Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Gay Marriage: Thanks But No Thanks?

I’m from New York City, and I was celebrating my birthday the night that the Marriage Equality Act passed, signaling that gay marriage would be legalized in the state of New York. The bar overflowed with cheers (the joyful shouting kind and the glass-clinking kind) as texts and calls flooded the phones of me, my friends, and our fellow patrons (while drinking laws are, of course, a social construction that serve hegemonic powers, for the record, I turned 22 that day!). The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: with NYC Pride that same weekend, the city was poised to celebrate a significant achievement for gay and lesbian equality not only for our state, but for our country.

the Empire State Building on June 24, 2011

But what did we actually achieve? Is achievement even the appropriate term?

In “Competing Universalities,” Judith Butler argues that the fight for gay marriage (and gay couples’ adopting, laws concerning gay and lesbian participation in the military, and other politicized issues regarding granting non-heterosexual bodies the rights that straight bodies’ have) is a fight that ultimately aims to serve the dominant order. While gender is a construction that can be deprived of its power through subversion, Butler views the aforementioned instances as ones for which “occupying the dominant norm in order to produce internal subversion” (274) is not productive. Rather, she insists, “sometimes it’s important to refuse [the dominant’s] terms, to let the term itself wither, to starve it of its strength” (274).

To be quite honest, I’m pretty taken by Butler’s argument (when supplemented with the work of other queer theorists, activists, and organizations). I did cheer along with everyone else at the bar on my birthday, and this reaction was genuine; despite my personal and academic convictions, the passing of this act indicates the elimination of certain modes of discrimination, which is always cause for celebration. And yet, it was difficult to celebrate a moment that would simultaneously help to further discriminate against and alienate those gays, lesbians, and other bodies whose relations and practices don’t participate in, or fit into, these institutionally sanctioned modes of being that are ultimately in the service of those same institutions. Now that marriage is an option in New York, some companies that previously granted the same rights to domestic partnerships as they did to marriages are denying those rights; their logic is that these couples can now get married and so should, foreclosing and delegitimizing an alternate to the dominant norm. Steps for gay and lesbian rights in the name of equality often come at the cost of further marginalizing any gays and lesbians who refuse those same “rights.” How might focusing on rights that grant access to institutional domains distract us from a) directing our energies towards other gay rights efforts and b) the fact that the institution may be implementing the desire for this access to begin with? Who and what gets sacrificed on the way to equality?

That being said, I’m having some trouble wrapping my mind around when Butler urges us to subvert and when we should opt for refusal; just this week, Butler made known her support for Occupy Wall Street, a movement whose title literally calls for the “occupying [of] the dominant norm[‘s]” space to protest economic and social inequality. While this is an exciting moment where protesters are coming together as “bodies in alliance”—something we’ll be hearing more about from Butler soon in Lecture 2!—this is an instance where refusal doesn’t seem to be the route that Butler endorses. So my question is, which types of (fights for) participation strengthen the dominant order, and which hold the potential to subvert and fragment hegemony?

I also wonder if there is ever potential to subvert marriage. In her compelling and convincing plea for the Marriage Equality Bill in 2009, Senator Diane Savino argues that the sanctity of marriage is an illusion—in a very powerful moment (about 6 minutes in, but it’s definitely worth watching the whole thing), she asks us to turn on the television to see how in America, we’re “giving away husbands [to heterosexual women] on a game show . . . if there’s any threat to the sanctity of marriage in America, it comes from those of us who have the privilege and the right [to marry], and we have abused it for decades.” Is it possible that this “abuse” to marriage might be subversion? Marriage has arguably become warped in recent times. Does this warping have a limit—that limit being that marriage can be as illusory, random, or farcical as it wants as long as it continues to happen between a man and a woman—or is it possible that marriage is heading in such a direction that its bounds can (and perhaps will) ultimately expand to include other bodies and relationships, effectively changing—and subverting—our definition of marriage and the very institution itself?

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