Like most queer Illinoisians, I spent all of May 31 waiting for the expected vote for the same-sex marriage bill. I wanted them to win because, like many people, I think the movement is sucking resources away from too many other issues. Passage of the bill would mean us finally returning to more important issues.
Instead, midnight came and went and the news came down : the bill had not been called for a vote.
The shock and and anger is widespread. Gays and lesbians in Chicago, where the bulk of the Illinois LGBTQ community resides, are an influential lot. Chicago is run like a family, a family that sees itself as a cross between the Medicis and the Borgias, and the gays have long gone from being outcast bastards to princes of the manor.
So their anger and shock is understandable. Less comprehensible is the extreme childishness with which they’ve responded. Since the debacle, gay people in Chicago have acted like tiresome and wearying children who want political results in a political game, but are clueless about what politics might actually mean.
There are two ways to go about this: to see whom to blame, or to understand what happened.
To ask who was to blame is the easier task, but to understand what happened yields a more complicated picture about not just the failure of mainstream Chicago gays but the failure of the nation-wide marriage campaign.
This disaster reveals the truth about Chicago gays’ strategy, such as it was: they wanted a political gain, but divorced from any kind of political thinking or strategy.
Many claim that gay marriage was promised to them by Illinois State Representative Greg Harris, of the 13th District. The ins and outs of what really occured in the months leading up to the vote will be discussed for a while, but what’s clear is that there are neither heroes nor villains in all of this.
What emerges is the picture of a cock-up of epic proportions.
Chicago gays and lesbians are pointing fingers at Harris. Many insist that he step aside from the campaign, and believe that he shouldn’t run for re-election if he doesn’t deliver them marriage equality, while others defend him.
However, all of this assumes that Harris only represents the LGBT population when, in fact, he represents several very different communities, many of them with needs far greater than that of a small group of petulant people with nothing in common other than their sexual identity.
Harris’s 13th district, where I live, includes Uptown, once the center of poor, white, Appalachian migration and now home to a large population of first-generation immigrants from India, Vietnam, Somalia, and Poland, as well as a significant number of African-Americans. The area is dotted with social service agencies filling every kind of need.
On the other end is Lincoln Square, home to some of Chicago wealthiest.
Yet, Chicago gays insist that Harris can only represent their narrow interests.
Chicago gays and lesbians are also blaming Mike Madigan, the powerful Speaker of the House, for not using his influence in bringing the bill to a vote. They’re now calling him out on his corruption, claiming that as a reason why he didn’t call the bill to vote - but they also insist he should have brought all that to bear upon the legislature. In other words: You’re a corrupt asshole, and you need to be a corrupt asshole on our behalf.
In all this, a central issue gets ignored: there was no one really organizing on the ground.
Here, we see another massive weakness at play: Chicago doesn’t have a strong gay activist base. There are no groups with both political clout and the ability to mobilize. The community is divided between well-off non-profits like Lambda Legal and others - let’s call them the rainbow group - mostly represented by white gays and lesbians making speeches for the cameras.
At a recent meeting called by the rainbow group (already divided amongst itself, by some accounts) to decide upon an action on Madigan’s house, not one of the major organizations showed up.
The rainbow groups suffer from a demagoguery of action, unrooted in political work - as is evident from their idea of how politics actually works.
And where does all this energy go? What does it lead to? Street action around marriage doesn’t speak to a renewed radical impulse except for the evacuation of the same from gay politics.
Stonewall wasn’t a riot for marriage; it came about from the potent combination of queers and everyday radicals who were pushed into revolt by a combination of factors like gentrification, transphobia, homophobia, and police brutality.
Who are the key figures of same-sex marriage? And what are their issues?
Deb Mell, Representative from the 40th district, gave what was praised as a passionate speech - after the vote. She spoke extensively about how she and her partner were “just like you.”
But she isn’t, and every Illinois voter knows that.
When we say that we’re organized like a family, we usually mean it literally: Mell is the daughter of one the most powerful Aldermen on Chicago’s City Council, Dick Mell.
Mell is also the sister-in-law of the currently imprisoned Rod Blagojevich. In a 2007 interview, her partner Christin Baker described her work as a corporate fundraiser and spoke of her work helping Equality Illinois, a marriage group, with their fundraising (she’s currently listed as an “Arts and Humanities Specialist at YMCA").
Neither of them is scraping for funds or influence and while Mell made much of Baker’s support during her bout with breast cancer. While that’s traumatic for anyone, regardless of social position, she did at least have the use of well-funded government healthcare. In contrast, the percentage of Chicago residents without medical coverage is 19.7% of the population - higher than the national average of 16.7%.
The issues most likely to affect queers who are neither well-connected lesbians nor somewhat clueless rainbow-clutching demagogues, are not being addressed by the gay marriage crowd. Instead, marriage is offered as a solution to everything, including healthcare, even when that’s clearly an inadequate and even troubling idea.
If Rush Limbaugh stated that women, for instance, should marry so that they can receive healthcare and other benefits via marriage, everyone would readily denounce him as a retrograde sexist.
Rather than fixate on the entirely erroneous idea that gay marriage will bring about economic stability, Chicago gay individuals and their allies might want to consider the issues that actually matter to gays in their day to day lives.
It’s far more likely that the average gay person will actually need a decent pension system more than a marriage. Yet, Chicago gays and lesbians are incapable of making the connection between pension reform - a bill concerning that failed to pass as well in the same session - and the well-being of members of the community.
Illinois has the highest foreclosure rate in the country in 2012, and the highest unemployment rate. Marriage can’t prevent either.
Chicago is becoming ground zero for the privatisation and militarization of public schools. What happens to the gay schoolteacher? What happens to gay and lesbian parents whose children need to attend public schools? Are they all expected to simply marry out of their troubles?
I have no doubt that, fueled by anger and determination, both the rainbow groups and the main organizations will buckle down and gain a “win” for same-sex marriage in the fall.
The problem is that the average gay, lesbian and straight person gains little to nothing from marriage. The win will come, but its positive effects will be palpable only to those with enough resources to guard against the economic crises plaguing everyone else.
The rest of us will be expected to make do as we watch our crumbling infrastructure go down even further, public resources dwindle, and the threat of joblessness loom even larger. For the rest of us, marriage will be cold comfort.
Yasmin Nair works from Uptown, Chicago, and is a frequent freelance contributor to Windy City Times. All views are her own.