John D’Emilio: marriage equality “a sad misdirection?”


Marriage is an institution, and what kind of radicals want to live in an institution?

John D’Emilio, queer history founding father and all-around badass, is unafraid to pee in anyone’s Wheaties (even in his allies’ breakfasts) to make a point.  Via Tenured Radical and the Twitter musheen, John D’Emilio is “Thinking About Marriage” over at OutHistory:

When I think of the long history of LGBT activism in the U.S, stretching back to the post-World War II years, I’m struck by how the periods of most creativity, the periods that involved the biggest leaps forward, were those in which activists most clearly challenged common assumptions and core institutions.  The U.S. LGBT movement was launched by a group of gay men who had ties to the Communist Party and who theorized that “homophiles” were a distinct minority with a special role to play in society, based on their difference.  The Stonewall-era gay liberation and lesbian-feminist movement saw the oppression of queers as thoroughly linked to gender, racial, and class inequalities; it believed liberation would come only if one thoroughly re-imagined and reconstructed the nuclear family; and it sought to make common cause with other radical movements.  The radicalism of ACT-UP that AIDS generated by the late 1980s wanted to remake the health-care system in the United States and provoked a community debate about sexuality and pleasure as key elements of human life.  By contrast, the movement for marriage equality aligns itself with an institution that is not only in decline. It is also an institution that acts as gate-keeper for who deserves key benefits basic to a human’s survival – parenting, an income in old age, health care and insurance, and many more.  Significant and exciting as this campaign has often been, it seems a sad misdirection of a social change movement’s limited resources.

From what I’ve seen, marriage isn’t in decline everywhere–it’s mostly in decline among poor and struggling working-class families.  Bourgeois folks meet in college or professional school and enjoy expensive weddings, and they even seem to enjoy their marriages too in that their divorce rate is also pretty low.  Marriage is now functioning almost as marriage did in the ancien régime among aristocrats, as a system that shores up inherited and accumulated wealth and privilege as well as serving as a gate-keeper to middle-class privileges that really should be entitlements for all of us.

I’ve made the point here about how our system for distributing health insurance is essentially patriarchal–and that remains undisturbed by the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.  Calling marriage equality a “sad misdirection” goes too far for me, but it sure makes sense when we consider the alacrity of the movement’s success considering the conservative nature of our federal judiciary and the revanchist majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.

I read D’Emilio’s post at OutHistory this afternoon while I’m in the midst of Rachel Hope Cleves’s Charity and Sylvia:  A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, which documents the shared lives of Charity Bryant (1777-1851) and Sylvia Drake (1784-1868) in Weybridge, Vermont.  Cleves argues that theirs was a marriage in all respects, and that it was recognized and affirmed as such for the most part by their families and neighbors.  C&S is beautifully written and incredibly engaging–I find myself stunned into disbelief at the numbers of letters and diaries that Cleves had at her disposal.

Cleves has rediscovered for a wider audience a same-sex couple living in plain sight, and I’m also thrilled to say that her book vindicates Historiann’s opinions in several different ways.  First, as I argued in the previous post, history doesn’t have a source problem; our only problem is our own limited imaginations.  Secondly, it absolutely vindicates my call for historians, especially historians of women, nonwhite people, poor people, queer people, etc., to get our a$$ses back into archives, and especially not to overlook public history sites and  state and local historical societies like the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, which became the repository for the loving correspondence on which Cleves bases her book.

Therefore Cleves’s book is a special pleasure for me, because my own opinions are vindicated on nearly every page!  (Don’t you love it when that happens?)  That said, I think Cleves’s book is one that would lend support to D’Emilio’s argument in his OutHistory blog post, in that her description of C&S’s success as a couple lies in their essential conformity to the morés of rural Vermont in the early Republic and antebellum eras.

At this point, you’ll have to discuss amongst yourselves, Linda Richman-style.  It’s already nearly dark here in the San Gabriel Valley at 4:30 p.m., and I don’t have a light for my bike (yet?), so I gotta roll.

9 thoughts on “John D’Emilio: marriage equality “a sad misdirection?”

  1. First, as I argued in the previous post, history doesn’t have a source problem; our only problem is our own limited imaginations. Secondly, it absolutely vindicates my call for historians, especially historians of women, nonwhite people, poor people, queer people, etc., to get our a$$ses back into archives, and especially not to overlook public history sites and state and local historical societies like the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, which became the repository for the loving correspondence on which Cleves bases her book.

    This is very similar to something I tell my students and post-docs all the time: It’s great to have theories and hypotheses. But it’s much more important to let the organism tell you what it can do, and for you to be listening.


  2. That “source problem” is precisely why I love oral history, and especially the work that folks at the Columbia Center for Oral History are doing around the War on Terror, human rights, and labor organizing at Walmart. I’m also heartened by the potential for digital history not only to make archival sources more widely available through digitization, but to actually generate collections through crowdsourcing and other forms of participatory archiving. (I’m thinking of Omeka here.)


