The ease with which arguments for gay marriage have found their historical analogy in comparison to interracial marriage has long given me pause. Indeed, the ease with which contemporary gay rights is articulated as “The New Civil Rights” or “The New Black,”–rather than pointing to any kind of progressive agenda or historic moment–seems to belie the increasingly nebulous and statist alignment required to make these arguments work on an analogical level in addition to shoring up of proximity to and intimacy with black bodies as the illusion of solidarity even as it reinscribes a betrayal and violation of black bodies.
One popular example of this nebulous and conservative arch of mainstream gay rights (or, as some rad queers like to call it, Gay, Inc.) is Macklemore’s song, Same Love, an indie hip-hop declaration of support for gay marriage that calls out the problematic use of the bible to oppress gay people and hip hop’s unwelcoming stance towards gay folks. This song highlights the nebulous and conservative thrust of arguments for gay marriage and the antiblackness that grounds these arguments in it’s repetition of the problematic logic that undergirds these arguments in the first place–primarily, the use of religion and race’s affective potential in order to promote secularism as the savior to our political ills. This is exemplified through the construction of fights for gay marriage as a continuation of black struggles for liberation that require a liberal theology of inclusion for their success.
What I will primarily argue here is that gay civil rights arguments that utilize the analogizing of sexuality with blackness and gay marriage arguments that use the analogy with interracial marriage, end up reifying the condition of blackness as constructed by white supremacy. In Same Love, this occurs in two movements. First, through debunking theologies that argue against gay marriage as a natural part of one’s identity and constructing a theology of inclusion and unity in its place. This theology of inclusion becomes the place from which black civil rights and interracial marriage analogies are made. Secondly, through the biologization of race and sexuality as inherent characteristics that mark one as a member of a group, this theology utilizes the “givenness” of these differences to maintain what J. Kameron Carter calls a white teleology–an end goal that is directed towards the culmination of whiteness as embodied in the legitimated citizen of the nation-state. Thus, at the same time the theological is being castigated it is being called upon to do the work of nation building. Similarly, at the same time the affective or libidinal import of the black is being called upon to legitimize mainstream gay rights, blackness is being further entrenched as the object whose captivity maintains civil society.
Religious Intolerance & Inclusion:
Taking Macklemore as our example of the seductive, dangerous, and anti-black theo-political vision, allows us to encounter some common arguments for why gay marriage ought to be legalized, but, more than that, allows us to recognize the ways religion plays a central role even in a “secular” articulation of why gay marriage ought to be supported precisely because of its affective, and racial, implications. Indeed, what Macklemore, and other gay marriage and mainstream gay rights advocates end up constructing is a new theology that supersedes the old primarily by opposing Law to Grace. Or rather, constructing religion as a harbinger of oppressive notions of sex and sexuality and countering them with an “inclusive” version of religion that is shareable across difference and, thus, open to the unity of humanity under the new anti-homophobic state that is being fought for. In many ways it shares a Christian supersessionist logic, opposing the rigidity of the “Law” with the openness of “Grace”. The representative of the law, here, is a conservative form of Christianity (apparently standing in for all conservative religions) and what supersedes it is the nation-state. Through finding salvation in the unity of the nation-state, articulating a religion without religion, all religious difference is dissolvable into messages of the same love–a love whose strength is able to be measured by equal protection under a new, anti-homophobic law of the nation state.
Thus, Macklemore works to set up a certain form of religousity as being fundamentally unloving and one of the main obstacles to the acceptance of gay people and gay marriage. Macklemore raps, “The right-wing conservatives think it’s a decision/And you can be cured with some treatment and religion/ Man-made, rewiring of a pre-disposition,” and a few lines later in the verse, “And God loves all his children / it’s somehow forgotten / But we paraphrase a book written 3,500 years ago”.
Here Macklemore puts the conservative right on blast, primarily for disbelief in the biological naturalism of homosexual attraction and ignoring a message which says God loves everyone by holding tightly to the bible, an outdated book from which to derive social norms, we might infer. Perhaps of even more interest than this common critique of conservative Christianity is the way Macklemore’s theologizing in this verse bookends a comment on America’s understanding of itself “Ahh nah, here we go/ America the brave/Still fears what we don’t know.” This works to articulate religion as a kind of subconscious of the country’s repressive sexual politics which can be remedied by another common argument–that “knowing” gay people is the way to cure homophobia. If we simply put people in close enough proximity to one another, if straight folks just see that gay folks are normal, if people would just talk to each other, they wouldn’t fear homosexuality. This fear of homosexuality is both characterized as an ironic blemish on America’s identity as brave and as the product of allegiance to a religion that is not “inclusive”.
