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The Marrying Kind?Debating Same-Sex Marriage within the Lesbian and Gay Movement$

Mary Bernstein and Verta Taylor

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780816681716

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816681716.001.0001

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What’s the Matter with Newark?

What’s the Matter with Newark?

Race, Class, Marriage Politics, and the Limits of Queer Liberalism

(p.39) 1 What’s the Matter with Newark?
The Marrying Kind?

Arlene Stein

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

Arlene Stein compares two cities—Newark, New Jersey, a low income predominantly Black and Latino/a city, and Maplewood, New Jersey, an ethnically diverse middle-class suburb. She argues that poor people in the city are less likely to benefit from marriage, while middle-class same-sex couples living in the suburbs find that marriage facilitates coming out in multiple areas of their lives.

Keywords:   Same sex marriage, LGBT movement, lesbian and gay couples, queer theory, post-gay identity, anti-same sex marriage initiatives, same sex marriage and the law, same sex marriage protests, San Francisco same sex wedding protest, Proposition 8

TWENTY YEARS AGO, an attorney specializing in the rights of same-sex couples wrote that “no American jurisdiction recognizes the right of two women or two men to marry one another,” and there is “little discussion within the gay rights movement about whether such a right should exist.” Moreover, he lamented, “no gay organization of any size, local or national, has yet declared the right to marry as one of its goals” (Stoddard [1989] 1998, 477). He could hardly have predicted the groundswell of support for same-sex marriage today. Nearly every national gay and lesbian activist organization lists same-sex marriage rights as among its primary goals. The marriage-equality movement has succeeded in gaining significant legal recognition for same-sex couples in states that compose a quarter of the country’s population (Badgett 2009, 121). As historian George Chauncey has written, “it is hard to think of another group whose circumstances and public reputation have changed so decisively in so little time…. [E]specially since the 1990s,” he says, “Americans have become more familiar with their lesbian and gay neighbors and more supportive of them” (2004, 166). Marriage has become the central symbolic axis around which the inclusion and participation of lesbians and gay men turns (Adam 2003, 274, paraphrasing Calhoun 2000).

It should come as little surprise, then, that the fight for marriage equality has captured the imagination of many lesbians and gay men who never before saw themselves as activists—people like those who live (p.40) in Maplewood, New Jersey, a racially and ethnically diverse, middle-class suburb located in the northern part of the state. Since the 1980s, Maplewood—affectionately called “Gayplewood”—and its sister town, South Orange, have become a magnet of sorts for same-sex couples, the majority of whom are middle-class men and women who are in long-term relationships and who have children. Much like their heterosexual neighbors, the most pressing issues on their minds are the quality of their children’s educations and the robustness of their property values. Raising children has required them to think beyond questions of coming out—to consider how to maintain family stability and how to equitably dissolve these structures if necessary. So in 2003, when New Jersey first began to register domestic partnerships, the fourth state in the United States to do so, many Maplewood residents lined up to get their certificates, viewing it as the first step in the evolution toward full marriage rights. In 2006, when the legislature passed a bill providing for civil unions and offering same-sex couples nearly all of the rights granted to married couples under New Jersey state law, they followed suit.

For Maplewood’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) residents, being able to marry represents the culmination of a decadeslong fight for equality and is a measure of hard-won progress. As “queer liberals,” they champion a politics of inclusion—access to marriage, custody, inheritance, and service in the military—and a color-blind and classless politics of identity (Duggan 2003; Eng 2010). That is, they believe the right to marry will benefit all members of the LGBT community, regardless of race or class, and will advance the cause of social justice, which they interpret as the expansion of rights and recogni-tion for underrepresented groups in American society. Since marriage is a primary means of distributing symbolic and economic capital, those who are denied the right to marry are therefore excluded from the promise of respectability, belonging, and material benefits accrued through marriage.

