Through Issenberg’s light on donors, activists and advocates on both sides of the saga, another aspect of the battle for marriage equality becomes abundantly clear: its whiteness. Obama plays an important role, yes, but nearly all of the people at the heart of the story – dozens of them – are white. Issenberg does not hesitate to examine the role of race in electoral politics (the loss of the black vote against Proposition 8, he concludes, was only a symptom of a more widespread messaging problem), but we do not Let’s learn why, exactly, black queer activists were so rare in the upper echelons of the marriage struggle.
They’ve long told us why: In addition to the broader racism and transphobia within the mainstream gay rights movement, marriage has always been primarily a white and cisgender issue. “Gay marriage? Please,” Jasmyne Cannick, a Los Angeles-based political strategist and journalist, wrote after Proposal 8 was passed. “White gay community bangs their heads against the glass ceiling of a play called Equality, believing that a breakthrough in marriage will grant her parity with straight people. But the right to marry does nothing to address the issues facing both black homosexuals and black heterosexuals. Does someone who is homeless or has HIV but has no health care, or has just been released from prison and is unemployed, really have the right to marry a person of the same sex?
As Issenberg points out, some lesbian feminists such as lawyer and activist Paula Ettelbrick have proposed early alternatives to marriage, notably “by making room in our society for broader definitions of the family”. Amid the post-Baehr conservative backlash, however, critics found themselves in what Ettelbrick called the “very strange” position of defending marriage against the religious right, thus tacitly embracing the cause. But despite Issenberg’s nuanced coverage of other intra-movement feuds, “The Engagement” sidesteps several vital critiques of the marriage; any book that covers Sullivan’s “Virtually Normal” should also make the arguments for “Virtual Equality” by Urvashi Vaid (his book is cited briefly), “The Trouble With Normal” by Michael Warner and “The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family , and Martha Fineman “Other Tragedies of the Twentieth Century,” to name a few.
In his postscript, Issenberg acknowledges that the fight for same-sex marriage has left much of the LGBTQ community behind. “Transgender Americans were certainly no better off than they had been,” he writes. This admission begs the question: what was lost by spending millions of dollars on same-sex marriage instead of a larger form of queer liberation? Since queer and trans people of color have offered alternate visions of freedom since the inception of LGBTQ organizing, and if we had instead focused on the most marginalized members of our community, those who put their bodies in danger during the Stonewall riots in 1969? What if, before getting married, we first provided housing for homeless young Americans, up to 40% of whom identify as gay? If we had channeled our resources to protect and uplift black trans women, who now face an epidemic of violence?
In the age of deTrumpification, the LGBTQ community has an opportunity to reflect on what it can and should accomplish now that marriage equality has only granted fiscal and social privileges to those who are able and willing. to join this institution. In the meantime, Issenberg leaves us a valuable lesson: we must choose our battles wisely, because they dictate not only our rights, but also the limits of our political imagination.