Audrey Bilger is one of the key voices to follow on marriage equality. She’s written with razor-sharp expertise and more than a pinch of humor about LGBTQ rights, gender norms, the lesbian word “wife,” and why straight folks should follow Prop 8 for variety of publications, including Ms., Bitch Magazine, Huffington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Bilger is a co-editor of Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage and the author of Laughing Feminism, and she also teaches literature at Claremont McKenna College, where she directs the Center for Writing and Public Discourse.
In early March, I sat down with Bilger at the Coffee Gallery in Altadena to talk about gay marriage and the marriage equality movement. With the Supreme Court hearings on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) starting today, our conversation was laced with history in the making. As Bilger points out, the marriage equality movement affects everyone—so gay or not, marriage advocate or not, now is a good moment to tune in to what’s shaking down.
K. BRADFORD: You’ve co-edited Here Come the Brides and you’ve written a lot about the marriage equality movement. What has it been like to witness the different turns, waves, and sweeps inside this movement that keeps on evolving?
AUDREY BILGER: Sometimes I feel like we just woke up to this issue recently, because even at the turn of the millennium it didn’t seem likely that we’d be talking about marriage equality as a reality in 2013. It didn’t seem that way. From what happened in the mid 1990s when DOMA first passed, it seemed like the strong animus against gays and lesbians marrying would keep the issue from gaining traction. But then things moved quickly after 2004. A lot changed dramatically. Now we look at the kinds of polls that come out and it seems like every one of them is going up by a point or two points or five points. The polls go up in ways that surprise everyone who is watching this, the support for marriage equality.
Part of the change may be because marriage is such a mainstream issue—marriage is this thing that people get really easily. They get why it’s important as a right, they get that it’s about love and relationships, and they get when they see pictures of happy couples why this is emotionally resonant. And I think that is one of the things that’s really moving the dialogue. You know, marriage is really popular. There are people who understand why excluding gays and lesbians from the institution of marriage is fundamentally problematic.
KB: What were the inciting motivations for you and your co-editor Michele Kort in deciding to curate and edit Here Come the Brides?
AB: I always trace the beginnings of the book back to my own experience, to back to when I was able to legally marry my wife Cheryl. Just saying “my wife” like that is one of the things that struck me as a profound change. “Wife” was a word that when I had been married to a man I found problematic, because it was so linked to a heterosexual structure that put women lower than men, so that the word “wife” was always lower than “husband.” It felt like the equivalent of the little woman and all of the stereotypes like the ball & chain. And the more I meditated on that word and what it meant to actually be a lesbian wife, the more I recognized that we were at a place where, because history is moving quickly, we should document this, the fact that I was feeling excited by being able to call Cheryl my wife and have that be what I saw as an instant coming out. I didn’t have to go through the struggle of saying my “my life partner” or “my partner who’s a woman” or any of those things that we do. I say “wife” and the person I’m talking to has to deal with it and they have to decide whether to ask questions or not.
So 2008 is when we were able to get legally married, and then Michele Kort and I started the anthology in 2010. Over the course of the next year I wrote different pieces on this idea that the word “wife” is an amazing thing when you’re a lesbian wife. Part of my campaign is to say that we are giving marriage a facelift. We’re giving the word “wife” a facelift. Because we’re detaching it from the binary relationship to husband. The more I wrote about it the more I kept thinking there’s something more to be done here by bringing in additional voices. And right from the start when I realized that an anthology would be a great way to represent all of these voices, I wanted to have a partner—a book partner (laughter)—as opposed to a life partner. Hysterically that’s one of the things Michele and I find we have to explain when we’re out doing readings with the anthology—that we’re not married to each other (more laughter). I approached Michele. I popped the question, and she said yes (laughter). It’s been a good union, in the literary sense.
