Two of Finn’s good friends are in town this weekend staying with us. They’re both friendly, funny intellectual gay boys, and we were up until 1am last night arguing (or “debating,” I suppose) the place of queer politics in a democratic society. I haven’t had a conversation like this since undergrad, and it was nice to discover I could still hold my own. It came down to this:
Finn and K: Democracy has failed us (the gays). We should not be forced to accept less-than-full equality, and on principle, we should reject it. If we accept civil unions, for instance, instead of full marriage equality, then we allow bigots to feel good about themselves because they’ve given us something despite the fact that they are still insulting our dignity; we lead ourselves and the rest of the movement to become pacified and complacent; and we ultimately hurt the movement because it makes it more difficult to argue for equality when you’ve achieved something that most people will see as “close enough.” What we need instead is a mass movement leading to a total reformation of government so that full equality can be achieved for everyone all at once. (There was also a related argument about whether conditional love – “I love you, but I don’t accept that you’re gay” – is genuine love, or whether it too should be rejected outright, for essentially the same reasons one would reject less-than-fully-equal policy change.)
Pom. and J: Democracy is an imperfect system, but it’s the best and most workable system the world has developed thus far. When you live in a democracy, incremental change is the reality, and it shouldn’t be rejected in the hopes that some mythical revolution will occur in the meantime. If you reject every incremental change because it doesn’t provide full equality, you are left without even the incremental change to build on. The past 200 years – hell, the past 50 years – has seen many relatively major advances for queer people. Obviously, that doesn’t mean we should stop working and become complicit in our own oppression – there is still work to be done, of course – but there is no reason to think that incremental change is not on track to create real and lasting change in the big picture. As for conditional love, whether or not you accept it might be a personal decision, but because we are human beings who are connected to other people and to our society, rather than close doors to people who are trying to grow you would hopefully, where you can, decide to try and engage them.
If you had asked me in undergrad, I would have fallen squarely on the side of Finn and J’s argument – revolution for everyone. And in theory, I still agree wholeheartedly that swift progress is preferable to incremental change. Which is why it felt strange, last night, to be advocating so strenuously as to the benefits of incremental change. But having become, somehow, much more of a pragmatist over the last few years, I guess I’ve come to realize that the revolution ain’t gonna happen. If you genuinely believe that a democracy – despite its admitted failings – is the preferable system, then you have to acknowledge that incremental change is built in for a reason. It is designed to prevent civil war, violent overthrow of the government, anarchy.
Look, it sucks to be on the losing side of a democratic argument (though keep in mind that when it comes to fundamental rights, the courts are also supposed to take a stand, as fundamental rights are generally thought not to be validly put to a vote). But that is both the joy and the sorrow of living in the so-called marketplace of ideas – you have to sell your point of view. Over time, I genuinely believe that progressives are winning, slowly but surely, in the marketplace. Finn and K argued that it shouldn’t be queer people’s responsibility to “teach” people out of their ignorance, that people’s own consciences should alert them to the fact that discrimination is wrong and that those people are responsible, then, for creating change. I definitely understand the anger and frustration of feeling like you are constantly having to teach people, but that is the way of democracy. You MUST take responsibility for your own ideas, and for convincing people of their value. The other side is teaching, all day, every day. They are loud and well-funded and well-connected. Our teaching might be smaller, but it is no less important. We are seeing the changes, in fits and starts, over the years. It gives me hope.
“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” -MLK