Arts, Culture & Humanities

The Summer of Rights

Lawrence Cohen

I was packed in with three Benedictine monks in the crowd last night at the Castro celebrating the two United States Supreme Court decisions earlier that day — for the record,  June 26, 2013. The monks were waving small blue and yellow Human Rights Campaign flags, and like many others I was taking pictures of the crowd (and the monks) and posting them onto Facebook. I hung out with friends and strangers, I texted with my partner who was still working, and I thought about this blog post.

I had fun, there in the Castro. My pictures included the iconic Castro Theater sign to remind my Facebook public that this was, for better or worse, still the Castro. The realtors who are selling houses in the neighborhood for unprecedented fortunes refer to the area as Eureka Valley: it is not clear whether the new plutocracy will be a particularly gay one. Scott Weiner, the developer-friendly supervisor for both this quartier and my own (two valleys to the south), attracted early attention for being tough on the naked men who had begun to congregate on benches at the intersection of Castro and Market streets: the rhetoric of civic responsibility that circulated in parallel with his tough love focused on saving the children and youth from any primal scenes with neighborhood naturists.

crowd scene in CastroWeiner’s predecessor Bevan Dufty, who had earlier been attacked for being a gay parent by an angry local television anchor, was more relaxed than his successor about his daughter’s observing the naked men and other “adult” sightings in a gay ghetto. In an interview with the San Francisco Weekly, Dufty noted of their walks through the Castro: “It’s much more difficult to explain racism, violence, and war. Explaining to her what a sex toy is will be a walk in the park.” The Weekly reporter summed up the interview: “A politician who grooves on a Pride parade float with his daughter on his hip, he says it’s a false choice between a family-friendly Castro and a sex-positive one.”

But this distinction, between normative family and a social movement organized around an ethics of sexual relation, has remained as prominent in queer scholarship as in the attacks of arguably bigoted television personalities. Despite the apparent groundswell of support for “marriage equality” among lesbians and gays, many of us have carried a fair amount of ambivalence, to put it mildly, about the turn to marriage.

Some years ago, after then San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom began to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples, I taught a course on kinship and marriage, once standard topics for my discipline of anthropology. The course centered on reading and debating what has become the critique of “homonormativity”: that queers, in their push for inclusion through marriage, were abandoning the powerful ethics of friendship and community, norms that had shaped the emergence of worlds like that of the Castro. These were being given up for the atomized and privatized form of the heterosexual couple and the normative family. In pressing for inclusion, queers were giving up the radical ethical potential of the world they had struggled to create.

The critique echoed a famous argument by the sociologist Richard Sennett. In The Fall of Public Man, Sennett had lambasted the decline of the public sphere of eighteenth-century letters and associations for an increasingly inward turn, accelerated in the twentieth century, in which people experienced authentic life in the embrace of the home and abandoned their boisterous residence, as it were, in the world of public passions and stranger sociality. The queer critics of homonormativity had a more nuanced understanding than Sennett of what publics can and cannot offer and, being of their own time, of the relation of the new turn to same-sex marriage to the broader economic and social changes of the early twenty-first century often glossed as neoliberalism.

I found these critiques stirring. But like all professors I saw my task not to teach students what to think but rather to give them to tools for thinking. And the Berkeley students were dissatisfied with the my way or the highway sense of the debate, even within queer worlds: either equality and inclusion (the position of the marriage equality activists) versus complicity with hegemonic norms and the abandonment of a powerful ethical world (the position of the queer theorists).

Using close reading and interviews, they suggested in a series of group projects that both sides of the conversation depended on idealizations of social forms (marriage and the network of friendship, respectively) without always engaging how these and other forms have been constituted in relation to long histories of their idealization or to one another. To borrow a term from the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart, the students wanted to understand the “worlding” of varied forms of relationship, not only that of marriage: what kinds of possible worlds were being made through the form, what promises being offered, what failures of promise delivered.

I don’t think the students were collapsing family and sexual culture into a single form of life as the reporter may have been doing in epitomizing Mr. Dufty. But they were perhaps more suspect of claims that worlds of sex and friendship were as obvious as the critique of homonormativity seemed to suggest, as they were of the claim that marriage was the ground on which a queer political vision should find itself resting.

