Ruining it for Everyone

I think you pretty neatly summed it up there, Daran. Although it can easily be argued that the institution of marriage is deeply flawed, that’s really not the issue here. Eating McDonalds food is bad for you, but if they banned gays (or blacks, or women, or fill-in-the-blank) from eating at McDonalds we’d all have something to say about it, right? This isn’t about isn’t whether marriage is good or bad, it’s about equality.

This comment comes from Damien, and is part of a discussion on Ampersand’s blog about gay-marriage equality. It manages to make explicit my reservations about a common–and wholly reasonable–argument against gay marriage, or rather, fighting for gay marriage.

That argument goes like this: Marriage is not an institution worth supporting. It has its roots in a deeply sexist tradition that made women property and men property-holders. Even if marriage has managed, or can manage, to supercede historical and current sexism, privileging marriage and even couplehood over other intimate human relationships is bigotry. When queers opt into marriage, they opt into all the poisonous baggage that goes with it.

Okay. But is this any of my business? I’ve heard the same arguments made about nuclear families (sometimes) and motherhood (all the time), but the legislative battles for those rights consider autonomy to be paramount. We recognize any violation of that autonomy in the name of social policy to be abusive. No one in progressive circles is saying that it’s bad for gay couples to adopt children because their arrangement would ape heterosexual parenting, and no one’s saying that it’s bad for partnered lesbians (or mothers without partners, or women in polyamorous relationships) to become mothers because their kind of motherhood would be affected by the sexist and heterosexist culture they were born into. No one’s saying that two gay lovers opting for couplehood-plus-progeny demeans queerer arrangements. Laws against queer people adopting and fostering children are evil, full stop, and must be fought.

I do frequently see this argument about transition in its various forms. Passing, legal transition, hormones, surgery (surgery Down There is always way worse than merely having tits lopped off or sewn on, for some reason), exhibiting arguably traditional behavioral cues, identifying as “straight” rather than “queer,” identifying as “male” or “female” rather than some category between or beyond the two, refusing to identify as transgender or transsexual, showing zero interest in reliving or discussing a painful period in one’s life, distancing oneself from queer communities, and so on. Oh, and getting married. We’re ruining it for everyone.

I’ll just go on record right here as saying that I think it’s wonderful that transpeople are starting to have choices about all of those things. Some of mine are non-traditional. I cannot imagine having to want, for example, to undergo genital surgery in order to receive any treatment at all. (Of course, I currently live in and calmly live with a system that forces me to undergo surgery in order to obtain a passport I can use.) That was status quo up until very recently. In some places, the gender-clinic model still rules. “Genuine transsexual” is still in operation.

But it would be just as wrong–and, inevitably, just as injurious–to put transpeople on a scale from progressive to counterproductive, empowered to duped, with me somewhere in the middle (do I dare claim a six?), Christine Jorgensen way down near zero, and, well, no one gets a ten. That’s sort of the problem, isn’t it? You can’t win. Once the legitimacy of your choice is subjected to a standard that has nothing to do with you, you cease to be of equal value. Once you’ve accepted the idea that your perspective can’t possibly take precedence, you’ve given up any claim to insight into your own life.

That’s exactly what happens. Ftms who see themselves as guys, who pass, who aren’t out to their coworkers, who feel alienated from queer space, who want to be dads and husbands, are seen as bad trannies. Any decision to not be trans-identified and out has to be a matter of survival, not personal comfort. Even a few paragraphs ago, you see what I did there? That bit about the bad old days (c. the ER pilot)? That’s boilerplate. “I like boys and I’m not getting The Surgery,” is reflexive at this point. I’ve been repeating it more often as I’ve started to pass, transition legally and physically, and exhibit more traditionally male behavioral cues.

(Here’s where the bit goes about how we mustn’t forget that there’s a great deal of prejudice against and marginalization of genderqueer and gendervariant people, and that heterosexism and transphobia exists in the trans community, too. Consider yourself mollified.)

