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nomorepotlucks » “Neoliberalism’s Handiest Little Tool”: Against Equality on Marriage – Joshua Pavan

“Neoliberalism’s Handiest Little Tool”: Against Equality on Marriage – Joshua Pavan

Conrad Castonguay


As debates over gay marriage spread from state to state, there has been a small but growing opposition from the left. One of the sites in which opposition has emerged is in the work of the Against Equality collective. Calling into question the primacy of marriage, military service, and hate crimes legislation as the Holy Trinity of queer movement politics, the collective published its first anthology last fall: “Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Marriage”.

The driving force behind Against Equality is its co-founders: Yasmin Nair, a Chicago-based writer and activist, and self-described “outlaw artist, terrorist academic, and petty thief,” Ryan Conrad. They were joined in conversation by Montreal-based Joshua Pavan, community organizer and co-founder of Pervers/Cité, Montreal’s radical queer summer festival.

Joshua V Pavan: So given that we’re gathered here in the Motive issue, can you start by explaining what prompted the Against Equality (AE) project (and specifically that name)?

Yasmin Nair: It began in November 2009, when Ryan came up with the idea of a digital archive. Before that, we’d got to know each other via FB (I think it started when I caught sight of Ryan’s photo session of himself in a bridal gown, holding a sign that said “Gay marriage will cure AIDS,” and knew I’d found a kindred soul). We realized there was a real need to have all this amazing, radical queer analysis, activism, and artwork archived on the web. We knew there had been powerful critiques of gay marriage from the start of gay and lesbian organizing and activism, but hunting them down was a vast task.

 As for the name – I know we wanted to be provocative, yes – the name would definitely draw attention. But we were and are serious about questioning this specious notion of “equality.” The word is loosely thrown about, and it’s assumed that we should all know exactly what that means and what it stands for, but what does it really mean in a country where “marriage equality” is simply another way to ensure that the unmarried should be left out of a basic benefits structure? And what does equality mean when the system set up only ensures an insurmountable amount of economic inequality?

JVP: Yeah, in the ways that “equality,” has been emptied of all but the sort of warm, positive feelings around it, similar arguments can be made of “Pride,” or “Community.” Nevertheless, a lot of queer activists have found it important for these words to be the battleground of their more radical politics, both for their historical significance and intelligibility across movements. How do you see Against Equality fitting in with that?

Ryan Conrad: I think that examining the deployment of the rhetorical, affective appeal and the kinds of inequities it obscures is key to our project, in order to get people engaged in a conversation and to reflect back on what these actually mean within the context of neoliberalism. For me, it’s about rejecting that rallying cry to invest ourselves in a deeply unequal heteronormative present and demand and fight for a radically equitable and queer future.

YN: I think what AE challenges with regard to “community,” is the notion that the only kind that matters is the sort represented by Gay Inc. At the same time, in asking for a politics that considers how “marriage equality” leaves out large groups of people, we’re asking for a politics that looks beyond “community-based” solutions. What would marriage look like if we thought of it less as something that benefits specific “communities” (straights, gays and lesbians) and more as an institution that unequally and systemically grants benefits to specific kinds of family formations favoured by capitalism?

JVP: When people hear “neoliberalism,” the common understandings or associations would be around government economic policies of austerity, privatization and deregulation. What role does marriage play in this project?

YN: Marriage, as configured in the U.S, is neoliberalism’s handiest little tool. It allows for the most intense privatization of resources by placing the responsibility for people’s welfare squarely in the realm of the family. Need health care? If you don’t have a job that gives you that, or have parents who can put you on their plan, or a spouse with a job that allows you access to the same, you’re screwed. In that sense, neoliberalism loves marriage – it’s an effective and economical way to ensure that the state can abdicate from its responsibility for people’s health and well being.

RC: The entire framework that we use to understand our “resources,” like health care or housing or knowledge, etc. is of the economic model of capitalism and scarcity. Here in the States, through marriage we see the privatization of what we believe are collective benefits, like access to health care, to specifically classed family units. Instead of fighting for everyone’s right to live, like queer folks did so loudly and proudly here and elsewhere in the 80s, we see LGBTs now demanding that only married people have the right to these things.

JVP: So this privatization with marriage is less about shifting state functions into the private sector, as much as it is into the private sphere?

RC: I don’t think you can separate, on one hand, economic models that rely on a massively privatized public from, on the other hand, the shift towards championing the right to privacy/private sphere. Both the economic and affective/cultural shift to the private mutually reinforce the naturalness and inevitability of the other.