  3. I haven’t read the Cleves book yet, but what has always interested me when someone writes a book like that is how often the sources are well known to historians, and no one has *seen* what they can tell you. Same thing with Ulrich’s _A Midwife’s Tale_ – the diary was well known, but it took someone really looking at it to find the story.

    I am sure that marriage equality has succeeded because many of the litigants “look like us” (when us is members of SCOTUS) except that their partner is same-sex. Some of them were even SCOTUS clerks.

    Had I been in charge of the universe, we would have got rid of state sanctioned marriage, and have the state only sanction civil unions. Anything else is up to you and your religious community, whatever that might be. Civil unions would still be a ways of transmitting property and rights but it would be solely a civil issue; it could be used by any people wanting to take responsibility for each other.


  4. But do any of you think that the HRC & other movement groups’ emphasis on marriage inequality is a “sad misdirection?” I’m sympathetic to D’Emilio’s more radical political perspective, but realistically social justice movements have to achieve, defend, and hold their newly recognized rights.

    Going for the relatively conservative goal of marriage equality seems to me to be canny politically because it can be the scaffolding upon which other rights are recognized and defended: custody rights, equality of employment (which we still don’t have–gays can be fired for being gay), and I think housing discrimination is still an issue in a lot of cities and states (though I am not 100% sure about this.)

    So maybe marriage equality is a “misdirection,” but a necessary (and not at all sad) one that might prove the bulwark upon which new liberties can be won and defended.

    I also think it’s not just politically smart in terms of defanging the opposition, but it’s also smart in terms of movement building. Successful social justice movements have to recruit a large number of middle-class people to them, and marriage equality proved possible & is something that can improve people’s lives and personal happiness now. (So that’s why I refuse to say it’s “sad.” Getting married makes a lot of people very, very happy, and it secures a number of protections for them as well, which tends to increase their overall well-being.)


  5. Getting married makes a lot of people very, very happy

    I don’t think it’s so easy to disentangle this emotional response from the cultural expectation that marriages occur and are good.

    I guess it is possible for “marriage” to be reformed from within, but is it likely? Is that even a goal for anybody? Expanding the benefits (such as they are) that the current structure confers to more people seems rather more likely to make people complacent than agitated.

    That said, access to legal marriage is a “right” that does confer benefits but is not universal and on that basis alone it is important to me to support equal access. (The exceedingly vile bigotry expressed against same sex marriage is also, on my view, a compelling reason to actively support marriage equality). So in that way, I would say no, not a distraction. I wouldn’t really call it marriage equality though, poly folks are still left out.


  6. A lack of marriage equality is a crime against human rights. No question about that.

    But I can see where D’Emilio is coming from. All marriage equality will do is broaden access to the institution. But another whole world is possible, a world of equality among people and of relationships based on willing connections instead of property. (Individuals may already be together on the new model, but the institution itself and the broader concepts around it have barely budged.)

    Falling into the local minimum of marriage actually shuts off the other world. That’s why he calls it sad. It is sad. It didn’t have to be this way. And now we have to start over.


  7. Friedrich Engels in the 19th C and RadFems in the late 20th C mounted arguments to take apart the patriarchal family, but how far did that go? Not far at all! (I’m not saying there’s anything “natural” about the bourgeois family–rather, I’m saying that it’s probably a dominant reality for at least another couple of centuries.)

    I don’t blame gay rights activists for making the argument for inclusion in the bourgeois family, rather than its destruction. Maybe it is “sad,” but it was also the more realistic path to improving more people’s lives in their own lifetimes.


  8. I was thinking about this for a couple of days before I responded. And then quixote articulated what I was thinking. (The idea of building relationships on something other than property is even better than what I could come up with, its spot on.) Marriage equality is a big deal and will make peoples lives better in really concrete and meaningful ways.

    But quixote is right… the world could be otherwise. Marriage equality makes it harder to imagine a radically different world. It puts us intellectually under the yoke of capitalism and patriarchy for another hundred years. I’ll take the real changes we’ve gotten in the last eight years because of the ACA and the ongoing legal fight for marriage equality. Those changes will withstand the current Republican backlash. Its not the radical move, but its pushing things in a better direction.

    More than ever we need people like John d’Emillo and Angela Davis demanding that we imagine and build a radically different and more equal world.


  9. I went to the library and got the book today, the Cleves, and lo-and-behold, found two things that are resonant, if not relevant, to a very different project of my own in the first ten minutes. One local and specific to Weybridge-Middlebury, and the other more general. The last paragraph of the preface, about the fortuitous walk into the museum/archive, is indeed the takeaway. Probably calls for a statue in Bryant Park, right next to the Merry-go-Round, maybe.


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