Same Sex Marriage Isn’t Everything
Timothy Patrick McCarthy is a Lecturer on History and Literature, Adjunct Lecturer on Public Policy, and Director of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He also teaches in the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
A historian of social movements, Dr. McCarthy graduated with honors from Harvard College and received his Ph.D. in History from Columbia University, where he completed his dissertation under the direction of Eric Foner. Dr. McCarthy's research agenda focuses on the relationship between human rights and social movements in three main areas: race relations and civil rights; LGBT politics, policy, and advocacy; and modern-day slavery and human trafficking.
McCarthy has published two books, The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition (New Press, 2003) and Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism (New Press, 2006), and his third book, Protest Nation: The Radical Roots of Modern America, is forthcoming from the New Press in 2010.
An outspoken and respected leader in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, Dr. McCarthy was a founding member of Barack Obama's National LGBT Leadership Council, serves on the Board of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus, and, in 2009, delivered Harvard's prestigious Nicholas Papadopoulos Lecture, entitled "Stonewall's Children: Life, Loss, and Love after Liberation." He lectures widely on topics ranging from history and literature to politics and human rights.
Topic: The Arkansas dilemma.
Tim McCarthy: I think a much more troubling result of this election was the ballot initiative in Arkansas. I was speaking with some gay friends of mine and this was a ballot initiative that they basically forbade, or now forbids, by law single people from adopting children in Arkansas. So they have to be married in a traditional marriage, in order to be able to adopt children. And this was something that for me was very troubling.
It was troubling for a host of reasons. One is the energy, as I’ve mentioned before. The energy behind the passage of this ballot initiative by pro-family groups and conservative groups in Arkansas used this equation of homosexuality and pedophilia to drive people to the polls, to vote in favor of denying single people--and that means gay and lesbian people because gay and lesbian people can’t be, by law in Arkansas, part of a traditional marriage. So this effectively denies them the right to adopt children. So that any gay or lesbian person in the state of Arkansas has now been denied the right to adopt and raise children. These include foster children who are languishing in foster homes. You can imagine what the state of foster care must be a state like in a depressed state like Arkansas; it’s not good in any state certainly I’m sure is not very good in Arkansas either.
This to me is a very troubling step backwards. It brings up all of those kind of historic statements that we’re still dealing with and fighting against in the LBGT community. So for me, that ballot initiative in Arkansas was far more insidious and far more, for me, a sign that we have not made enough progress and that we may in fact be taking a step backward.
Then the Prop 8 vote [Proposition 8]. Because at the end of the day the Prop 8 vote was the gay marriage resolution, was closer this time around than it had been previously in California. There’s been movement in the direction of progress in the issue of marriage.
Question: What about gay marriage?
Tim McCarthy: The issue of marriage is a very sticky one. I personally, though I relish my right to get married to my partner if I so choose in Massachusetts, and looks like that’s going to also happen in New York very soon. It certainly happened all throughout New England, with the exception of Rhode Island. I relish that right. I’m happy to have it. I’m grateful to people who struggled to earn that right in the states where we’ve earned it.
But I don’t think that the marriage issue, strategically, is the best thing to put at the forefront of our movement. And I think there has been, among some members in the LBGT movement, an over emphasis on marriage.
I think that there are two problems with that. One is that marriage is the most sacred of institutions, right? I mean, culturally speaking. In the public imagination most people, despite the fact that we have 50% divorce rate among straight married couples, we raise marriage to a pedestal that we don’t raise any other kind of relationship to. And I think there are a lot of reasons for that historically, but when you seek to become fully integrated, and have the full rights of marriage; it’s like kicking a bee’s nest or kicking a hornet’s nest--and that’s what the LGBT community has done. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t kick hornet’s nest. I think that, you know, none of us would be anywhere if we didn’t kick a few hornet’s nest. But at the end of the day, we have to understand that when you kick a hornet’s nest, there are going to be hornets, right, and you are going to get stung.
I sounded like a Southerner right now. I feel I should be on a porch somewhere drinking mead tulips.
But at the end of the day, we’re going to get stung and we have been stung and we’ve been stung in California. We haven’t been stung elsewhere. But in the end of the day and not to beat the metaphor to death too, much, at the end of the day, I think that we have asked for a fight that we have now gotten, right? And some of us are upset that that fight has resulted in some punches and some black eyes, and California is one of them.
So I think, strategically, marriage might not be the only fight we want to have. I think we want to pick some fights that we know we can win so that we can store up some energy for the big fights and marriage is definitely a big fight.
The other piece of this is that within the LGBT community, marriage is not, I would argue, the most important issue for the broadest range of LGBT people but for a lot of folks, employment nondiscrimination is more important than marriage. For a lot of folks, adoption rights are more important than marriage. For a lot of folks, universal health care is more important than marriage. For a lot of folks, there are a lot of things that are more important than marriage.
I think by focusing or over-emphasizing marriage as the sort of gem in the crown of gay rights or LGBT rights, we are alienating a broad staff of folks within our community. Homeless trans youth [i.e. transgender youth] are not principally interested in getting married. They are more interested in making sure that they are protected against all sorts of street violence and discrimination and so forth.
There are folks in communities of color and in poor communities all over the country for whom marriage is something that middle class white people who live in the suburb want.
So I do think that by overemphasizing marriage and by fixating on Prop 8, we do more to break the bonds that we should be strengthening in our community. I don’t think that marriage is a winning issue when one our goals is to create as broad and multicultural and multi-class in LBGT community moving forward politically and socially.
Recorded on: July 1, 2009
Human rights advocate Tim McCarthy worries that there’s been an overemphasis on fighting for a right that shouldn’t be at the forefront of the gay rights movement.
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