A match made in heaven

Gay-rights activists advanced radical aims by marrying them to a traditional institution.
By Nathaniel Frank

This month’s 50th anniversary of Stonewall, the Greenwich Village uprising that launched the modern LGBT movement, was always going to be complicated. What may seem like a straightforward chance to celebrate progress actually masks a fault line that has divided our movement since its start: whether our goal is equality or liberation, a fight for the right to be treated like everyone else or the freedom to be authentically ourselves. Do we seek belonging in the world as it is (including the military, marriage and parenting) or the chance to transform the world, by throwing off repressive norms, into a place where all of us — queer and non-queer alike — can be more free?

For those who prize the latter — call them “liberationists” — nothing better symbolizes the wish to assimilate than same-sex marriage, and in reflecting on Stonewall’s legacy, they’ve often chided the movement for going in the wrong direction. Martin Duberman, an eminent historian and elder statesman of queer intelligentsia, frets that “what has been most innovative” about LGBT life may be “abandoned or wholly concealed” by the focus on marriage and fitting in. For decades, gay activists like Duberman, many of whom cut their teeth in the counterculture of the 1960s and helped pioneer the sexual liberation of the 1970s, wanted little to do with marriage, finding it conformist, exclusionary and conservative. It would leave behind those who didn’t have, or want, a spouse. It seemed a sell-out to mainstream culture and a threat to the almost utopian alternatives these activists sought: vanguard communities built around bonds of sex, friendship and caretaking that didn’t rely on the approval of their elders or the state.

The liberationist critique is not new, but it has gathered strength in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court case that effectively ended the debate over same-sex marriage by legalizing it. A well-reviewed new book by gay psychologist Walt Odets, “Out of the Shadows,” bemoans the “mimicking and misrepresentation” of marriage, urging that the unique forms of LGBT life “not be relinquished to meet the expectations of a pathological society.” A New Yorker column argues that same-sex marriage is “a right held most dearly by affluent whites.” The rhetorical question of Duberman’s recent book title pithily summarizes the liberationist critique: “Has the Gay Movement Failed?

With President Trump’s rise and the attendant backlash against minority rights of all stripes, it can be tempting to regard marriage equality as a luxury that missed, or even derailed, the more radical struggle for LGBT freedom begun at Stonewall. After all, that 1969 rebellion against cops who raided a Manhattan gay bar, in which demonstrators hurled years of derision and abuse from society back upon their oppressors, contained a world-changing early promise. Yet the notion that access to marriage — and other key markers of first-class citizenship — was a minor achievement or a side show to the larger LGBT agenda is an unfortunate and dangerous instance of revisionist history. These accomplishments haven’t just lifted the fortunes of millions of gay men and lesbians. They’ve helped achieve precisely the kind of liberation that Stonewall’s most ardent liberationists envisioned: the freedom to be ourselves.

Marriage as a goal was never uncomplicated for the LGBT community. Even before Stonewall, gay activists debated the idea, with a writer for the gay magazine One dismissing the prospect as “stuffy and hide-bound” back in 1953: “Rebels such as we” join movements not to fit in or constrain ourselves but to “demand freedom!” A much-discussed 1989 article in the gay magazine Out/Look was titled “Since When Is Marriage a Path to Liberation?” These activists didn’t just want to create alternative communities for queer people. They aimed to remake society around the novel social arrangements they cherished: addressing human need and desire through broad community structures rather than monogamous nuclear families.

Yet what ultimately put marriage on the map was neither radical ideology nor a conservative wish to assimilate. Instead, it was the pragmatic concerns of everyday gay men and lesbians, the “accidental activists” who, in the decades after Stonewall, awakened to their self-worth and began to insist on full access to employment, health care, parenting rights and marriage. Just as the early gay rights movement focused, by necessity, on the nuts and bolts of freedom — ending criminalization, depathologizing homosexuality, stopping police abuse and eliminating discrimination — it was the basic needs of survival that eventually made marriage a priority. Beginning in the 1980s, the AIDS crisis made the absence of legal protections catastrophic for gay people, who could lose a job to illness or bigotry and, with no recognition by their partner’s employer, lose their health insurance just when they needed it most. It was hardly a mark of privilege to seek legal recognition of love when the stakes were this high. While some advocates with the luxury of activism resented the idea that health insurance was still tethered to a job or a spouse, others decided they couldn’t wait around for the revolution.