Instead of this conservative religiosity that harbors an exclusive theological framework which contests the predisposition of gayness, Macklemore articulates his own understanding of what kind of theology is necessary for a world where gay marriage is accepted. First, rather than letting a conservative notion of Christianity stand as a correct interpretation, he argues that it is bad religion, “When I was in church/They taught me something else/If you preach hate at the service/Those words aren’t anointed/And that Holy Water/That you soak in/Is then poisoned”. Instead of this poisonous religion, we need another kind of religion that works in conjunction with this liberal articulation of what society needs. “Whatever god you believe in/We come from the same one/Strip away the fear/Underneath it’s all the same love/About time that we raised up”. Here, Macklemore peels away the hatred of one brand of religion and reconstitutes religion as being, primarily, about the “same love” just as gay marriage is about the “same love” that heterosexuals share. That is, any form of religion that seeps into public life ought only be about uniting people with the same love.
The point here is not to suggest that a conservative Christian articulation of sex and sexuality is good theology and Macklemore offers bad theology–to try to redeem conservative theology against Macklemore’s bashing. Nor is the point to suggest that Christianity has not had something to do with structuring homophobia, violence, and dis-ease towards queer bodies. Rather, the point here, is that the religion that gets set up in opposition to conservative forms of Christianity is an extension of the policing work conservative Christianity has been employed to do. It, too, invokes a nationalism in religious garb and the Christianity that is debunked stands in for any religion that oversteps its private boundaries and seeks to influence society in any way that is not just about how we all share the “Same Love”. It is a front for a nebulous “love” that finds its unity in sharing equal rights under the law of the nation-state. That is to say, Macklemore sets up religion as a scapegoat that enables him to rely on the violence and fear religion creates in order to ignore the nation-state as a source of violence against gay people. Instead, the state (when it finally accepts gay folks) becomes the savior and is able to model the bravery that we need to embrace difference in unity while religion must remain an empty signifier in order to do the work of joining people together through its affective force.
Symptoms of Supersession: The Antiblackness of Gay Marriage
But the scapegoating of religion is not the only work this song does. Rather, this scapegoating of religion works to produce symptoms of racialization and antiblackness. The antiblackness in the song, Same Love, is present is the lyrical content already, but the affective work the music video does further entrenches blackness as America’s primary visual signifier of difference and utilizes this white supremacist understanding of blackness to further a neoliberal vision of America as progressing towards gay marriage–as the continuation of black civil rights and as that which supersedes it. This supersession occurs through analogy–that being black is equivalent to being gay. In the case of both, one is oppressed because of an identity that is inherent to one’s self.
Race and sexuality in this logic become inherent parts of people through a biological naturalism that says we are “born this way”. Indeed, the quintessential analogization comes through comparing the inherent nature of one’s sexuality to the nature of one’s race as in “I could no more change my sexuality than you could change the color of your skin.” This inescability of blackness is what enables the use of blackness (black music, images, and other black performances) as the limit against which a white conception of sexuality is able to be articulated. Thus Macklemore’s is able to lamabast “hip hop” for being homophobic. This is seen as problematic because hip hop is an artform that comes out of oppression. Thus Macklemore uses hip hop and images of black oppresion to articulate his message even as he demonizes hip hop and performs an erasure of the many hip hop artists who have articulated support for queer folks and an erasure of the queer folks who already enjoy, participate in, an consider themselves a part of hip hop. Indeed, Macklemore is able to be the exceptional hip hop artist through the suspension of himself as a hip hop artist. That is, his whiteness enables his ability to distance himself from “hip hop”. Thus, for “hip hop” here, one reads black, and notes Macklemore’s proximity and initimacy with hip hop is precisely what enables his ability to deploy blackness in this way so effectively. He is seen as a white insider who ‘gets it’ and is able to translate the problem to the white outside of “hip hop”.
Interestingly enough, the deployment of hip hop, here as a representative of homophobia converges with the religious deconstruction Macklemore undertakes when one considers the figure of the black church. Frequently depicted as exhibiting the same problematic homophobia as hip hop–that is, a homophobia that does not make sense because of the black church’s relationship to oppression. In the case of black churches, it is frequently too much religion–too much of the wrong kind of religion–that inhibits it from occupying its former throne as “prophetic”. Black liberation is displaced from “the prophetic” because it has not evolved enough with the times to include gay people. Thus, one’s “prophetic” potency is increasingly measurable by one’s ability to check off whether or not one is (able to be perceived as) “gay-affirming” at the level of the individual, the church, and the state. A baptism in the theological waters of inclusion must take place, then, for people, places, and institutions. And this baptism is capable of redeeming everything–from bodies to couples to corporations to products to police (Put a Rainbow on It!).