During the past twenty years, under the sign of queer theory, a number of critics have lodged a sustained and spirited critique of the increasing dominance of marriage politics within gay and lesbian (p.41) movements in the United States, arguing that it sacrifices and diffuses radical challenges to heteronormativity by privatizing sexuality, forces queer people to conform to a fundamentally heterosexual script, and negates the ways lesbians, gay men, and other queer people create alternative relational forms and intimacies (see, e.g., Warner 1999). I do not need to rehearse these arguments, which are by now familiar. Rather, my goal is to look at how the aspirations these debates signal play out in two very different LGBT worlds—a low-income, predominantly black city, and a nearby mixed-race, largely middle-class suburb—and what that tells us about the politics of marriage equality.

As we know, racial, economic, gender, and sexual inequalities profoundly structure life chances in overlapping, multiply determined, intertwined, and complex ways (Choo and Ferree 2010; McCall 2001; Stein 2008). These “complex inequalities” also play out in social space. A comparison of the middle-class suburb of Maplewood, New Jersey, and its close, much larger, and much-maligned postindustrial urban cousin, Newark, offers a clear illustration of this. Despite their proximity, they are profoundly culturally isolated from each other yet deeply structurally linked as well—much like the LGBT populations that inhabit them.

During 2001–2009 I lived in the suburb of South Orange, which shares a school district with Maplewood. The following account is based on my membership in and knowledge of those towns, where I was both a participant and observer in the gay and lesbian community, which comprised a loosely organized series of friendship networks and somewhat more institutionalized groupings of gay and lesbian families, both virtual and face-to-face. In Newark, I was a participant-observer in the burgeoning LGBT community during 2008–2011, attending gay pride activities, planning meetings for educational reform efforts and events sponsored by the newly formed Mayor’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Advisory Commission, and was in conversation with a number of community leaders. A comparison of these two places forces us to question the liberal universalism at the heart of same-sex marriage politics, and the progressive narrative it embodies. Yet my goal is not to bury marriage (if that were even (p.42) possible!) but to provide a modest opening for thinking more expansively about “actually existing” intimacies and the role that the state might play in supporting them.

Get Thee to a Suburb?

The “gay couple from New Jersey,” a recurring skit on the television comedy show Saturday Night Live, features “Vinnie” and “Joey,” Italian Americans with thick accents, big hair, matching track suits, and gold medallions. They have major attitude, two adopted children, and, in a nod to The Sopranos and the state’s mafioso reputation, they threaten to “whack” anyone who doesn’t support same-sex marriage. The skit’s humor lies in the absurd pairing of machismo and gay domesticity, and the suggestion that “gays are everywhere”—even in unsophisticated New Jersey, in the shadow of its bigger, flashier neighbor, New York City.

There have long been queers in New Jersey, of course—in urbanized areas such as Jersey City, Hoboken, and Plainfield and in arts centers such as Lambertville, as well as numerous men and women living quiet lives in suburban communities who “commute” to the city to be gay—and who are often disparaged by New Yorkers, much like their heterosexual counterparts, as “bridge and tunnel” (Brekhus 2003; Bruck 2008). In 2000, 16,604 New Jersey couples identified themselves as same-sex partnerships on the census short form, and 21,405 did so in 2006, according to the American Community Survey (Alaya 2001; see also Gates 2007). Gay and lesbian couples live in nearly all of New Jersey’s 566 towns; at least one hundred same-sex households reside in each of the twenty-one counties, according to latest census figures—low estimates that undercount same-sex intimacies. The state has, in fact, been on the forefront of gay and lesbian civil rights: it was one of the first to end crackdowns on gay bars, to decriminalize sodomy and gay pornography, to prohibit workplace discrimination, and to grant legal rights to nonbiological parents in same-sex families (Bruck 2008).

