Even more than the average Obie, I hang around a lot of radical queer activists, online and off. It means I get to live with the weird duality of often being the furthest left in a physical room while being the closest to a thing to a conservative as soon as I open Twitter.
I have noticed a trend in the people avowedly left of me toward queer separatism with a twist. Unlike the lesbian separatists of the ’70s and their otherwise queer ilk, no one seems to be able to get away with demanding a literal, physical isolation in 2015. Instead, there’s an implicit requirement that to be actually, legitimately queer, one must withdraw monastically from society. A queer person can be accused of being complicit in their own oppression or of giving up their queerness should they have the wrong politics, follow the wrong religion or want to get married — something not demanded of people seen as not being queer (whether that means cis, straight, dyadic, allosexual or -romantic or anything along those lines).
At its bedrock, the conviction appears to be that our often-oppressive society is homophobic and transphobic, and so it renders anyone participating in it complicit, if not stripping them of their identity entirely. In the past three months, marriage has emerged as an excellent litmus test of this attitude: Not only is it a LGBTQ+ issue constantly in the news, it’s a clear-cut example of unequal rights that is literally about participation in a social institution.
Why is this a problem? What are queer activists afraid of ?
It appears to be the specter of assimilation. By daring to want to participate in an ancient social institution linked to love and identity — let alone religion, without even addressing the practical benefits — people like me are seen as having let the queer movement down. It becomes a betrayal for a queer person to want to do something that straight people do; queerness is only seen as valid in a vacuum.
Which brings us, like many who have gravitated toward the controversial topic, to Kim Davis, the Rowan County, KY clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses in response to the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. After Davis denied marriage licenses to four couples — two straight, two gay — they brought the case to the American Civil Liberties Union. U.S. District Judge David Bunning found Davis in contempt and ordered her jailed; she was recently released.
In her absence, the office has been issuing licenses normally — that is, the justice system seems to have worked. It was in a Twitter response from user @reinagossett to a Buzzfeed article on the subject that I saw the most egregious example of the trend I’m describing (“Rowan County Clerk’s Office Finally Issues Marriage Licenses,” Dominic Holden, Sept. 4, 2015). Over a screenshot of the article link and the lead image, two white-passing men are hugging with their backs to the camera, with commentary from @reinagossett: “Well it didn’t take that long for gays to be the pretty white rich face of the carceral state #homonormativitykills.”
What’s wrong with this picture?
The four couples who brought the suit against Davis wanted her fined; Judge Bunning refused. The only way to avoid her detention — and the only way placing the blame on the queer people she discriminated against would make any sense — is if the supposedly virtuous act would have been for them to do nothing.
Why is this being required of queer civilians by queer activists?
In answering that, examining the more prevalent backlash to equal marriage of which this attitude is a subset will prove useful. The public face of this reactionary current is that equal marriage — tellingly referred to as “gay” marriage by people who should know better — pales in comparison to real issues. When asked for examples, some individuals usually respond with “ones that affect trans people,” with the odd subtext that transgender people never have relationships or want to marry. What I have seen from these same people when speaking to other LGBTQ+ folks is that, instead of facing outwards, not only is marriage irrelevant or a distraction from the really important issues facing the LGBTQ+ community, it may even be a loss. I have heard “When gay marriage passed, we lost,” said in earnest.
The result is that for a queer identity to be valid, someone must either not participate in wider society or do so only to challenge it. When examined, this logic proves unreasonable, to say the least. Human beings are social animals. Social asceticism and compulsory activism as conditions for queer identity are not only absurdist gatekeeping, but also unspeakably cruel demands. If nothing else, the people who choose them voluntarily should understand how much they are sacrificing before demanding that of others for no constructive reason.
“Gay” marriage is often criticized on the grounds that it is only accessible to the rich. But the national average weekly wage was $958 in 2013; in Rowan County, it was $606. Along with the near-revocation of queerness from anyone who dares to want to get married comes an insistence that marriage is exclusively the domain of the rich. Apparently we just needed more intra-community erasure, since the why is never given.
These implicit demands for queer isolation extend past marriage. As I’ve said, it’s just an excellent lightning rod. In other topics, this viewpoint is more subtle. The one benefit of seeing it writ large like this almost daily is that I’m getting better at spotting the quieter version.
The downside is it’s everywhere.