The reason we all transition–so that we can stop being miserable in a thousand different ways, generally speaking–disappears from the discussion. GRS is shameful–look at how Amp compared it (not top surgery, though) to bariatric surgery, and applauded sinking numbers that probably have as much to do with the enormous always-out-of-pocket expense than with a lack of desire for surgery. It’s forgivable, but it’s too bad. After the revolution, we will all love our little guys just the way they are. I do it, too. I use my decision, which is made for no reason other than personal comfort, to prove that I deserve to be included among progressives. I end up lying about transsexuality in order to sell it to people who are supposed to be my allies; my ftm brethren are thrown under the bus for being exactly as revolutionary as I am. And then entirely well-meaning people like Amp start thinking that transsexuals themselves want GRS to be morally mandated out of existence.

The same thing seems to apply to gay marriage. When I argue with gay marriage opponents, I frequently make the point that allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry would not create gay marriage, merely recognize it. Homos have been getting hitched since same-sex love has existed. Never mind oppressive, it’s senseless for the law to look at two men who have been partnered for a quarter-century and see a couple of bachelors. It’s also ludicrous to act as though ignoring those men will make them love each other less, or turn them into good husbands for anyone else. The threat of death didn’t accomplish that.

This argument would seem to go in the other direction. The gays want to get married. A lot of them–us, I should say–want the ring and are perfectly happy to take the baggage that comes with it. They either don’t agree that marriage is esentially patriarchal/misogynist/heterosexist/assimilationist, or they don’t care.

Is it my business to complain? Or is it my responsibility to address this massive inequality and let them sort it out on their own terms?


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19 Responses to Ruining it for Everyone

  1. Ampersand says:

    And then entirely well-meaning people like Amp start thinking that transsexuals themselves want GRS to be morally mandated out of existence.

    With all due respect – and also, with all due appreciation that you’re being nice to me :-) – I never said that, and I don’t think that. Here’s what I wrote, that you’re responding to:

    More and more transsexuals are transitioning without surgery, or with plastic surgery but without genital reconstruction. I think that’s a good trend; there’s nothing wrong with transsexuals getting reconstructive surgery, but there’s also no reason that should be the one-size-fits-all solution for gender identity disorder.

    My view is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to GID. I’m opposed to the situation that seemed to exist 20 years ago, when no one seemed prepared to acknowledge that it was possible to meaningfully transition without GRS. And I think the trend away from that is a good trend, as I said.

    But I’d also be opposed to saying no one should have GRS, ever. What I advocate is patient-driven health care for GID, in which patients are supported in finding the solutions that work for them as individuals – including GRS surgery, for patients who are helped by it.

  2. piny says:

    Sorry about the misunderstanding. I think I was reacting to the comparison itself–and I suppose to this:

    There’s another comparison between transsexuals and fat people – both groups are told that there’s a surgical cure.

    GRS–and “plastic” surgery like double mastecomy–is a surgical cure for gender dysphoria that does help a great many people. I understand that you’re not disputing that.

    Also, “plastic.” That’s the kind of arbitrary dividing line I probably should have spent a little more time making explicit in this post, whereby a decline in GRS means more of us are autonomous, but a steady rate of top surgery is irrelevant. That makes no sense. They’re both major surgery. They both constitute physical transition. They both help you pass, and both affect legal gender (in fact, you could probably make a better case for top surgery than bottom surgery as a reaction to social pressure). They both give you a more conventional male-appearing body. They were both part of traditional transition. There’s no logical way “cosmetic” can be defined to include one but not the other. Transpeople describe upper and lower appendages and the desire to rid themselves thereof in exactly the same terms. And yet, bottom surgery has become identified with establishment-mediated and top surgery with patient-driven care.

  3. Tex says:

    I’m not going to touch the analogy with assimilationist v radical trans identities, but I feel the need to speak up about the question of recognizing gay marriages.

