4 min

Not the marrying kind

Activist Ryan Conrad critiques the gay equality movement

Ryan Conrad. Credit: Laurence Collin
As same-sex marriage remains a contentious issue in the US political arena, many progressive Americans marvel that it has been legal in Canada from coast to coast to coast for years now. It reinforces in the US psyche the lefty-utopian image of Canada as described in Michael Moore movies.
But Ryan Conrad doesn’t join in the celebration of what many see as Canada’s great leap forward. The US activist – who is now working on a PhD at Concordia University in Montreal – is part of the American group Against Equality. The collective takes issue with mainstream concepts of gay and lesbian activism. Conrad is also editor of two new anthologies: Against Equality: Don’t Ask to Fight Their Wars; and Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage.
The authors argue variously against same-sex marriage rights and the rights of gay and lesbian people in the military. Fighting to participate in such conservative heteronormative institutions, they write, is wrong-headed and hugely counter-productive. Conrad says the gay rights movement has become entirely obsessed with legal equality. Canada moved “very fast, probably too fast,” he says, in establishing legal equality for same-sex marriage. He thinks Canada missed an opportunity to debate the merits of marriage and ask why people who are married should enjoy privileges that are denied those who remain single, or who choose to form other kinds of relationships. Conrad points out that the fight for US marriage equality now eclipses virtually every other issue facing the US queer community. And that, he insists, is a travesty, given the complex and varied set of challenges facing queer people across the US.
Xtra recently sat down with Conrad in Montreal.
Xtra: Some people see the fight for marriage equality as a very basic sign of respect for the relationships of gay and lesbian people. Why isn’t this just a simple matter of same-sex couples being treated the same way opposite-sex couples are?
Ryan Conrad: Oh, honey, if you need the church and state to tell you that you’re worth it, you’ve got more self-esteem issues than your flagrant wedding ceremony is going to compensate for. I mean, seriously, do we have to stoop to straight people’s level? Why should we be retrofitting our erotic and emotional lives to fit within the confines and shackles of the hetero world? How about straight folks adjust their laws to better match the varied ways we queers make family and not the other way around? Fuck being equal.  Let’s use our queerest gift – creativity – and pave the way to a future that’s not just equal, but better. 
Xtra: But some gay people simply want to settle down in a cozy relationship and stockpile craploads of Ikea furniture. What’s so wrong with that?
RC: None of us has a problem with domesticity or even monogamy. Hell, you should see me in the kitchen working it in my apron. We just don’t think people who want that kind of life should benefit from special rights administered by the state while those of us who don’t want to marry, for whatever reason, are being coerced to marry to access basic rights and legal protections that all people should have. I also worry that the overwhelming media representations of gay identity and politics in which everyone is being shown as desperate to wed is really going to warp the minds of queer and trans youth. I was lucky growing up because I was never expected to get gay married and I had the freedom to develop into the kind of person I am because I wasn’t being inundated with fanatical homo-flavoured family-values rhetoric that situates marriage as the ultimate goal and the only good way to have a healthy gay relationship.
Xtra: One of the most interesting points you make is that so much money is now being devoted to legal battles over same-sex marriage, leaving other issues behind.
RC: It is rather distressing how little attention this issue gets. Having recently expatriated to Montreal from Maine, I can tell you that during the gay marriage campaign in 2009, the gays there spent more than $6 million in nine months on a losing battle for gay marriage. That is in one of the poorest states in the country where the very few agencies that provide essential services to LGBTQ2S people are cutting programs and closing doors. This kind of voracious, single-issue spending is totally insulting. Imagine what kind of services and long-term cultural change could happen if our social service agencies had even a fraction of the budget these short-sighted campaigns do. Instead, we have queer and trans youth organizations closing left and right, while the pile of lifeless bodies gets higher and higher.
Xtra: Politics always makes for strange bedfellows, and you’re now on the same side of this argument as some pretty odious politicians. Does that ever make you squirm?
RC: I think situating us as on the same side, let alone in the same bed, as heterosupremacists and religious zealots is a mistake. The binary being created by the liberal mainstream gays and the homophobic religious right is a distraction from what we are actually trying to get at. We are trying to challenge the logic that marriage should determine whether or not people live or die – we’re talking about healthcare, financial security and immigration status, among other issues. And after all, we are advocating the destruction of the centrality of marriage and the nuclear family unit, so I don’t think we can be so easily situated with pieces of human trash like Fred Phelps, Maggie Gallagher, Dick Cheney and all the rest of them. The whole you’re-either-with-us-or-the-terrorists mentality that pervades the pro-gay-marriage camp sounds very George W Bush and leaves little room for actual critical thinking.
Xtra: You’ve really pissed some people off with your arguments. What’s the nastiest response you’ve received?
RC: After a talk I gave at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, where I made an off-hand comment about Lady Gaga and her particularly underwhelming gay politics, we started receiving multiple death threats via email and on Facebook. Of course, we take that kind of stuff with a grain of salt; it is the internet, after all. But when these threats are littered with classist, racist and anti-rural epithets, we see the sad but true underbelly of the contemporary gay rights movement. Think about it: isn’t it strange that it’s other gays threatening to kill us for being self-critical and thoughtful about the future of queer and trans politics, not homophobes?