An important point made by many of the critics of homonormativity is that they are not interested in offering a critique of a given couple’s effort to get married but rather the changing goals of queer social movements. There are so many reasons why the deep inequities introduced by DOMA and state laws are hard to bear in a world whose livability increasingly depends upon the rights of partners and dependents in insurance, probate, and pension.

gay flag in the Castro

Castro District (by Infratec, via Wikimedia Commons)

The big picture is the change in the global economy. The jobs disappearing and the salary levels gutted over the past decade are not returning amid the much touted recovery. Some scholars have argued that we live amid a return to the condition of mass dispossession that Karl Marx termed primitive accumulation, in his describing the loss of rights in land and tools by peasants and artisans with the emergence of capitalism.

Under such conditions, in conjunction with the ongoing escalation of health care, transportation, and housing costs, more and more people become dependent on some kind of state payment — whether we term it “right” or “entitlement” betrays our politics — in order to live. The jobs are not returning to sustain the populations they once did. Even if the time of neoliberalism has been construed as the end of the welfare state, paradoxically more and more of the so-called middle class, along with the poor, are dependent on some kind of health care benefit or cash transfer. We might call this transaction, certainly not classic twentieth-century welfare, “minimal welfare.”

One of the points of the homonormativity critics could thus be reframed: marriage cannot be the only or sufficient ground of care in the time of mass dispossession. In theory, I would heartily agree. In practice, my question is somewhat different. In a time of dispossession, what does “marriage” come to mean and to be? My sense is that a lot of different forms of relationship are being routed through the legitimacy of the couple, as people struggle in the new economy. There may be varied effects of this routing. Here at least we have a program for research.

After I taught the course, my boyfriend and I got married: three times, in fact. I carried my deep ambivalence with the form along with me: some of my queer theory colleagues carried it for me. “I wouldn’t have thought this of Lawrence,” one reportedly said. These can be punishing times. A friend recently posted on Facebook that she was not a hypocrite: that is, she found it hypocritical for those of us sharing the homonormativity critique to go for the nuptials. I cannot agree, but I am often asked to bear the charge of hypocrisy.

I cannot agree as what was at stake for me had a lot to do with a conversation between ethical engagements: most at stake for me was my beautiful boyfriend and the powerful ethics of the world as he lived it, a sense of urgency and beauty not necessarily crafted in the same network as my queer theory friends.

I cannot agree as a lot of necessary work, in the face of the painful homophobia of relatives — painful for them as much as for us if with vastly different stakes — happened through the spectacle of the weddings we created. It was not that we were finally legitimate, on “their” terms (that was arguably more the stance of my liberal straight friends and family than those who could not bear us at all). It was rather than under the sign of the wedding, people who hated the idea of our marrying and saw it as meaningless came themselves to push for a different kind of being with us and our friends.

I do not want to call this the magic of ritual: as an anthropologist, I have a sense that ritual carries the cruelest optimism. But under this particular order of spectacle, these three weddings, some imperfect space for renegotiating how we and our homophobic relations came to bear each another opened up. It did not have to, and I can imagine many more violent scenarios. But it was critical for me to find new ways to live with people for whom, amid some violence, I cared.

I cannot agree, as I do not live with the blessing of moral clarity that my wiser friends and theorists exemplify. I live with hypocrisy all the time: I do not know how else to encounter the world as it has been given to me.

Perhaps this is individual pathology. As a child and teenager, I was confronted with my failure to share the heights of the moral clarity of others. I was a test subject of the famous developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg studied the moral development of children. If we developed fully, he suggested, we would all embrace some species of formalist, as opposed to teleologica,  ethics: we would judge the good and the right based on abstract principles and not only how the network of persons we cared for were impacted by a judgment. We would extend, as Kant suggested, our evaluation of an action’s impact far beyond the provincialism of such a network. If the anthropologist Richard Schweder and the psychologist Carol Gilligan both famously argued that Kohlberg’s model tended to universalize the ethics of a particular population at the expense of another (Westerners versus Indians, for Schweder, and men versus women, for Gilligan), I found myself similarly on the wrong side of history.

One of Kohlberg’s graduate students was the mother of a school friend of mine: we stole the project’s notes on me (it seemed right at the time) to find out how moral I was. If, like Gilligan’s young women and Schweder’s Brahmans, we discovered that I was stunted, in the Kohlbergian scheme of things, at least I had company. Though one member of the research team suggested that a reason might be my childhood training in religious Judaism and specifically the Talmud: perhaps the “Hebraic questioning method” was to be blamed for my inability to achieve the consistency a good Kantian would demand.

