I’m perennially sickened by people who distort the relationship between AIDS and the fight for state-recognized partnerships (gay marriage/civil unions/etc.). It’s not that AIDS and the backlash made people get “”socially conservative”” or “”homonormative”” or whatever the buzzwords are; it’s that the AIDS crisis illustrated how vulnerable our communities are without protections for our relationships. You can argue all you want that we shouldn’t need legal protections to be safe, but please understand that terminally ill gay men were evicted from their apartments immediately after watching their partners die horribly because they couldn’t inherit the lease or the property (or couldn’t do so without paying heavy taxes). Gay men were unable to attend the funerals of their long-term partners because homophobic parents had custody of the remains.
This still happens, in states without gay marriage; a woman in Indiana was told that she was an “unrelated third party” when she tried to arrange her wife’s cremation. Reducing this real suffering to “you want marriage rights because you want to prove you’re just like straight people” is horrible, and I don’t know how that argument ever left someone’s typing hands without them realizing that they were absolute garbage.
and i responded, at length:
this post has stuck with me for a long enough that i’m gonna be the killjoy old queen here again, and point out a few things, mostly because i’m old enough to have been around for some of them, and have tended to hang out with older queers and trans folks since i was quite young. everything i’m going to say is about the u.s.; i don’t know how this shit played out elsewhere (especially in the european social democracies), so in other contexts the story may be quite different.
brief theoryhead moment
i’m going to go long on this because OP’s argument is, to me, exactly what walter benjamin means when he says “even the dead will not be safe if this enemy is victorious, and the enemy continues to be victorious”. over the last five or ten years, all kinds of folks have been using the dead bodies of the folks who died in the pre-96 period of the epidemic as props for arguments against left and progressive queer and trans politics – to say that white gay men should be (re?!)centered in our cultural and organizing work (as if trans women and black/latinx folks wren’t the hardest hit), to say that tearooms and other public sex institutions should be highly policed, to push for extremely restricted issue-and-campaign efforts on a (deeply anti-intersectional) identity basis. i could go on about this for quite some time, but i’ll spare you, and talk about marriage, since it’s been a prime example of this kind of thing for a few years now.
the problem at the heart of the original post is the conflation of the push for marriage with other kinds of organizing for (strategic) state recognition of relationships. in gay & lesbian politics, those have never been the same – in fact, they’ve generally been in direct opposition to each other. up to the mid-1990s, the (generally mixed between left and progressive) mainstream of the movement worked for flexible, non-identity-based structures that involved state recognition of the actual structures of folks’ actual relationships, and aimed to allow as little state control and surveillance over our relationships as possible. the push for marriage, which began in the mid-1990s, was not only directly opposed to that project, it worked to undo the victories that had been won up to that point and undermine the coalitions that had been built through that organizing.
note: i use “homosexual” and “gay & lesbian” more or less indiscriminately, as identity/demographic terms. i use “queer” in its 1990s sense, because i am old: not as an identity/demographic category but to refer to folks holding a political position opposed to the social and state privileging of heterosexual relationships, cisgender status, and the thermonuclear family (all seen as entwined with antiracism and usually anticapitalism), and in a limited way to the constellation of folks structurally located in society in ways that (ideally) push them towards that political position. when i say “trans” i include non-binary folks. as usual, there’s no reason i would ever need to say “LGBT” or any other variation on a demographic umbrella acronym.
also note: i’m a little lazy on the footnoting today. but where i don’t cite a particular source for a specific historical item, it’s because you can google it as easily as i probably did to confirm the date or number or bit of racist bullshit involved…
also also note: the last paragraph of the post is fine as a tl;dr if you find yourself needing one.
there have, of course, been ‘same-sex’ (often more accurately in current terms ‘trans/cis’) marriages in the english-common-law world since at least the 1600s – we’ve got records of ceremonies held at london molly houses and new york bars, among many other places. they just took place without state recognition. so did many – in some places most – heterosexual marriages until the 1800s, because civil marriage did not exist and lots of folks aren’t part of state-endorsed churches.
in the u.s. there have been occasional attempts since the 1940s (and probably earlier) to get homosexual (cis/cis) relationships recognized by marriage registrars. some briefly succeeded, some failed immediately. the main line of gay & lesbian organizing, that started with the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, very actively chose not to adopt marriage as a focus. why? not because of a lack of concern with equality, but for two very pragmatic reasons:
(1) most gay & lesbian lives and relationships are not structured on a nuclear-pairing basis. many relationships aren’t monogamous (the state can invalidate your marriage if you aren’t ‘faithful’); many of the monogamous ones don’t involve cohabitation (ditto); many folks are unwilling to hold onto even a monogamous cohabiting relationship when it’s no longer working (divorce costs money and can be prevented by the state).
