Equality Exhaustion

Social media exploded this week with a brilliant display of support for marriage equality. Red and pink equal signs abound. But some express frustration toward this movement. They worry that the gesture’s simplicity undermines the serious work being done to dismantle an exclusionary institution. They want our virtual support for human rights to translate into real citizen engagement, so that we can effect sustainable change. Dissenters say many things, but their most prominent question is why. Why do we support marriage equality?

It remains to be seen whether Proposition 8 will stand. If the Supreme Court of the United States is honest with itself, it will agree with the lower court that the exclusions required by Proposition 8 have no rational basis in a democracy. All nine justices will recognize that the notion of a “traditional definition of marriage” is empty and based in emotional assessments of who is right and who is wrong, rather than in law.

Thanks to decisions like Bush v. Gore and Citizens United, entire generations doubt that the Court is in touch with or even cares about the best interest of our communities. We do not know what it will decide this time. What we do know is that we—the participants in this democracy project—have been changed by the marriage equality debate.

What I have read of the argument’s lengthy transcript suggests that each legal team was well-prepared and focused narrowly on what it perceives to be its client’s best interest. Charles Cooper, attorney for opponents of marriage equality, made the following argument in support of Proposition 8:

“The concern is that redefining marriage as a genderless institution will sever its abiding connection to its historic traditional procreative purposes, and it will refocus, refocus the purpose of marriage and the definition of marriage away from the raising of children and to the emotional needs and desires of adults, of adult couples.”

In other words, marriage will become something more complicated than an agreement to procreate. The irony of this anti-equality argument is that it is a refreshing reminder of the potential marriage has to grow beyond the narrow, contractual definition Cooper seeks to preserve. When marriage is equal, healthy adult relationships have space to flourish. In this space, adults are free to engage productively. They develop less violent ways of communicating with one another. Perhaps Cooper should be applauded for his honesty.

Greg Gabrellas, who writes for the Chicago Maroon, offers a more expansive way to think about marriage equality. He calls for a campaign for universal sexual freedom:

“We ought to be free to enter into whatever kinds of relationships we want with each other. That means getting the state out of our bedrooms, our bathhouses, our porn theatres. But there are material consequences for freedom. You can’t sustain, experiment, form, forge, develop, and enjoy relationships if you’re overworked, underpaid, and struggling to make the next bill payment. Sexual freedom requires social freedom.”

The modification of our online identities from “me” to “we” through the mass adoption of a common image is important. We are using the word “solidarity” again in popular discourse, and we haven’t used that word in a while—not since the labor and civil rights mobilizations of our democracy’s history.

Maybe what we are saying when we change our profile photos is not only that we support marriage equality, but also that we intend—we are committed—to living lives of active engagement in the common struggle toward social freedom for everyone. We have made some progress. The road before us will be long and if history is the judge, it will be arduous. But there has always been strength in numbers, and if the red and pink that floods our Facebook newsfeeds is any indication, the team working for change has grown to a formidable size.