So Michele’s first response was that she wasn’t sure she wanted to work on the book because she hadn’t gotten married. In fact it was a series of difficult conversations with her partner that led to their decision to not get married. That was something she ended up writing about in her piece in the anthology. She thought initially that I wanted the book to be “rah-rah gay marriage.” But instead, as we received submissions and heard what people were saying on the ground, we recognized that this is a really nuanced subject. And whatever we identify as the queer community and the subset of that which is the lesbian community, we are not all exactly on the same page with this. What is clear is that in terms of the large frame of history this has been huge. Marriage equality is one of the biggest public relations campaigns for the gay and lesbian acceptance that we’ve seen.
KB: The more gay marriage comes to the table as a debate, campaign, and civil rights issue and also as something that people are stepping into personally and practically, do you see a range of options for what marriage can be? Are we queering the institution itself or stepping into the mainstream?
AB: I would hope that gay and lesbian couples entering into marriage will reject what has been called the “wedding industrial complex.” One of the least persuasive arguments to me in favor of gay marriage—though it has a lot of leverage—is that there’s all of this money to be made by states that legalize same sex marriage.
When Cheryl and I realized we were going to get married in 2008, because it was suddenly legal and we knew it might not be legal for very long, we knew we that we were in this time when the clock was ticking and at any point the rug could get pulled out from under us. Because that’s what happened in San Francisco when Gavin Newsom authorized marriage licenses for same sex couples, before the state intervened.
So we started to fantasize about the wedding. We’re involved in the music world, and we started thinking we could rent the Troubador and bring in musician friends. And I started thinking to myself as a feminist, “Do I really want to think about the ceremony in that way? Do I really want to add up expenses that would be hard on my little family unit?” It’s one of the things that’s too bad about the ways that weddings get played out in our culture—they are so expensive. People seem to think that that expense makes them more official.
Eventually, we decided to just have a couple of friends—one of whom is a Unitarian minister—to come out to dinner with us, sign the papers, and marry us. Later though we learned from a number of friends that they did want to celebrate with us. So we kept thinking, “When will that point be? The point when we celebrate?” Last year we passed our sixteenth anniversary, so maybe it will be year twenty. Or maybe it will be when the federal marriage ban is turned over. We’ll find a place to mark and let people celebrate with us, this thing that is our happy relationship.
I think that’s one of the areas where couples really wrestle with their personal choices, and they wrestle with things big and small. And that comes across in the stories in Here Come the Brides. Who’s going to wear what? And what’s this all going to look like? Are we going to go to one of those big bridal fairs and register? And if we do are we selling out? I think everybody has to draw a line as to where they think is going too far toward a mainstream identity. And on the positive side of the mainstream, what is ratifying is the very simple point that gays and lesbians are humans who love one another and who aspire toward some of the same things that straight couples do. I’m hopeful that because we’re opening a new chapter in the history of marriage we’re allowing for what is essentially a radical egalitarianism.
KB: Marriage can be a humanizing factor in that we all love and sometimes it leads toward long-term commitments—it’s a commonality that we sometimes share with the straight community. How is the choice to get married politicized?
AB: I spent a good part of my life as a married heterosexual woman. I got married in 1982 and it was political then, at least in Oklahoma, to think about things like: will you change your name as a woman? Will you hyphenate? If you didn’t change your name that was definitely political. And it was so complicated to figure out that I did change my name, and I kept that name that I married into and feel positive things about it. But we had long discussions about politics. The more I became aware of feminist theory and became involved in Women’s Studies, the more it’s clear that it’s always political when you get married.
My aspiration about the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian marriage is that it will be no less political for gay and lesbian people to make these decisions than it is for heterosexuals. And in many ways it will give heterosexuals the chance to work out their identities within these traditional roles with more freedom. If there’s no one script for being a wife or being a husband but instead there are scripts that float outside of the gender binary, then it makes more opportunities for people to express their own core identity.
