It's 2008. November. My junior year of high school. I'm sitting in my Gay and Lesbian Literature class, still riding the buzz from last night's election victory. Obama, not McCain, is going to be our president for the next four years. My teacher, herself a lesbian, is upbeat about the presidential election, but upset about a ballot initiative that passed out in California. (We are in Massachusetts.) It's my first brush with a phrase that will cling to my life for years to come: Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that stripped Californians of the right to marry someone of the same gender.
It's also something else.
I am very much a product of the American education system. Despite the liberal environs of my upbringing, I am still, in 2008, under the impression that racism is over (the Civil Rights Movement happened, after all), sexism is on its way out (the 19th Amendment was ratified), and, thanks to my earlier gender explorations, that if there were still a few wrinkles to work out regarding trans people, at least the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care are in place, so there's not too much to be done on that front, either. I am, I think, vaguely aware that gay marriage isn't legal across the country, but that feels like a detail, a triviality, a bit of messiness that's just going to take a couple more years to tidy up.
And then Prop 8 passes, and I become suddenly, acutely aware that it's going to take quite a bit more than that.
All I want to do is music. I want to play it, write it, sing it, listen to it, talk about it — I want to engage with it deeply in every way I know how. It's what adds the most richness and texture to my days, meaning to my life. Tackling its problems recharges me, whereas doing the same for other things empties me out. And the passage of Proposition 8 is the first time I realize, really realize, that I won't be able to spend my life doing only music, that all will not be made right it the political world by the time I'm ready to participate in it, that I will, in fact, have to devote some of my infinitely precious time on earth to fighting for my fundamental human rights. This is profoundly irritating. (I don't want to stand by that irritation as necessarily justified or unselfish, let alone the Best Possible Reaction to becoming aware that injustices persist in the world. It was, however, how I felt, and I think it's important to acknowledge that.)
Later, having heard that there was some kind of lawsuit filed, I search for information on the outcome. I find the “Proposition 8 Trial Tracker” blog, and begin to read its archives. I learn that the initial lawsuit, on a technical matter of whether the initiative counted as an amendment to the state constitution or not, had failed, but that there is another one, this time on the actual merits of the initiative itself, beginning to wend its way thru the court system. I begin to visit the site every day, but I don't bookmark it. I'm only in this until same-gender marriage is the law of the land, and then I'm out. I don't want to grant it the permanence in my life that a bookmark would signify. (This blog will eventually become “Equality on Trial”, and my visits will be come increasingly cursory, skimming for headlines instead of reading in depth. I still haven't bookmarked it.)
* * * * *
It's the summer of 2010. August. I am at Tanglewood, studying composition, about to enter my first year in college. There isn't Wi-Fi on campus, but there is a bench partway in to town where you can pick up an unsecured signal that works, as long as you don't need too much bandwidth. (We have an event scheduled for later that evening, so I don't have time to walk all the way to the library, which has significantly better speeds and also rudimentary air conditioning.) I know the decision is coming down, and I am obsessively refreshing the page for any sign of an update. At last, there's a change, and I am flooded with relief when I see the decision is in our favor. In a state of near incoherency, I call one of the other queer composers and leave a message with the good news, including the final paragraphs of the decision.
I download the PDF (probably at the library, let's be real), and spend every spare moment inhaling the text of the judgement. I also start to read about the elaborate hierarchy of the appeals court system, wrestling with the intricacies of circuits and en banc hearings. I settle into college half distracted by a flurry of filings — the trial judge was biased because he himself was gay, the supporters of the Proposition can't appeal because they lack standing, the stay should be lifted, the stay should stay in place. (At the same time the gay blogs I follow are arguing for a narrow definition of legal standing, the atheist ones are arguing for a broad one in a wholly unrelated case. Both sets of arguments seem largely ad hoc, constructed to get the desired outcome in the particular case at hand, not firmly grounded in generalizable legal principles. I still don't know how I feel about this issue.)
Later, I watch the oral arguments for the circuit court appeal while making reeds, alone in my dorm room. I am anxious, but I feel like there is nothing I can do.
* * * * *
It's 2013. June. The summer after my junior year of college. The Proposition 8 challenge has made its way to the Supreme Court, along with a challenge to the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. It is the last day that the Court is expected to release decisions for that term, and I can't help but feel, however unjustifiably, that they're dragging their feet as much as possible, stretching things out as long as they can. When at last the decisions come down, they are far from a worst-case-scenario, but less than might have been hoped. DOMA is partly struck down, and there was no standing to appeal Prop 8 to their level. The victory feels particularly hollow given the same Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act the previous day. Even for the most singleminded gay-marriage-focused advocates, this feels like a rest stop, like a pleasant but ultimately trivial way station on the way to the ultimate goal; for those concerned with social justice more broadly — we don't, after all, live single-issue lives — there is too little to celebrate here to meaningfully lift the pall cast by the previous day's victory for racism and conservatism. Who has the heart to celebrate such a small inching forward in the face of such an overwhelming step back?