(2) steadily increasing numbers of heterosexuals, from the 1890s to 1930s, and again from the 1970s on, were not structuring their relationships on a nuclear-pairing basis. the ‘homophile’ organizations saw an opportunity for solidarity based on shared material conditions of life, based on expanding the social and legal space for different kinds of relationships. that’s part of why the precursor to Mattachine was Bachelors for Wallace (Henry, the progressive who ran for president in ’48, not George, the fascist who ran in ’68).
this work, expanding the kinds of relationships that were socially accepted and legally recognized, gained traction in the 1970s and 80s. partly because the coalition of the unmarried that the homophiles had envisioned gained strength as the pro-marriage rightward trend of the 1950s and 1960s faded (the age of average marriage dropped sharply between 1940 and 1960, and only regained its 1930 level in 1980). and partly because of the effectiveness of gay & lesbian organizing, especially in coalitions based on shared material conditions (other examples include organizing against various sex panics, against police violence, etc).
all this, it bears repeating, was the mainstream perspective and organizing practice. actual gay & lesbian (& trans) radicals had a whole other set of analysis around marriage and the family. i think julie abraham does a great job laying a great deal of it out in some of her essays from the 1990s and 2000s; but there’s plenty in earlier writing by everybody from carl wittman to andrea dworkin.
in any case, the 1980s were when we started to win domestic partnership protections, which are imperfect (being based on cohabitation, and generally restricted to one partner) but very flexible, allowing folks to give visitation, caretaking, and certain co-parenting rights to whoever they wish, without requiring merged finances and legal liabilities (with the attendent risk of abuse) or a monogamous sexual relationship.
we fought for and won those protections because of precisely the vulnerabilities that OP mentions. to eliminate them by allowing folks to authorize whoever they wanted (if they could provide persuasive residence documentation) to visit them in the hospital and so on: a monogamous cohabitating lover, a fuckbuddy, a friend, a non-immediate blood relative (a cousin, a grandparent, a niece, a grandchild), whoever. obviously, this didn’t just benefit homosexuals. trans folks, disabled folks, immigrants, non-normative heterosexual couples, and many others with a stake in relationships outside the nuclear family directly benefited. and, though it isn’t often pointed out, one of the groups who gained new possibilities for recognition of their close relationships were poor women, mainly black and latina, whose live-sustaining benefits (AFDC, public housing, etc) could be taken away if they registered a marriage (because merged finances meant you were no longer the sole sustaining breadwinner – het women on welfare talked about having traded their man for The Man).
but the way that the vulnerabilities OP points out were heightened by the first spike of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S. didn’t fuel the recent push for same-sex marriage. how do i know?
first of all, because it didn’t begin until later. through all the worst years of the first epidemic spike, no one did a damn thing to fight for marriage, because it was obviously completely unrelated. the first marriage lawsuit since 1974 was filed in 1990, three years after the availability (patchy but widespread) of AZT had started to slow the death rate. and the main push for marriage didn’t begin until after 1996, when antiretrovirals became (patchily and slowly) available.
and second, because when it did begin, it was very clearly and visibly understood as something completely separate. in 1990, when the plaintiffs in Baehr v Lewin filed their suit, Lambda Legal (much of whose work had been about HIV/AIDS for many years) refused to represent them. that was partly because they didn’t think their strategy would win (it didn’t – the case directly led to the Defense of Marriage Act), but mostly because Lambda Legal – among the most mainstreamy of the mainstream gay & lesbian nonprofits – did not see marriage as a goal that would benefit gay & lesbian communities in a meaningful way.
and going back to my original point, when the marriage push did begin, it was coupled with active attempts to dismantle domestic partnership structures, which had provided exactly the kinds of support that HIV+ folks needed most. those rollback efforts were successful even when they didn’t lead to repeals of existing laws. even where domestic partnership does still exist, people think it doesn’t and so don’t use it even when it would match their needs far better than marriage. and the marriage push was accompanied by overtly and implicitly white supremacist rhetorics (blaming black californians for the victory of prop 8; using a language of respectability that contrasted good gay citizens with promiscuous latinx immigrants and black folks). the alliance of punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens that cathy cohen envisioned back in the 1990s – held together by surveilled sexuality and new models of family as well as opposition to white supremacism – was blocked before it had a chance to form.