KB: Marriage equality is the frontrunner right now. Thinking about queer rights in a wider sense, how do you see gay marriage ushering forward queer rights issues that are less visible and have less traction than marriage, and what causes do you see being brushed aside?
AB: Marriage equality is such a huge issue right now that it dominates the political landscape. And because of growing acceptance, marriage equality might create the illusion that many battles are done. Battles against even simple homophobia are not done. You don’t have to go far out of major urban centers to know that there are still big issues that remain in front of us. For instance issues of queer youth who are kicked out of their homes, who are on the streets or are struggling to come to terms with their identity in a hostile environment—there’s nothing about the marriage issue that will help them right away.
Some of the positive changes we get from the marriage equality movement have to do with family, not just with lesbian and gay couples, but the huge ally base that’s around us. In particular, people who are close to gay and lesbian couples, because they feel a sense of a relief when the stigma is removed. They feel a sense of relief in believing that their offspring or their sibling or their close friend will find acceptance. When the federal marriage ban is gone—and I think that will be gone this year—and these marriage bans state by state are done away with, we’ll look around and shake our heads and we’ll really need to look at the world again. Just like Loving v. Virginia, even though on the federal level it made it illegal to discriminate against interracial couples so that interracial couples could freely marry, that doesn’t mean that interracial couples happily waltz around every corner of this great country without facing discrimination. That’s simply not the case—there’s still discrimination against interracial couples.
There are many benefits we’ll see from this greater acceptance, but the point here is that for families and the ally base this is huge. That’s something we can’t overstate—that the ally base needs this as much as lesbian and gay couples need this.
I think there’s something transformative about this moment that revolves around the very conventionality of marriage. I always come back to the idea that the very things that make the queer community react against marriage—that it’s mainstream, that it’s conventional—are also the things that will allow this advance to do real political good in the world.
KB: We are in the middle of a sea change around marriage equality. City by city, state by state, and of course in the Supreme Court—we are on the precipice. How do you see this sea change?
AB: I think people like an underdog story. As a disenfranchised minority we are an underdog group anyway, but in relation to marriage it’s the underdog story with a love story—I think that the lightning-fast move has been partly because there is something really powerful about those two things coming together. People want to root for the expansion of rights rather than the contraction of rights. And frankly there is no rational argument against same sex couple marriage rights. And now that we’ve come to this place where DOMA and Proposition 8 are coming before the Supreme Court, it becomes really clear that there isn’t a lot of ground for the opponents of marriage equality to stand on.
In arguing against same sex marriage rights, the view that the antis present really doesn’t offer much that’s positive about marriage for heterosexual people and seems to disregard that we enter into marriage because of love, because of personal commitment, because of the desire for intimacy. So they stake their case on this responsible procreation idea, and when they were asked in trial, “Isn’t this a slippery slope? Wouldn’t this ultimately lead to the government issuing fertility tests to ensure that couples could procreate before allowing them to marry?” They just shrugged that off.
Another argument the antis are making is: “Whoa, not so fast!” As time goes on, that argument seems preposterous too because we’ve had legal same sex marriage in the United States since 2004, and we’re starting to see more countries and locations with same sex marriage, and guess what? It’s not hurting anyone. Massachusetts has one of the lowest divorce rates in the country, and they have legalized same sex marriage.
If changes around marriage equality are moving quickly it’s because there is not a compelling argument against same sex marriage. One thing that heterosexual friends have said for years is the idea that my marriage would harm their marriages or would keep them from getting married is ridiculous—it’s absurd. So what happens when people who are in favor of the bans go to court is that they are not allowed to make any of the arguments they make when they campaign, like the argument to be afraid that your children will be taught to value the lives of gays and lesbians.
KB: Why is it so important for this issue to go to the Supreme Court?
