The Battle Over Don't Ask Don't Tell Was Won, But Are LGBT Activists in Danger of Losing the War?
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Marriage, you might think, offers a better chance to put love and sex at center stage. Yet the strategy for winning the right to marry has been depressingly similar to that deployed to win the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal: gradualism, assimilation, and a suppression of desire. "Families, I hate you!" the gay hero André Gide famously wrote – yet "families" has been the key word for gay marriage advocates, who insist up and down that "our" families are just like "yours."
That gay and straight couples might love differently, and that such a difference might still be worthy of legal protection, goes unspoken. And even more distressingly, unconsidered.
I have no intention of finding any value in a stupid, unproductive, homophobic law that I'm happy to see annulled today. But by taking the gayness out of gayness, by making gay rights solely about participation in pre-existing and not very liberating institutions, we may ultimately lose more than we gain. With Don't Ask, Don't Tell off the books, and with same-sex marriage legalized here in New York and on its way to the Supreme Court under the wing of George W Bush's solicitor general, it's hard not to conclude that we are facing a moment like that of the women's movement in the late 1970s, from which it has not recovered.
Having set out to defeat sexism in society, feminism took a turn and began to say that individual choices, rather than society-wide change, were what really mattered. We know the result: women still face violence, pay inequity, gross media distortions, and all sorts of other disadvantages, while the whole language of societal change has been lost.
Something similar is afoot with us. With Don't Ask, Don't Tell gone, marriage is the only battle remaining before the gay rights movement as currently constructed exhausts itself. An America in which gays can choose to serve in the armed forces and choose to marry their partners will be a better country, but only to a degree. Aids will not be eradicated, religious intolerance will not recede, adolescents will still commit suicide at shockingly high rates. And the unity forged in opposition will be long gone.
Not exactly what the boys at Stonewall were fighting for. The freedom to serve and to marry are worth the struggle, surely. But winning the freedom to love, to desire, and to be ourselves is a much trickier business.
Jason Farago is a New York-based writer and critic who contributes to the London Review of Books, Monocle, n+1, and other magazines. He is also editor of The Bugle, an American publication on culture and ecology.