What Comes After Gay Marriage?

In the coming days, the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments on both a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act and to California's Proposition 8. In a very real way, we could see the beginning of the end of the marriage equality struggle this week. Here's a look at what's next, because within that optimism there is also some confusion.

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This is a big week for the gay rights movement. In the coming days, the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments on both a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act and to California's Proposition 8, a voter initiative that banned same sex marriage in that state in 2008. In a very real way, we could see the beginning of the end of the marriage equality struggle this week. Of course it could also be the week of two major setbacks, but let's stick with what's widely expected, shall we? Because within that optimism there is also some confusion. If gay marriage does happen, finally and universally, what's next?

So much emotion and effort has gone into the decade-plus-long fight that to see those dreams suddenly and finitely realized in a concrete way could prove a bit jarring. The marriage equality fight has been such a unifying, galvanizing one that it will be strange to lose it as a cause to rally around. Of course if the SCOTUS decisions go the way of marriage equality, nothing will happen overnight, exactly. But it could be quick, which means the gay community and its allies should start thinking about what else can be done, what the next common cause can be. The benefits of  such a clear and, at its core, uncontroversial topic to collectively fight for — either through action or just passive support—have been huge. It would be a shame to become atomized, to all retreat to our various sects now that the big campaign has ended.

But let us give you a taste of what comes after marriage: Today on the Internet you could read young Will Portman's gentle piece about coming out to his parents, whose public interest stems from his father being a Republican U.S. senator, or you could read Gawker writer Rich Juzwiak's take on the 34th edition of the Black Party, which, as he writes, is "the leather-themed bacchanal for gay men, which is generally modified on first reference by 'infamous' and 'notorious.'" One is an earnest and square letter defending what's become politically correct, the other a slightly addled journey into a vivid sex party that wants to blow politically correct up. They're entirely different posts and seemingly represent two entirely different people (or at least two different sides of people). And yet both Portman and Juzwiak are of course united under a larger Gay umbrella, one that's been made both broad and sturdy by the gay marriage fight.

As far as I'm aware, neither Rich nor Will have regularly hit the pavement and knocked on doors campaigning for gay marriage, but they do both exist in a contemporary America that has seen gays and lesbians borne toward some measure of acceptance on the back of the marriage fight. Especially in the post-Prop. 8 era, when a revulsion at a collective act of discrimination in California (of all places) seemed to trump any internal debates about the merits of marriage as an institution. Those who didn't want marriage for themselves or their social circles could at least rally behind the broader symbolism of a purportedly progressive state voting to take away the rights from those who did and do. As much as some might complain about the forced normalizing of the marriage equality struggle — removing the queerness from queerness — in general the get-everyone-involved marriage fight seemed almost universally viewed as important and beneficial to the gay community, in both obvious and subtle ways. So it will be curious to see it finally realized, if it is.

But that doesn't have to mean that we'll all soon be scattered to the wind, left to dwell in smaller subsets, veterans all living different lives. There are still battles, or rather causes, that need addressing that could further strengthen the gay community as a whole, while solidifying its position in the bigger world. One of the most important, to me anyway, is actually an internal struggle. While the gay marriage movement has of course been widely important and effective and involved people from myriad walks of life, aspects of it have, at times, ignored certain people in favor of others. Meaning, the public face of the cause has largely been the same: white and at least middle class. Which is a problem. The racial and economic disparities in the gay community are similar to those in larger America, but they also come with their own particular sets of issues, particularly youth homelessness and the spread of HIV/AIDS. In fact, the idea that HIV/AIDS is largely a problem of the past is a pretty privileged and entirely inaccurate one that many people let persist while moving full steam ahead with the marriage equality campaign. The topic is certainly more of a downer, a reminder of the difficult past rather than a hope for the gleaming future, but of course in some ways that only better highlights its importance.

There are also trans friends and allies to help and support; though often strangely lumped together in one big LGBT clump, many causes and concerns of the trans community are distinctly different than those of gay cisgendered people. For various reasons, gender identity struggles don't have as much social cachet as something like gay marriage, though in many ways they are more urgent and fundamental. Though a certain type of queer person might soon enjoy what begins to look like full equality and acceptance, there are many others who are still deeply embattled.

And of course there are those pesky young people. What do we do with them? What do they do with us? Many gay American kids are growing up in a world that is dramatically different from what it was a mere decade ago. So what does that mean for the future of gay identity? Good things? Bad things? Glee things? I've detected notes of bitterness toward younger generations who "have it easier" and "don't appreciate their elders" creeping into corners of the gay conversation lately. Obviously older people will always grumble about younger ones and vice versa, but there's a particularly stringent and politically tinged tenor to those sentiments in the gay world that could further exacerbate that feared post-marriage gay diaspora. Not that gays need always move as a monolithic group, far from it, but through a more active and encompassing sense of unity, we've gotten a lot more done. So there will be plenty to celebrate if the Supreme Court goes for equality this week, and vows to redouble efforts if they do not, but we can keep in mind that the issues that will affect us next in most cases already do.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.