YN: Take, for instance, the rhetoric around public school education here in the States. People are being persuaded to believe that demanding charter schools or vouchers for private schools is about “taking back their schools and communities,” and being able to voice their wishes for their children’s education. The constant emphasis on a “taking back” rests squarely in the realm of the affective private sphere and disguises the corporatization of public schools.

JVP: So while you’re not the first to launch a queer critique of marriage, you’re one of the first to frame it as a “politics of inclusion,” rather than a “politics of assimilation.” Is this an effort to escape an argument of culture? Is it to thwart the intentionality of “I’m getting married, but not because I believe in marriage”? Why this shift?

YN: I think the anti-assimilationist argument still matters, but not in the way it’s being propounded. Queers are not naturally anti-assimilationist; there’s nothing in our genetic makeup that says that we are always outside the norm. Rather, we have come to stand for and nurture alternative forms of communities/affiliations/sexual lives because our outsider status both forced us and allowed us to do so. And through that we have historically achieved tremendous political reconfigurations of politics and the public sphere.

Some queers, like Dan Savage and Holly Hughes, like to bash the queers who criticize gay marriage by claiming they are either not assimilationist, or that their marriages are somehow quite different than what we might imagine (as in Savages’s constant references to non-monogamy), or that we are simply “threatened” by coupledom or because our major problem with marriage is that it is conservative (as Hughes puts it). I think that just shows the limits of the anti-assimilationist argument. 

So we insist on talking about the costs of inclusion because anti-assimilation lets people off the hook; they can pretend that it’s not marriage’s central role in the state that’s the problem – it’s just how marriages are conducted. Which is bosh, of course. You can marry naked and hanging upside down from a hot air balloon and share your marital bed with multiple strangers every day – none of that will change how the state endows your marriage with benefits it will not give to the unmarried.

JVP: What about this argument of “I don’t believe in marriage, but I need adoption rights/ immigration papers/ whatever else.” People can be on board with a critique, but there’s a real need underpinning support for marriage.

YN: None of us have ever told people that they can’t get married. Hell, if it helps you stay in the country, or get health care, or keep your savings, whatever, or if you just have an emotional need for the institution, get or stay married. We’re not purists who blame people for getting married.

But when people tell me that they need to get married for x and y, and so want nothing to do with our critique, my response is: why are these things separate? Ironically, most of my straight married friends probably have a better critique of marriage because so many of them have been effectively coerced by the state – because of health care issues or child custody problems. But they’re fully with us in discussing ways to evolve a system that would not demand marriage from people. Using the utilitarian arguments is nothing more than an act of political cowardice. It’s pretending that political change can only come about if a perfect state of things is first achieved. But who among us is ridiculous enough to say that?

RC: I’m still not convinced that marriage is the best way of gaining protections for one’s partner. The gay marriage movement needs to be called out in its trouncing of domestic partnership benefits. In Connecticut, for example, upon ratification of gay marriage all domestic partnerships were dissolved, destroying many peoples’ (gay and straight) protections for their intimate and non-intimate partners. This idea that gay marriage is the only thing we should be fighting for, at the cost of reducing the number of ways in which all people can create partnerships actually reduces the number of ways people can access protections and collective benefits.

YN: Also, the right isn’t just trying to keep us from marrying, they are taking away our collective bargaining rights as queer workers, they are defunding all essential social services geared towards queer and trans people, they are reducing access to public and higher education, defunding any and all programs doing HIV prevention and treatment, they are rolling back human rights protections for queer and trans people, they are blocking any iteration of immigration reform. But somehow marriage is the battle being brought to “us,” one for which we should be prioritizing all our time, energy and money?

JVP: In that context, how do you see Against Equality as fitting into a broader landscape of social critique in America? At a time when it seems to be polarizing between work being done in academic institutions, and the sort of punditry of the Daily Show – Rachel Maddow circuit, how do you walk that line?

RC: I think a great thing about Against Equality is that it is both an intellectual and activist project. All of us involved in the project are all engaged in direct work within our communities. Being activists informs our intellectual work and our intellectual work informs our activist work. I am primarily engaged in queer and trans youth empowerment in an isolated working class town as well as HIV prevention and anti-stigma work. There isn’t some huge disconnect between who and how we think through our theoretical engagement and work through our material reality.

YN: And the phenomenal response to our work and the many people who’ve told us that just coming to our presentations or reading our book has emboldened them to carry on these conversations and make changes elsewhere is evidence that there is a need for a different kind of discursive space where critique can continue.