AB: One of the main reasons marriage equality has to go to the Supreme Court is precisely because it involves bias and overt discrimination. I became an ardent court watcher when I realized that only rational arguments will be heard in court, when I saw that the Prop 8 proponents were trying to keep out campaign materials because they thought it would be prejudicial to their case. When it became really clear that they couldn’t advance religious arguments in court, it became clear to me that the courts are the place where minorities can have their rights protected. Because ballot initiatives disenfranchise minorities. People who go to the ballot box will vote against minorities—this has been true in relation to any civil rights issue. If you ask the majority to vote on minority rights, they’re going to vote to restrict those rights more often than not. The court is able to weigh these initiatives, to understand what the actual root of the bans is, which is discrimination, and say that that is not something that can stand in this country, that we really do represent democratic ideals.
I’m glad DOMA and Prop 8 are going to the Supreme Court. I’m not surprised that DOMA is going to the Supreme Court because DOMA involves the federal government discriminating against people who for instance are in the military and people who are employees of the federal government. But as the over 100 businesses that have submitted briefs to both of the marriage cases make clear, the federal government is making employers discriminate against their employees, and making them set up two different categories of marriage, and to make sure that married lesbian and gay couples have to pay a tax penalty on benefits that heterosexuals simply receive as part of the company package.
KB: If we think back to the language and political strategies during Bush’s last election, the rhetoric was anti-gay and centered around immorality and perversion. The hard right mobilized around gay rights and gay marriage in particular and Bush got into office. Now things are flipped. Now there’s a pro-gay sentiment to which even some Republicans are signing onto. The Republican strategies ended up backfiring and even helping the changes that are happening now—how do you view these shifts?
AB: It was really significant in this last presidential election that the issue of marriage equality was not a front-and-center issue. Obama came out in favor of marriage equality last summer and you would think that would be a hot button issue then and that Mitt Romney would have been addressing it everywhere he went. But instead it was a hot potato. On the Republican side, the candidates shied away from it—they were actually much more comfortable going after women’s reproductive rights than they were talking about same sex marriage or gay people at all. This movement has really brought about that change, and it has also made it much more difficult for people who do have strong biases against gays and lesbians as deviant, morally problematic figures to be open about that without suffering political ramifications. There’s a kind of civility that’s entered into discussions about gay and lesbian issues and that’s been reinforced by the marriage issue.
KB: In 2004 I was in Grant Park during Obama’s victory speech when he spoke of Americans “black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight…” Then in 2012 his inauguration speech had that great line about “the star [of equality] that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” Symbolically at least there is a paradigm shift even within Obama’s first term from a focus on identity to a focus on social movements. What do you think of the larger shift in discourse we’ve seen, and specifically how has the marriage equality movement been a part of catalyzing that shift?
AB: One of the main things about that shift to talking about movements entails a discussion of rights. As someone who’s also an historian of feminism, I tend to focus on eighteenth century writings as one of the early places where we get to see feminist rights discourse. I see that as a turning point, even though I think there have always been women who resisted the notion of women’s inferiority or ideas that women shouldn’t do x, y, or z because they are x, y, or z incompetent. From the dawn of time, women have resisted the idea that they are naturally, innately inferior—not all women—but there have always been women who’ve come to consciousness as a thinking brain, who have resisted the idea of secondary status or subordination.
The idea of movements is about rights. It’s about coming to consciousness, and it’s about government. If collective action and the unity of groups isn’t what government’s all about, I’m not sure what it is. We join together to be bigger than we are as individuals. It will be interesting to see what marriage equality leads to in terms of queer civil rights and other political actions around the country and around the globe. I believe that the changes with marriage equality will be good for the transgender rights movement because it calls forth the question about the gender binary. Even though I’ve said in my work I’ve focused on women who identify as women whether they are transgender women or biological women—I accept that as a working category. I think we’ll be able to have those discussions in a more robust way when we’re done having the discussion on marriage equality.