so what was up with the marriage push, besides the overall swing from 1980 onward among white folks (heterosexual and homosexual) in the U.S. towards conservative politics, traditional religion and their associated limited imagination of what relationships and family could look like? OP gives a very compelling argument in how they talk about the stakes of lack of state-recognized relationships: surviving gay and lesbian partners not being able to “inherit the lease or the property (or couldn’t do so without paying heavy taxes)”.
now, there are two factual things to be dispensed with before what OP’s saying here becomes clear.
first, in the U.S. the only way to “inherit” a lease is through rent control legislation. most rentals in this country don’t have any such thing. it’s true that under most rent control laws, only parents, children, and married spouses (and often grandchildren) have a presumed right of successorship when a leaseholder dies – and domestic partners generally have those rights as well. but those relationships give no rights unless the leaseholder does die. and it’s not particularly difficult to add someone to a lease, especially since there’s a strong correlation between places with rent control laws and places with housing anti-discrimination laws that cover homosexuals. marriage doesn’t change things here at all.
second, the “heavy taxes” thing is absolute bullshit. in 1986 less than 1% of U.S. adult deaths had a taxable estate. in the year of the estate tax’s widest reach (1979) that number didn’t break 8%. and that’s the number of folks in the lowest bracket (an 18% rate, since 1977) – the highest bracket has never started lower than a three million dollar estate. so i’m sad to inform you that out of the fourth million you manage to anna nicole yourself into, you’ll only get your hands on about $550,000. (these numbers are all from the IRS, btw) which is just to say that unless you’re filthy stinking rich, estate taxes are not a thing that is in your life. at. all.
but once we’re talking about the real material situation here, i believe OP is absolutely correct to point to the estate tax as a big part of the reason why gay & lesbian nonprofit organizations were pulled into the marriage effort after 1996, when white gay men began to promote the idea that ‘AIDS was over’ (and that it was all the fault of promiscuous gay men anyway). because that’s when the donors who’d been funding community work started to feel they could ask for their own interests to be taken care of. which meant, of course, deprioritizing the work that had already been going on, much of it around the epidemic, the overlapping crises of housing/workplace/healthcare discrimination that HIV/AIDS discrimination connected to, and the ongoing crises of white supremacy and social violence that became more visible to white gay & lesbian folks in the reagan years, as the epidemic spiked.
and nonprofits were responsive to their donors, as they always are. and the legal cases after 1996 reflect the new priorities. Baehr v Lewin (the 1990 hawai’i case) was fought on the basis of the right to privacy and to freedom from gender discrimination – which is to say, it aimed to strengthen the legal basis for abortion rights, for cross-racial marriage rights, for protection from sexual harassment, for trans rights, for freedom from surveillance (and, in a certain way, for recognition of non-marriage relationships). U.S. v Windsor, the 2013 case that the whole series of federal rulings recognizing same-sex marriage was based on, was an estate tax case. edith windsor (notice that she’s the defendent, not a plaintiff) was trying to avoid paying over $350,000 in taxes on her late wife’s estate – which means she was inheriting around $3,750,000.
whether you think a rich white lesbian or the federal government would do more with that $350,000 to help queer and trans folks, two things are clear: (1) edith windsor didn’t need the extra money, and (2) her win is part and parcel of the ongoing efforts by the U.S. right to preserve inherited wealth in this country and prevent even marginal redistribution through estate taxes, and only marginally has to do with gay & lesbian rights, and nothing whatsoever to do with HIV/AIDS. if thea speyer had died a year later, during the year-or-so when the republican party had abolished the federal estate tax, edith windsor could not have filed her case in the first place. and to drive home the point about how this all played out, decisions recognizing the marriages of the plaintiffs in the federal cases who, unlike windsor, did pursue legal action on principle rather than for personal gain, were put on hold until the estate tax case was decided. which meant that there could be pro-marriage decisions that did not open the door at all for either recognition of non-marriage relationships or anti-discrimination claims by gay & lesbian folks.
so OP is right: the pre-antiretroviral years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic didn’t make gay and lesbian folks in the U.S. get more conservative. in fact, they made many white gay and lesbian folks (white gay men most noticeably) far more radical than they’d been in a decade. but the marriage push didn’t come out of that. just the opposite. it was very much part of a donor-driven rightward swing in white gay & lesbian politics that was able to come to the fore precisely because of the devastating effects of the epidemic up to the mid-1990s, and of the myth of the end of the epidemic in the late 1990s. we can tell exactly how reactionary the push for marriage was, in fact, precisely by seeing how little it had to do with the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the community needs that the epidemic highlighted.