* * * * *
It's 2015. Again June. One week ago. Same-sex marriage is the law of the land.
It feels like the end of the chapter of my life that started back in 2008. After equivalent developments in Canada and México, we gays can get married everywhere in North America. That's great. No. Really. It is.
I remember my college US Gay and Lesbian History course, and how it traced the roots of the marriage movement to the horrors of the AIDS crisis. I can only imagine the anguish of being kept from your partner's side as they lay dying in a hospital bed, of, in the middle of that grief, being evicted from the apartment in their name after their death and having your children taken from you because legally you were a stranger. Given such roots, it's hard not to feel like this decisive step towards legal recognition is a very real victory.
But it's also hard not to fear that, instead of us queering marriage, marriage will straighten us [Slate], that, in the face of a norm newly shorn up by the polemics of the gay marriage movement, the beautiful queer alternatives to monogamous, two-person relationships that we've built over the decades past will start to crumble, to be seen as less valid or meaningful or worthy of support than this newly legitimized choice. That this victory may have come at too high a price, not just not advancing other fronts in the struggle for true equality, but actually pushing them further out of reach [Altcinema Wordpress blog]. That some of the people on the front lines for this fight will not go on to tackle the work that's yet to be done [New York Times].
The radical critiques of marriage resonate with me. So do the rebuttals [all three at Organizing Upgrade]. Where would we be now if, in 2005, the LGBT movement (insofar as it makes sense to talk about us having a single movement or community) had decided to pursue youth homelessness or workplace discrimination instead of marriage? To agitate for universal healthcare and radical economic justice, thus covering many of the benefits of marriage thru other means? Would we have been able to marshall the same support? Many of the goods that come from marriage are, quite frankly, goods that one should not have to be married to obtain. (It is appalling that anyone should have to marry to obtain quality healthcare.) And yet, perversely, marriage remains one of the most convenient — or sometimes only — way to obtain them. I am all for fighting the longer fight and fundamentally re-structuring society to change this grim reality, but it seems somewhat heartless (to say the least) to knowingly condemn people to suffering when a stopgap, however deeply flawed and desperate, is available.
I don't know how to balance any of this. How do you weigh up the suffering this decision will prevent against the suffering achieving it has caused? The good that might have been done if we'd turned our attentions elsewhere against the longer odds of radical change? The money that poured into fighting marriage could have done a lot directed at some other cause, but would any other cause have drawn the same donations? How can you read the tea leaves of these murky contrafactuals? How can you balance pasts that didn't happen against futures that may not occur? I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.
Watching the reaction unfold on social media has, at times, felt surreal. There are people, especially trans people of color, who justifiably feel bitter about the marriage fight stealing attention from other, more pressing queer struggles. (It's hard to get that worked up about inheritance benefits when queer kids are being kicked out of their homes and murdered because of cishet hatred of their gender expression.) There are others, especially older people who lost dozens or even scores of their closest friends to the ravages of AIDS in the face of overwhelming public indifference, who understandably feel unbridled joy at the previously unimaginable prospect of having their relationships validated and honored by a government that used to despise and destroy them. And there are people yelling at both these camps that their feelings are inappropriate and they need to tone it down and adopt the position of the other.
(Sometimes this yelling seems to contain more than a whiff of performativity, of yelling less to advocate the position espoused and more to stake a claim to having The Most Radical opinions, of being The Most Ideologically Pure. Then again, those on the other side often come across as trying to shut down legitimate anger, deploying the “shut up and wait” rhetoric that is so counterproductive to movements for societal change. Here, too, I feel at a loss. I want to steer clear of cynicism, to hang on to hope, to not let the perfect get in the way of the good [Guardian]; but I also don't want to sweep valid criticisms under the rug, nor do I want perfect-vs-good arguments to get in the way of the better. There is something to be said for integrity, after all.)
The SCOTUS decision didn't create these rifts, but it's exposed them in a way that few other recent events have. In the evening of the day of the decision, I go to a rally in West Hollywood, and even in person, even at an event specifically to celebrate a ruling making gay marriage the law of the land, the atmosphere is very mixed. Some people are super into it, but others are loitering on the margins, watching the goings-on with a measure of wariness and skepticism. When the official speakers are finished, the crowd disperses rapidly. Few people seem to want to hang around.
* * * * *
Incongruous as it is, I keep coming back to the moment in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Hermione castigates Ron for having the emotional range of a teaspoon.
Maybe this mess, this tangle of joy and hope and fear and despair, maybe this is just what it means to live in a complicated world sorely lacking in unmixed goods and easy certainty. Maybe feeling torn in twelve directions at once is inevitable, and there's nothing to be done.
One person couldn't feel all that, they'd explode!
But I do feel on the brink of exploding, of coming apart.
Maybe I'm a teaspoon after all.