More recent is the “queering” of suburban communities by out gays and lesbians—a trend that began in the 1980s.1 The “great gay migration” of the 1970s, as Kath Weston (1995) termed it, brought young (p.43) men and women from rural areas, suburbs, and smaller cities into gay meccas such as New York and San Francisco, but by the following decade, as this cohort aged, their residential patterns shifted as the result of life-cycle changes, the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian politics, and rising urban real-estate values. The first post–gay liberation cohort began to form families and seek out living space, backyards, and suburban lifestyles that resembled those of their youth. In the northern part of the state, where Maplewood is located, LGBT New Jerseyans tend to work in New York City, where rising property values have shut out most middle-class families, and where approximately half of all rental units are one-bedroom or studio apartments (Klinenberg 2010).

One gay male couple moved to Maplewood in 1980 knowing “they would be alone,” and, they recalled, “to a large extent we were” (Alaya 2001). But over the next two decades, many more gay men and lesbians, drawn by word-of-mouth contacts and aided by realtors seeking to market suburban communities as gay-friendly, multicultural havens, bought houses in the community. A 2001 article in the Newark Star-Ledger quotes a man who moved to Maplewood in 1997 with his male partner:

“The key to us is the comfort level,” said [Jerry] Clifford, a physics professor…. “Our neighbors are comfortable with us and they’re mostly straight, although there are a few gay couples. There is no stigma. I found the openness unique, and I’ve lived in Colorado Springs, Sacramento, Washington, D.C., San Diego, Chicago and Albuquerque.”

The article proceeds to describe Clifford and his partner, a scientist, as “a popular couple in their neighborhood,” who, on “most nights … stroll hand-in-hand down their tree-lined street, chatting with their neighbors as they go.” Clifford asserts: “‘The way you change attitudes is one on one. I’m sure that is happening here. I’m sure the neighbors … begin to see us just like themselves as opposed to ‘the GAY couple.’ That’s the advantage, when you can be totally integrated into the community’” (Alaya 2001).

According to ethnographic evidence and informal polling, today (p.44) the “typical” LGBT Maplewoodian is a middle-aged female in a longterm primary relationship, with one or more children, who grew up in a suburban community in the New York metropolitan area, left to attend college, and subsequently spent several years living on her own, or with friends or intimates, in an urban area, especially New York City. Lesbian Maplewoodians generally bear children through donor insemination, while their gay male counterparts parent via adoption. Indeed, there are so many adopted Chinese children in the community that local parents have formed play groups to support one another and offer their children the chance to socialize with other Chinese adoptees.

These are “chosen families” who are creating forms of intimacy that borrow from nuclear families and also depart from them, embodying a protean view of family formation. In terms of their self-understandings and the ways they structure their families, they are hardly radical. As members of the post-Stonewall generation, the first generation of men and women who are publicly out as gays and lesbians, these LGBT suburbanites possess a sense of entitlement to public acceptance for their sexual difference—a difference they would like to see writ relatively small. They want to be out, they want to be able to raise children in an open, diverse community (which they define almost exclusively in terms of sexual and racial composition), and they want their sexual identities to be affirmed by politicians, religious leaders, and their kids’ teachers. At the same time, because they wish to be seen as complex human beings whose sexuality does not define them, “gay ghettos”—predominantly gay neighborhoods such as those in San Francisco and New York—hold little appeal for them.

For most of the twentieth century, the power of “the closet” necessitated that gays and lesbians assiduously manage their identities in order to survive, prompting many to move to cities such as San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, where those possessing same-sex desires could find each other and create social networks and supportive communities. The politics of “coming out” in the post-Stonewall era led to the growth and consolidation of urban gay enclaves such as San Francisco’s Castro district in the 1970s and 1980s, where gays and lesbians—primarily gay men—could live surrounded by other gay people, shop in gay-owned stores, and frequent gay bars, restaurants, (p.45) and other commercial establishments (Castells 1983; Fitzgerald 1987). In the “postgay” era—characterized by Lisa Duggan (2003) as “homonormative”—diminished sexual stigma has made the “gay ghetto” a less attractive option (Ghaziani 2010).

