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To acknowledge the sadness among us

June 26, 2015

As someone who’s been in a same-sex relationship for over 15 years, was civil unioned in 2004 in Vermont when it was one of the few states that allowed such things (sounds a bit quaint and staid now, doesn’t it? civil. union. like the opposite of civil war), and, until today, live in a DOMA state, I suppose I should be feeling as joyous as those same-sex couples and their supporters whose faces and voices have been gracing my Facebook feed, television, and radio  — joyous, that is, unlike the many thousands who mourned and celebrated Reverend Pinckney at his funeral, or homecoming, in Charleston, SC, this afternoon. (Don’t worry, I won’t try to offer a clever interpretation of how the two are connected.)

Thing is, I’m not joyous at the announcement of SCOTUS’s decision this morning. I’ve made my position on marriage equality clear before on political grounds. But my reaction today stems from something else.

When I see and hear the rainbow flag waving, the hugging and the kissing, the laughter and the tears, it’s not exasperation or cynicism or anger that I feel. Just sadness. Because when long-term couples keep using words like validation and recognition and respect to describe what this means to them, I can’t keep hold of my political righteousness. I don’t forget how marriage is a normalizing institution meant to regulate gender norms, sexual behavior, child-rearing practices, wealth distribution and inheritance, kinship bonds, styles of caregiving, and, yes, desire itself. But the fact that the marriage equality movement brackets all of those concessions isn’t what I find depressing.

The joy I’m seeing expressed seems to be directly proportional to the lack of validation, recognition, and respect that gay and lesbian individuals and couples receive on a daily basis. Even the most out and proud folk, with skin like scarred armor, can’t live in a world where their only form of acceptance comes from within. Sure, it’s a quintessentially American cliche. You have to accept yourself before you can accept others (a load of shite, for the record). Stand on your own two feet. Be yourself. Blah blah. So when the highest court in the land grants recognition — if not of your fabulous gay self, then at least your everyday ltr — well, it’s hard not to feel a teensy bit weepy.

On the other hand, since I’m employing my god-given Asian math talents, I would also say that the number of buckets of tears shed, the strength of those (bear)hugs, the sheer curvature of those smiles is also directly proportional to the depth and breadth of homophobia that gay and lesbian individuals and couples experience on a daily basis. I’m not even talking about the murderous violence, the physical and verbal abuse, the overt taunting and harassment. I’m talking about the everyday grind of having to negotiate uncertain public worlds whose recognized forms of desire, erotic attachment, and relationality were not meant for you — were, in fact, designed to exclude and humiliate you. So when SCOTUS comes along and says: “in this instance, in this form, you’re ok, and we might even throw in some material perks,” well damn if Imna piss on that parade.

We all know this. And making same-sex marriage legal isn’t going to lift much of that mundane burden from our shoulders. But I want to add one more thing about the devastating effects of homophobia (also not a new idea) and that is it’s insidious ability — compulsion — to bring out the most sanitized and respectable in us. Here’s part of Justice Kennedy’s already-famous last paragraph:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.

He previously had referred to the “transcendent purposes of marriage” (though I confess to not knowing what those lofty aims might be). And I honestly don’t know whose marriage he can possibly be talking about.

But with all respect to Justice Kennedy, such high-minded words put me in mind of a rather less lofty text. As a young person trying to make sense of my own desires, I watched many a coming-of-age/coming-out movie (didn’t I say recognition is a powerful thing?). And the end of this one had long stuck in my mind — not because I agreed with it’s sentimental portrait of gayness, but precisely because I found it dishonest.

Let me be clear: I appreciate the lamentation against homophobia and sympathize with the feelings of alienation. But it’s that one phrase — “It’s only love” — that gets me. That comes off to me as distinctly unreal. For while love may be a part of same-sex relationships, as it might very well be for straight relationships (it’s kinda hard to tell), the movie itself makes evidently clear that it’s only a part. (If you haven’t seen it, loo sex, or attempted so, appears to be the ice breaker of choice. Will SCOTUS legalize that?).

So go on and love each other, my friends. The more joyful tears you shed, the more sad ones I will add to this sodden earth, mourning the mournful conditions that draw them forth from our eyes.


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  1. juwonlee89 permalink

    Joe, I am so confused. I am not sure what I should feel about it. I want to be happy and celebrate it with friends, but the thing is, I am not that happy. I am uneasy and uncomfortabel. Feel like the essence is forgotten. All I can think of is the FTM trans truck driver (forgive me if it was a bad to assume but) who asked me a question on the road during my shift. All I could do was to answer it nicely. (In Korea many FTM trans* people work at daily labor market bc they cannot get a “regualar” jobs.) That was the first thing I thought about when I heard the news. What will happen to this person? Of course nothing because he’s here in Korea. But even if he was in the US, would it have been different? I don’t know.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Juwon. Right, lots of people having been weighing in and asking, what about all those trans and queer folks for whom marriage is not an option or an aspiration? How does this materially change their lives for the better? It doesn’t, at least not directly. (In fact, as I and many others have argued, it might generate more harm since it now creates a category of normativity and respectability and expectation that wasn’t there before and that we all now have to deal with. Who would’ve thought that queer folk would be confronted with the question: so when are you two getting married?!) But my point on the day of was precisely not to castigate and condemn those many ordinary lesbian and gay people of all colors who were *celebrating* what they and so many other anti-homophobic people saw as a victory. I had had enough of the critiques — I mean, right off the bat, as if on queer radical cue — that this so-called victory was a win *only* for rich white lesbians and gays, *only* for homonormativity and homonationalism. It was that, to be sure (check out the RAINBOW lit WHITE HOUSE for god’s sake). But it was other than that too. And what I wanted to acknowledge was the psycho-affective dynamic of everyday people — not secretive, mainstream LG (no B, no T, no Q) organization board members that funded and drove this campaign — who felt seen and recognized, by the state no less, rather than taunted and vilified for their sexuality. Or at least something near their sexuality, hence, the caveat about having to invoke “love is love,” a tautology that should have no argumentative value but weirdly does in our hate-filled country. In short, my sad wonderment was trying to answer the question: what does your daily life have to be like in order for you to feel thankful to your government for blessing you with the opportunity to enter an institution that curtails your sexual and gender freedom? Yes, there are material benefits that come with marriage (and that shouldn’t be tied to marriage). But that’s not what those tears of joy were about. To me, they were about gratitude for validation and recognition, the dark background of which is widespread, pervasive, unending queerphobia.

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