Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Is marriage equality true social justice?

Butler makes several provocative claims in this essay, which is very timely considering that just this year, New York became the largest state to pass marriage equality legislation and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed effective mere weeks ago. Butler’s central question is one that has resonated in my mind for a long time: “the most pressing question is whether this ought to be the primary goal of the lesbian and gay movement at the present time, and whether it constitutes a radical step towards … an assimilationist politics” (273).

There is no doubt that by assimilating to the values of mainstream American (family, marriage, and military), the gay rights movement has been able to make unprecedented strides both legally and culturally. But whose rights come at the expense of these newly gained freedoms? Butler lays it out plain and simple: “people who are on their own without sexual relationships, single mothers or single fathers, people who have undergone divorce, people who are in relationships that are not marital in kind or in status, other lesbian, gay and transgender people whose sexual relations are multiple … whose lives are not monogamous, whose sexuality and desire do not have the conjugal home as their (primary) venue, whose lives are considered less real or less legitimate” (p.274). Butler goes on to say that by seeking marriage equality, the gay rights movement in fact is giving the state permission to define and police their relationships. This acceptance of the state’s power, a force that has violently discriminated against LGBT individuals in the past, reveals the LGBT movement’s priority as fighting for the rights of the few privileged individuals whose lives align with the kind of lives the state values (those who want to marry, serve in the military, raise a family, etc).

Assimilationist politics, as Butler calls them, seem to work. Marriage equality is a popular position to take, gaining support across generational lines. By prioritizing rights for the few instead of rights for everyone, the “well-endowed” LGBT rights groups (Butler mentions the Human Rights Campaign specifically) discriminate against the very people who should be their allies, whose specific human rights the organization claims to be fighting for.

Butler does an excellent job problematizing the prioritization of marriage equality and military service, but she doesn’t offer any solutions or suggestions. How can the LGBT rights movement better fight for the rights of all its constituencies? Would big donors and foundations fund a group dedicated to helping homeless trans youth of color with the same big bucks that they spend helping middle class, white gay folks fight for the right to marry?

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