Back to the Castro, and the events of the day. Like many, my thoughts were on the Supreme Court’s previous Big Day, ending the Voting Rights Act after an election season in which many states tried to use the bogey of voter fraud to reintroduce Jim Crow-style roadblocks on voting access designed to hit the disenfranchised poor and in particular poor communities of color.  One queer theorist put the juxtaposition of the two Big Days brilliantly, I thought, on Facebook: “No voting equality, lots of marriage equality…wow, what a surprise! Welcome bourgeois gays and lesbians and screw already disenfranchised communities. You have got to love the law!” And yet here, again, I find myself at a loss amid the far more developed (recall Kohlberg) ethics of my fellow queer scholars.

If I listened too long to either NPR or the more left-leaning KPFA in Berkeley, I would have to agree with this colleague. All I heard on both networks was how great it was that now “loving, committed” same-sex couples could now be recognized. The double standard — that straight couples could get married whatever they felt, but queers would have to demonstrate just how good they were (loving, committed) — palled and echoed Stepin Fetchit logics. The whole thing, to use a scholarly term, stunk.

But I cannot, nonetheless, agree with the sense that what was at stake was a triumph of and for “bourgeois gays and lesbians.” Certainly, the turn of the residents of the Castro to Scott Weiner suggests a gay neighborhood increasingly comfortable with the politics of urban landlordism rather than urban tenancy. But the conditions of dispossession and the struggle for rights and livability, here through the tricky terrain of marriage, cannot be reduced to a bourgeois plot. Nor, as I talked to a lot of people doing my anthropological turn among the crowds yesterday, was the celebration at the day’s events easily linked to a dominant economic form or sexual norm. It was not only the monks who belied a crowd of bourgeois couples or others duped by the same. Like my students, I found myself dissatisfied with the rush to judgment.

Did I say I was ambivalent? I find the comment by this colleague immensely powerful in its demanding that we must link the cutting of some rights to the granting of others. I found it powerful in demanding that we must attend to the deep links of economic conditions to the personal relations in which we are asked to ground our optimism.  But again, I worry at the caricature of those, if not suitably bourgeois, apparently too dumb to share the critique. In moments like these, I find myself an exile from moral clarity.

What do we do with the Summer of Rights, the wham-bam double play of Voting Rights Act out and DOMA rendered unconstitutional, if in both cases by the slender 5-4 majorities that define our political condition more generally?

Some have pointed out that both votes share an abandonment of Federal oversight for the hegemony of state-level particularism, with both racial exclusion and marriage inclusion given over to state legislatures and courts. This shift is worth pursuing beyond the particularities of the United States situation.

I am not sure how to think, yet, in the face of the past two days. I do have a sense that linking these two events is less a matter of punishing the complex responses to primitive accumulation through the cruel optimism of the marriage form. I want to draw on both our ambivalence but also our pleasure in the face of the granting of some rights, in order to challenge the growing appeal of the new Jim Crow. And I should note that a lot of the people pressed against me in the Castro, as we variously cheered and ignored the politicians who came to address us, sported t-shirts focused on immigration and demands exceeding the spoils of the day.

T-shirt slogans are only that, of course, but the monks and I were moved.

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Comments to "The Summer of Rights":
    • Nancy Scheper-Hughes

      Thank you, Lawrence, for a beautiful essay to capture these exhilarating days. Friendship, love, freedom, and marriage — one can have it both ways. Friendship and marriage are not necessarily dichotomous.

      The Irish-speaking country people in West Kerry called spouses their “friends,” meaning those with whom they were not at war, and who were their equals. Its origins in Old English “freo” means “free, exempt from, not in bondage,” also “noble; joyful,”…Old Saxon and Old High German vri, German frei, Dutch vrij, Gothic freis “free”)…from Sanskrit priyah “own, dear, beloved,” priyate “loves;” Old Church Slavonic prijati “to help,” prijatelji “friend;” Welsh rhydd “free”)… and Old English freod “affection, friendship,” friga “love,” friðu “peace;” Old Norse friðr, German Friede “peace;”…finally, Dutch vrijen, German freien =”to woo and to love.”

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