According to a government report, marriage carries with it more than 1,000 federal rights and benefits. States add hundreds more. They cover a range of matters, from tax advantages to the right to inherit pensions and Social Security payments to child custody. The notion that only the privileged enjoy these rights is backward. The rich could always hire lawyers to help secure some of these protections through legal arrangements that could cost a fortune. It’s the rest of us who most rely on equal access to government provisions. And for same-sex parents (who are disproportionately likely to be people of color), government recognition of legal ties has sometimes meant the difference between families staying together and relationships torn apart.

The concrete benefits of equality were only part of the story. LGBT advocates recognized early on that a national conversation on this topic could educate the world about gay lives, winning the hearts and minds of straight people while elevating the self-worth of queer ones. The reason access to marriage was essential, Evan Wolfson, the “godfather” of the marriage movement, argued in a 1983 law school paper, was precisely the reason it was being withheld from gay people: It was “an expression of their equal worth as they are.” Denying the right to marry compelled conformity by telling people they must be straight to be valued; granting equality told queer people they were worthwhile. Considering the universe American gay people inhabited in 1969, this was a stratospheric aim.

Despite handwringing about the constriction of its once-sweeping goals, the LGBT movement has achieved much more than legal parity for gay Americans. Between 1985 and 2019, the share of Americans who found same-sex relations “morally acceptable” tripled, jumping from 21 percent to 63 percent. As the nation debated what it meant to treat gay people equally, a conversation about bullying and youth suicide spilled out, spurring greater attention and policy advances designed to mitigate the risks that LGBT youth, and all young people, face when they feel different or alone. (In states that legalized same-sex marriage before 2015, suicide attempts among queer youth fell.)

The LGBT movement, including the push for marriage equality, has also helped upend repressive attitudes about sex, establishing nonmarital sex — and sexual behavior once thought perverse — as largely uncontroversial. (Last year, for instance, Teen Vogue posted a guide to anal sex.) Inherent in queer desire is the belief that sexual pleasure is a good in itself and need not be justified by reproductive ends, a principle enshrined in law by gay rights court decisions affirming that sex and marriage are not instruments for reproduction but expressions of individual liberty and dignity. Just as its loudest opponents feared, granting same-sex couples access to marriage has further aligned the hoary institution with sexual choice, helping sever the link between sex and diapers — at just the moment when abortion rights face their greatest test in a generation.

Stonewall’s legacy isn’t just about making queer people look more like everyone else. It’s also, perhaps more mutinously, about making everyone else look a bit more queer. The movement’s enduring celebration of difference, personal authenticity and norm-questioning has allowed straight people to recognize the closet that confines them, too — the outdated pressure to perform prescribed gender roles, inhibit certain emotions, conceal their true selves in a thousand ways — and to envision a way to step outside its walls. This is what Joe Biden was referring to when, as vice president, he thanked LGBT advocates for “freeing the soul of the American people.” It’s what Barack Obama meant when, on the day the high court handed down its marriage ruling, he said, “When all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free.”

With marriage equality secured, the transgender and nonbinary movements found voice and visibility, crashing into inevitable backlash but also driving successful new challenges to norms and helping people
transcend what some insisted were the narrow dictates of gender.

Though too limited to satisfy many liberationists, these achievements are, nevertheless, fruits of the revolutionary energy of the Stonewall generation, including the pioneers of the marriage movement. Many of the thousands of same-sex couples who sued or agitated for marriage or lived as though married starting in the 1970s felt they were taking a deeply radical step. Less than two years after Stonewall, the new Gay Activists Alliance staged a sit-in at the New York City Marriage Bureau to elevate marriage as a priority. They were sticking a thumb in the eye of a world that — by seeking to keep gay people invisible, marginal and ashamed — deemed them and their love unworthy. Through this victorious battle, the push for marriage profoundly advanced liberation for us all.

This was Stonewall’s gift to the world: the freedom to be — and express — our true selves even when we don’t conform to the norm. Our queer foremothers recognized what our nation’s founders understood: that equality and liberty are not in competition but are mutually reinforcing. It’s true that our fractious movement did not eliminate the nuclear family, or achieve radical inclusion for all, or replace marriage with a better institution (or with nothing at all); and certainly, our gains in equal treatment are fragile. Yet those gains are real and substantial and worth celebrating — and are, in their own way, revolutionary.

Credits: By Nathaniel Frank.