans folks targeted for violence by police and society, largely trans women of color — who already have a radically shortened life expectancy compared to those of us who identify as cisgender. I see Barack Obama, the President of the United fucking States, kick Jennicet Guttiérez out of a White House “pride” cocktail party for being brave enough to speak out about the multitude of issues undocumented trans folks face in their daily lives, while the largely gay-cisgender-white-male audience boo-ed as support of Obama’s active failure to acknowledge her humanity. Where is the love? Please someone tell me…WHERE IS THE LOVE? This is not a rhetorical question. Yet, social media would have us all believe that #LoveWins; that love won yesterday.
So, why can’t I be happy? Why can’t I dance in the streets celebrating the historic Supreme Court decision handed down, especially this NYC Pride weekend? Why is my heart too heavy to get out of bed, even in the face of an historic “win” for same-sex marriage? I guess it’s because I’m just too fucking sad. I’m sad that marriage won’t save most people from the problems of this world; marriage won’t actually make anyone equal. But we’ve been deluded into thinking it will. Because even though I can marry my boyfriend, a black woman was still arrested today for taking down the confederate flag in South Carolina. Because even though I can marry my boyfriend, white supremacy reigns supreme in these united states (although the battle over the confederate flag should really make us question how united these states actually are).
Intersectionality, the famous black feminist framework (denoted by Kimberle Crenshaw), asks us all to look at the ways oppressions and lived experience intersect. But we seem to have divorced lived experience from identity politics in theory. An intersectional lens does not see the same-sex marriage win as a plus because some people of color identify as LGBTQ and thus, the win will be a benefit to them. A true intersectional lens, a true intersectional politics, sees what’s going on our world right now as a net loss because same-sex marriage has been prized at the expense of black lives mattering. #LoveWins vs. #BlackLivesMatter. These two hashtags don’t need to be oppositional, but those in power hope they implicitly function that wya. Can love actually win, when black lives still don’t matter? Can love win when the confederate flag is still allowed to fly in South Carolina or anywhere, despite brave acts of civil disobedience to remove it? Bree Newsome’s actions, if nothing else, show us the state’s continued investment in white supremacy BECAUSE THEY PUT THE FLAG BACK UP. The flag had been taken down. Problem solved (sort of). They put that flag back up, and they made a black worker do it probably just to reinforce their white supremacist point (and absolutely no judgment on that worker simply doing the job they get paid to do). And that’s why, today, I’m having a really hard time accepting that love, of any kind, has won.
Symbols like marriage matter. And that’s why yesterday was a win. Young people will no longer have to grow up in a world where the fact that they can’t get married alludes to them being lesser citizens. BUT…symbols like the confederate flag also matter. And all the same-sex marriages in the history of the world can’t counter the fact that Bree Newsome was arrested for removing a racist flag. We can’t afford to be basic in the fight for liberation. What if everyone with a rainbow profile picture on social media went out and pulled down the first confederate flag they saw? What if every single person claiming that love won yesterday donated even $5 to trans women of color organizations, LGBTQ youth homelessness prevention orgs, or even just to racial justice groups? What if we looked out for each other better? What if we supported each other more? What if basic human dignity and life was more prized than the state recognizing certain forms of love? Wouldn’t even more people be able to love their life and live to create love? Wouldn’t we all win? What if we really practiced intersectional politics? Again, these ARE NOT RHETORICAL QUESTIONS.
Nina Simone, in her iconic reinterpretation of a song from the musical Hair declared that life is the one thing that all of us have in common. In “Ain’t Got No (I Got Life),” she runs through a litany of personal experience that all boils down to the fact we are alive with one another in this world. Commonality. Despite our differences — which can be many and always remain important — we are still alive. Together. Love might be the icing on the cake, but life is the cake itself. And if we can’t secure the basic minimum, what good is celebrating the icing? We’ll all just get sick off the sugar. Love can’t win until life has been affirmed and there are still lives that need affirmation, respect, dignity, celebration (over the lives that have default always been celebrated and respected.) That is why I reject the assumption that love has won, or is winning. Love can win, but first, we have to do better. First, we must affirm: #BlackLivesMatter #TransLivesMatter #BlackTransLivesMatter #POCLivesMatter #POCTransLivesMatter. Because being married doesn’t matter a shit-ton of a lot when you’re still struggling to be seen as human on your own. Being married, as a relationship reflecting love, can’t matter UNTIL life on its own matters. What if, instead of #LoveWins we prized #LifeWins? This is not a rhetorical question…