Thus, in this theo-political vision of inclusion black churches and hip-hop become the primary limit against which the transformative baptism of an inclusive theology is able to be constructed.
In this way, these analogies between race and sexuality, between black civil rights and gay rights, or interracial marriage and gay marriage maintain an essentially conservative conception of race that reinscribes blackness’ as the currency by which non-blacks are able to purchase freedom. That is, rather than race being something that comes to be of necessity through white supremacist regimes of power, race becomes a part of one’s identity as a result of biology. Race gets taken up as the ultimate given. It is written on the skin–especially black skin. In these analogies, then, one never has to deal with the ways race was invented and is maintained as a way of delimiting subjectivity and citizenship in modernity. The violence directed towards the black is understood as emerging out of a misunderstanding or bigotry towards the inherentness of blackness, not as a policing of a body that is a boundary. That is, black struggle is read, in these analogical uses, as a struggle to have humanity recognized through this morphological condition we inhabit just as gay struggle is seen as a struggle to have humanity recognized through the orientation to the same sex. Blackness is not seen as an invention that allows whites to see themselves, to order their lives and societies. An invention that coincides and enables the invention of sexuality.
Due to these misunderstandings of race, these analogizations actually rely on a white supremacist fantasy of race in order to construct an “inclusive” politic of neoliberal progress and its theological counterpart.
They require black lives and black histories become slaves to articulating white gay subjectivity. This use of the black in order to announce ones self as subject and citizen before the law is not new. That is part of the US project. Until recently, though, it was primarily utilized to shore up heteronormative ideals of white bloodlines and familial bonds. These days, with the increasing capital and wealth mainstream gay rights represents, the potency of blackness gets used to create a coherent gay rights movement that joins together as the next wave of civil rights–the next frontier.
The Effects of Equality
Several things happen through this logic. First, black civil struggles against white supremacy are reducible to the civil rights movement. This is not altogether surprising. It’s the way black history gets told in this white supremacist state. Black folks were slaves, then they got free but not really, then MLK came along and made everybody friends. But, following this reduction, black struggles for equality are then necessarily announced as mostly over or, overshadowed by gay struggles for equality. There’s some sense in which black folks still face racism, but people should know better, is the point. What else was the 60’s for if not to shame racists into hiding? The mainstream gay rights movement thus co-opts the rhetorical and visual force of blackness in order to articulate it’s argument for gay marriage. No matter that it is an extension of the privatization of care and rights to those who have benefits and rights to share, what matters is that we conjure up some images of black bodies being violated in order to stir up affective connection between white straights and gays, primarily.
The rift between gays and the nation state is sutured through the use of analogy while at the same time reifying the ethical relationships of the black and its liberation as that which cannot be sutured because the use of blackness is required for the analogy to gain potency in civil society. That blackness is available for this analogy in the first place suggests the precarious and fungible position of the black as the founding logic of difference against which the whiteness of the national teleology depends.
In this way, gay equality seems farcical at best, as it requires the exacerbation and further entrenchment of antiblackness for its legal legitimization and social acceptance. Even as movements for “gay equality” continues to shore up the unequal criminalization and demonization of blacks in order to carve out “safe space”.
Perhaps what is needed is not more equality but a better analysis of the ways equality in the US is dependant upon the ability to incarcerate and violate the black body, to deploy and conjure up black performances and artistic expressions, to capitalize upon the captivity of the black by making it sing and dance for the legitimization of the national project.
In the end, the theo-political vision Macklemore offers continues the most effective kind of white supremacist work by sacrificing blacks in order to shore himself up as a progressive white male in solidarity with gay struggles for freedom. He, again, repeats the intimacy with black bodies that white people, especially white men, love flaunting or hiding, whichever is most beneficial to them. He is able to, once again, recenter the white male as exceptional in his ability to transcend race, to wield race for his own gain in social capital and wealth, to be the best interpreter of black people to white people and the priest through whom the state’s salvation and redemption flows.
In this way, Macklemore represents white desire to maintain the flows of power through straight white men (especially as those white men become increasingly adept and skilled in the rhetoric of privilege and progressive politics), to maintain the uses of blackness in order to comfort and soothe the wounds of those excluded from inclusion in the national project, and to reinscribe blackness as the limit that cannot be transgressed because it is always already open to violation and use at any time for any purpose.
Sources and Further Reading:
Race: A Theological Account by J. Kameron Carter
Freedom With Violence by Chandan Reddy
Terrorist Assemblages by Jasbir Puar
The Myth of Religious Violence by William Cavanaugh
The Problem with Grace by Vincent Lloyd
“Precarious Life”: The Obligations of Proximity by Judith Butler