JVP: How do you gauge the success of the project? Given the materialist framework, presumably it’s more than just starting conversations. What does it mean to fight to win in the marriage debates?

YN: We didn’t get into this to win any debate. Yes, arguing with people and making our points clearly and effectively is definitely a strategy, but in the end that’s only been one of the rhetorical and discursive strategies we’ve employed. We wanted people to understand that there are real, material problems with this focus on gay marriage and that it’s a contradiction to support it as a “liberal/progressive/left” cause.

For example, a number of immigration rights groups have decided to uncritically support gay marriage as some kind of progressive “let’s get behind the gays and they’ll support immigration rights,” tactic.

Those same immigration agencies have been trying to get the law changed so that people on spousal visas – who have no access to even social security numbers, driving licenses, work permits, all of which makes them frighteningly dependent on their spouses – might have more rights and be able to petition for themselves in the event of abuse.

Our critique matters tremendously, but not because we’re trying to win a debate with people on the pro-gay marriage side who are, for the most part, too deeply invested to care. It matters because it gives people who are in fact working in places like immigration agencies a way to say, “Wait a minute, how can we possibly support this issue uncritically when we’re actually trying to dislodge the centrality of relationships in so many other ways?”

RC: The point for me has never been about winning the gay marriage debate, but about creating more time and space for the queer political imagination to exist. The overwhelming emphasis on the so-called practical successes (i.e. gay marriage, hate crimes, overturning DADT, etc.) has collapsed the realm of the imaginable into a narrow vision of futurity with all its glaring inequalities. How do we build strategies to fight for a radically equitable queer future if we can’t even fathom that time or place as possible, let alone desirable? Perhaps it’s that I am deeply invested in the materialist framework, but without losing site of the fact that materiality can limit the imagination, which in turn limits our materialist framework.

I’m looking forward to new, more ambitious projects that we have on the horizon with the Against Equality project, particularly with this idea we have been chatting about around doing an international think tank addressing the issues of inclusion politics. I think it’s here that we have the opportunity where we (radical activists, artists, academics, etc.) can overlap conversations around materiality and the queer political imagination in interesting ways that will lead to strategies to actualize the most fantastic queer futures and survival tactics for the present.

Against Equality: www.againstequality.org
Yasmin Nair: www.yasminnair.net
Ryan Conrad: www.faggotz.org

Joshua V Pavan is an Alberta-bred queen relocated to Montreal where she works as a trade unionist and community organizer. In the summer of 2007, he was one of the co-founders of Pervers/Cité, Montreal’s radical queer summer festival. When not engaged in solidarity work with the Prisoner Correspondence Project or as Lady Gaza, he can be found defending the honour of misunderstood popstars.

Yasmin Nair is a Chicago-based writer, academic, and activist. She is a member of Gender JUST and the Against Equality collective. Her work has appeared in publications like Bitch, Time Out Chicago, Maximum RockNRoll, makeshift, Discourse and the first AE book, Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage. Nair is currently at work on a book about affect and neoliberalism, and can be reached at http://www.yasminnair.net

Ryan Conrad is an outlaw artist, terrorist academic, and petty thief from a mill town in central Maine. He is the founder of Against Equality digital archives and continues his involvement in the project as a member of the editorial collective. His work as a visual and performing artist has exhibited internationally in Europe and across the United States and Canada. He continues to write for both academic and non-academic presses as well as present his written and visual work at academic and activist conferences. All his work is archived on faggotz.org along with this well-established record of work as an activist and organizer.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by wag (not verified) on Sun, 07/03/2011 – 17:08.

“ensure that the state can abdicate from its responsibility for people’s health and well being.”

What responsibility is that? Did the law of the land change, or is the author simply suggesting that law is not important? This is a slippery slope, as the law is what protects against things like hate crimes.

Submitted by Debbie Gordon (not verified) on Wed, 07/06/2011 – 19:51.

Read the interview. They didn’t say the law shouldn’t protect; they’re saying that the law should 1) do more than protect against–i.e. the state has a responsibility toward its citizenry to also recognize rights in the affirmative, material sense such as providing health care (not letting its citizens die of AIDS, untreated illnesses, because people cannot afford to access health care) 2) legal fights should not be reduced to narrowly construed “interests” in which politics is conceived of as founded on separate, interchangable “groups,” that then fight it out for scarce resources of the state, resources that are bound to capital.

At least this is one way of understanding what I hear them saying which is actually richer and more interesting than even my description. Have I got it right, Ryan, Yasmin?