    I think that there are lots of ways to recognize the commitments that people have made to one another. I just think using the state to do so is a crappy idea. Gays who want to get married are as free to disagree with me on this point as straight people who do.

    Where it goes beyond a question of tactics and pacing (kinda boring stuff to me. I’m not particularly opposed to the gay marriage struggle as I am opposed to those on the right who are opposed to it) is when it becomes a question of pushing people into marriage or, perhaps even worse, treating gay marriage as a sort of final capstone to any and all civil rights claims. This goes beyond the personal weight of that baggage and leaks into whether the ways that our rights discourses around marriage come at a very real and demonstrable cost to other things that I care about.

  4. Tex says:

    Another thing:
    I don’t think the analogy with McDonalds is fair in the least.

    Eating unhealthy food is a choice whose effects are mostly localized in the body of the decion-maker. It rots out your body.

    Now, does marriage rot out part of your self? Perhaps, tho I think that’s too harsh. That’s an entirely different point from whether or not the institution does harm in the aggregate, beyond its localized effects on those who participate in it.

  5. A says:

    I’m pretty anti-marriage across the board, but I don’t think that means anyone who wants to get married shouldn’t be able to. Ideally, no one would want to, but so long as anyone can, everyone should be allowed. I do worry sometimes that expanding legal marriage to include same sex and queer couple will strengthen the general disregard for nonconventional, nonmarried adult relationships, but again, I don’t think the solution is disallowing (painfully slow, glacial) expansion of rights for others, just because it’s not my turn next.

  6. piny says:

    I’m not going to touch the analogy with assimilationist v radical trans identities, but I feel the need to speak up about the question of recognizing gay marriages.

    Um, okay. Your phrasing kind of illustrates my point about arbitrary divisions that end up cutting people off from their own communities, though.

    I think that there are lots of ways to recognize the commitments that people have made to one another. I just think using the state to do so is a crappy idea. Gays who want to get married are as free to disagree with me on this point as straight people who do.

    That’s the thing, though: they aren’t allowed to make that choice for themselves. They don’t get to take all the arguments into account and then make an independent decision about whether or not to opt into marriage. They can’t get married, because their right to make that choice has been denied for the sake of a political agenda they have no connection to.

    Eating unhealthy food is a choice whose effects are mostly localized in the body of the decion-maker. It rots out your body.

    No, it’s not. Have you read Fast Food Nation? The choice to give money to the fast-food industry is definitely not a decision whose repercussions are limited to your individual health, any more than the choice to buy chew tobacco manufactured by Phillips-Morris, or sneakers manufactured by Nike. You can argue a difference of degree, or of types of support, but you can’t say it doesn’t affect anyone else.

  7. KnifeGhost says:

    piny, I have to start with a clear and resounding “fucking exactly”.

    I don’t exactly see how a queer couple who marries does anything to invalidate a queer couple who doesn’t marry’s relationship any more than it invalidates a straight couple who marries. (Does that make any sense?)

    People who have their reservations about marriage are welcome to their views, even though I don’t share them. (I suspect “marriage” means something very different to them than it does to me.) But the essential fucking point, _essential_, is that people who aren’t comfortable with marriage are no more in the right trying to deny queer couples marriage than straight people who want to keep marriage straight do.

    I’m not at all comfortable with prescriptive values judgements, especially, as piny covered, given that it erases people’s right to make their decisions for themselves for their reasons.

  8. Tex says:

    I didn’t mean to cut you off from your community. I think your arguments about the scale between Christine Jorgensen and an unatainable ideal tranny are excellent.

    If in trying to separate the questions of gay marriage and trans assimilationism, are you in some way sacrificing a large number of people’s self identifications “for the sake of a political agenda they have no connection to.”