I really try to resist being a child of the Enlightenment—that Enlightenment discourse has led to some of the great horrors of human history, including the rationale for imperialism, the rationale for invasion of countries of people whose skin color or religious views were different than the dominant group. I think there can be incremental progress where progress in one area can lead to progress in another area. It requires that groups remain vigilant and it requires the participation of groups. I’m glad that Obama invoked activists implicitly, invoked people standing up for their rights and affirmed those social movements. I think that’s a really good sign, and I hope he gets to have a legacy that allows us to see his administration as one that participated in some of those great movements.
KB: From the pundits we hear a sense of the inevitable—that marriage equality is going to happen nationwide, it’s just a matter of time. The Supreme Court hearings start today. Inside of this context, what do you think is most important to pay attention to as we witness this turn?
AB: I’m a huge advocate of getting people to read some of these court documents—read the Prop 8 trial documents or at least read some of the decisions by Judge Walker or for the district court or the 9th Circuit decisions. I think this is a really amazing moment in terms of watching a trial that will be a landmark trial. This will be like Brown v. Board of Education, this will be like the Loving v. Virginia trial. This trial will change the way that people are able to organize their lives. To be able to pay attention to this moment is a great thing. I think the Prop 8 trial in particular has been put together so impressively by the team at the American Foundation for Equal Rights with Theodore Olson and David Boies. Who knew that two lawyers could become heroes?
Not only am I impressed by way they’ve put this case together—the witnesses they’ve brought in, the testimony those witnesses gave—but also by the various documents they’ve issued. I would say to people reading this interview, if you read one thing, read the plaintiff’s brief that’s going before the Supreme Court in the Prop 8 case. It’s beautifully written, it’s powerful—it makes it seem absolutely inevitable that they will win the day. Having said that though, I think it’s very likely that the DOMA case will lead to the overturning of DOMA because I think that there are too many inconsistencies that DOMA calls into action.
Business groups call it the “dual regime of DOMA,” where if you live in a state where same sex couples can get legally married, then you have legally married people who are not considered married by the federal government. It may be even worse—you have people who are able to fight and die for our country who might legally be married in their home state and the government won’t recognize their marriage. You have the case of spouses of different nationalities—those rights are in limbo. All of these situations create inconsistencies in the ways the country is able to govern its people. I think that the Defense of Marriage Act is a relic of the 1990s, and it will be overturned. I think that’s inevitable.
The Prop 8 case is a question of degree. In a state like California that grants everything but marriage, it’s really clear that there’s a bias against gays and lesbians if all you are withholding is that word “marriage.” That can’t stand in this country. That’s one likely place that the court will agree—you can’t give people everything but marriage. That’s unsustainable. In that case, it might affect other states that grant everything but marriage. But it’s not going to lead immediately to an overturning of all of the marriage bans across the country. I find it hard to imagine that the Supreme Court will rule in a way that will immediately make marriage for gays and lesbians legal across the board, although I’d love to be surprised. Now that we know that opinion polls have gone over the halfway point in terms of support for same sex marriage, they may decide to lead on this issue. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality then that is an endorsement of the inevitability. That makes it suddenly not only inevitable but very real. I’m someone who braces myself for the disappointment, so I’m cautious about saying that that’s where things are going.
But here’s the thing—I really am not cautious about saying that Proposition 8 will be overturned. I believe that it will. When that happens then the first result of that is that in the state with the largest population in the country, marriage equality will be legal. The more people who encounter happily married lesbian and gay couples the more secure that right will be for people around the United States. And that will be huge.
We can already begin to imagine those pictures going up online of the happy Californian couples getting married after the overturning of Proposition 8. People who have been waiting for years, in some cases people who’ve been waiting for decades. There are stories in some of the briefs that have been filed of couples who are in their nineties who are hoping to just live long enough after sometimes decades-long relationships to be able to quote-unquote walk down the aisle. As we imagine those pictures going up and imagine the way they will go viral across the country, and the emotional reaction that everyone will have seeing these happy couples, I think we can believe in a future with marriage equality for everyone.