    I think that I can still agree with that and still think that the fast food analogy is unfair. I maintain that the analogy is unfair, because the business model that McDonalds uses wasn’t part of it’s original contention. The text you used said very specifically that
    Eating McDonalds food is bad for you
    and so that is why I thought it was too narrow. Now, if it had been an analogy not based on a pathology model but on a corporate responsibility one, I’d have a different approach. Your point about Fast Food Nation is well taken, and perhaps a fitting analogy, but I that’s not where I was coming from.

  9. piny says:

    I didn’t mean to cut you off from your community. I think your arguments about the scale between Christine Jorgensen and an unatainable ideal tranny are excellent.

    Not me in particular, or any of us, really. The point I’m making is that applying “radical” and “assimilationist” to different transition paths can make it difficult to engage actual transsexuals. They end up separating transition from the person whose life it shapes, and individual transpeople from the community whose interests progressives theoretically seek to defend. It’d be like saying that having an abortion is a better, healthier, more radical, more independent decision in general than carrying a pregnancy to term. Pro-choice activists are very careful not to make that argument, which is good, because it’s fucked up.

    If in trying to separate the questions of gay marriage and trans assimilationism, are you in some way sacrificing a large number of people’s self identifications “for the sake of a political agenda they have no connection to.”

    I don’t know if I understand you. How am I separating them? The post is meant to connect them.

    I think that I can still agree with that and still think that the fast food analogy is unfair. I maintain that the analogy is unfair, because the business model that McDonalds uses wasn’t part of it’s original contention. The text you used said very specifically that
    Eating McDonalds food is bad for you
    and so that is why I thought it was too narrow. Now, if it had been an analogy not based on a pathology model but on a corporate responsibility one, I’d have a different approach. Your point about Fast Food Nation is well taken, and perhaps a fitting analogy, but I that’s not where I was coming from.

    I can get behind that. Particularly since I never hear gay-marriage-(“-opponents” isn’t quite right; maybe, “no-thanksers?”) describing gay marriage as terribly damaging to the individuals involved.

  10. Tex says:

    oh man. I’m missing a couple of verbs in there. I beg y’alls indulgences.

  11. Good post, Piny. I would quibble with you on this point though

    ‘They either don’t agree that marriage is esentially patriarchal/misogynist/heterosexist/assimilationist, or they don’t care.’

    The fact that marriage has been essentially patriarchal/misogynist/heterosexist/assimilationist doesn’t mean it has to continue to be so. I don’t see why the institution of marriage should be regarded as static — why do we have to accept that because marriage has been a way for men to control women, it has to stay that way?

    ‘Even if marriage has managed, or can manage, to supercede historical and current sexism, privileging marriage and even couplehood over other intimate human relationships is bigotry. When queers opt into marriage, they opt into all the poisonous baggage that goes with it.’

    I agree that privileging marriage/couplehood over other relationships is bigotry, but why does the fact that someone wants to get married mean that that person is privileging marriage over other relationships? Surely one can want to get married and still recognise that other people’s non-marriage relationships are not inferior.

    I’m not at all comfortable with prescriptive values judgements, especially, as piny covered, given that it erases people’s right to make their decisions for themselves for their reason

    Exactly.

    –IP

  12. piny says:

    The fact that marriage has been essentially patriarchal/misogynist/heterosexist/assimilationist doesn’t mean it has to continue to be so. I don’t see why the institution of marriage should be regarded as static — why do we have to accept that because marriage has been a way for men to control women, it has to stay that way?

    Agreed. I think people making that argument would fall under, “don’t agree that marriage is essentially….” But I should have been more careful about outlining historical vs. institutional complaints.

    I agree that privileging marriage/couplehood over other relationships is bigotry, but why does the fact that someone wants to get married mean that that person is privileging marriage over other relationships? Surely one can want to get married and still recognise that other people’s non-marriage relationships are not inferior.

    I hope I didn’t give the impression that I disagree with this?

  13. Tex says:

    I screwed that last post up big.

    As for the most unintelligible part of what I failed to say right:

    I think that the tactics employed on a movement level (which I think I’m going to separate out from the decision to marry or not. Feel free to call me out on this one if it’s an unfair distinction) are not always comparable to the different types of transitions. So, I think that in eliding the two, there’s lots of crucial stuff that can get lost. If I’m reading you right, separating them out cuts people off from their communities. I lost a clause or two drafting my comment, but I just wanted to add that insisting too forcefully on connecting the two, even for argumentative purposes, runs the risk of ignoring those in either community who would reject lumping their own self-identification in with that of the other. In general, I disagree with the people who think that the two have nothing to do with one another.

    However, one place where I think your analogy sags is with regard to the question you pose at the beginning of your post:
    is this any of my business?

    With regard to people’s different transitioning strategies, I cannot compellingly see how it is any of my business how they go about doing it.

    However, I think that marriage is different because it involves so much more social participation. This point may well be undermined by your passport example, showing that recognition by others is a key in the value of both. In that way, you’ve made me reconsider some of my thinking on the issue, and I’m really aprpeciative for the insights that you bring to it.

    My biggest quibble with the gay marriage movement has been not with those who opt for marriage, but with those who wish for marriage not to be one of many options, freely chosen in a pleasant, tolerant liberal way, but instead the best option for all people. Rather than ask why marriage should be assumed to be a patriarchal tool, I think the burden really is on why it won’t be used that way. I want more assurances that mere triumphalism about “choices” to feel secure that it won’t be used as a cudgel, since there are already plenty of conservative gay and straight voices preparing to do just that.

  14. KnifeGhost says:

    ‘They either don’t agree that marriage is esentially patriarchal/misogynist/heterosexist/assimilationist, or they don’t care.’

    I think if we replace “essentially” with “inherently”, we’re cooking.

    And, quite frankly, to make the case that marriage is inherent patriarchal/misogynist/heterosexist/assimilationist or whatever is a flat out denial of the lived experience of many many married people. Although there may be a case to say that this is historically how it has played out (and I _really_ don’t want to get into that discussion here), it’s not the case that all marriages happen in patriarchal/misogynist ways. The history of the formation of the institution (and I think the reading of history that paints marriage as inherently patriarchal and misogynist is simplistic at best) is not the institution as it is lived by its present day participants.

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  16. mythago says:

    I think the burden really is on why it won’t be used that way.

    Well, for one thing, it’s a little harder to have a patriarchal family model when you don’t have a patriarch. Or when you have two. That’s precisely why the far-righties don’t want same-sex marriage; it messes with their Ward and June idealism. They simply cannot conceive of marriage that isn’t male dominant/female submissive, which, needless to say, means one male and one female.

  17. m. luminous says:

    Piny, I just wanted to thank you for your posts on trans issues. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately, because I just spent the past three weeks caring for an FTM as he recovered from top surgery and a hysterectomy , and we’ve been talking about all this stuff. He fully intends to get married to a woman, and he says he misses being part of the lesbian community, even though he knows that he never quite belonged to the lesbian community in the first place.

  18. Rex Little says:

    The fact that marriage has been essentially patriarchal/misogynist/heterosexist/assimilationist doesn’t mean it has to continue to be so

    Today’s misogynists certainly don’t think it has continued to be so. They routinely advise men to avoid marriage because (they say) it gives women power over men. Listen to radio talk show host Tom Leykis, for example.

  19. Tata says:

    Theorizing makes my head hurt. While I respect you for working out these ideas, I fear for committed people of any kind without legal documents who suddenly find themselves in dangerous situations. People of all stripes can suddenly find themselves barred from hospital rooms or losing homes or custody of children they raised in loose and loving situations. It’s painful to contemplate and happens every day. One unforeseen event, and the cold wind blows through quiet lives.

    If we could get around those legal points, we could contemplate marriage on its own merits. Until then, marriage may be the only means of holding on to what is rightfully ours in the first place.

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