Concentrating in “gayborhoods” was always a less desirable (and less readily available) option for women than for men, who have historically had less access to the sort of capital that the colonization of urban space requires, and for whom establishing a subculture based on sexuality has arguably been less important. Still, as I have observed, the lesbian community, which was always more of a cultural and symbolic entity than a commercial one, began to unravel in the 1980s with the fragmentation of lesbian-feminist collective identities and the aging of the baby boom cohort (Stein 1997). The rush toward parenting exacerbated this trend as many lesbians and gay men of the first post-Stonewall generation began to age out of their commitment to sexual subcultures, often prioritizing nuclear family formation instead.

That the residential patterns of this cohort were shifting alongside these changes was acknowledged and even celebrated by The Advocate, a standard-bearer for the gay consumer lifestyle, in 2007: “‘As the country opens its arms to openly gay and lesbian people, the places we call home have grown beyond urban gay ghettos. [This magazine] welcomes you to this new American landscape.’ When the magazine polled its readers, asking if they’d ‘prefer to live in an integrated neighborhood rather than a distinct gay ghetto,’ 69 percent said yes” (quoted in Ghaziani 2010, 65).

Suburban queer enclaves like Maplewood, a far cry from New York’s Chelsea neighborhood or even Brooklyn’s Park Slope, with their much larger, more densely concentrated, and visible populations of gay men and lesbians, respectively, are products of this history. There are no gay and lesbian bars or other gay commercial establishments, no gay and lesbian publications, and few if any rainbow flags boldly announcing the identities of their queer residents. If there is a “gay community,” it consists of informal social networks, such as “Rainbow Families,” a group of queer parents and children that meets virtually on the Internet, and only occasionally in person. Indeed, pressed for time, devoted to their partners and children, and having little in common with the (p.46) “Castro Clone” or “Chelsea Boy,” that’s the way their gay and lesbian residents like it.

“One of the things I loved about this area was that it was not just gay,” said one resident. “It wasn’t like I was looking for a gay haven, like I needed the protection. It was more about the diversity of the neighborhood and the fact that people are open and everyone is celebrated”—everyone, that is, who shares a set of middle-class resources and dispositions (Alaya 2001). With its high property taxes and housing costs, Maplewood (whose median household income exceeded $100,000 in 2009) is far more diverse racially than economically.2 Its residents value living in a “good” suburban area, one that is not only racially diverse (58 percent of its residents are white; 30 percent are black) but also relatively safe, where they can dip into urban life in order to work or recreate, but where they are relatively insulated from urban problems—poor schools, crime, random violence, and drugs.3 Indeed, most same-sex parents in Maplewood tend to embrace a sense of themselves as “ordinary,” and as similar, in nearly all respects, to their heterosexual neighbors. Ethnographic evidence suggests that they are, collectively, somewhat less diverse racially than the community that surrounds them.

In my 1997 book Sex and Sensibility, a study of sexual identities among women, I documented what I called the “decentering” of lesbian communities, showing that the movement of baby boomers through the life cycle was leading to the increasing salience of motherhood and/or career as shapers of identities—rather than subcultural identifications in which sexual identities were primary. Deciding to raise children requires individuals to think beyond questions of coming out. Particularly for middle-class gays and lesbians with children, who choose to locate in child-centric suburban communities such as Maplewood, having kids in the public schools makes being closeted difficult, if not impossible. One must be out to one’s children, their friends, the neighbors on one’s block, one’s children’s teachers, dentists, pediatricians, and so forth.

Same-sex parents in Maplewood tend to be highly committed to their children, expending vast amounts of emotional labor, economic capital, time, and attention to cultivating their children’s talents (Hays 1996; (p.47) Lareau 2003). At dinner parties, LGBT Maplewoodians discuss their children’s school performance and athletic pursuits, assess their children’s teachers, and debate recent school controversies. On a “Rainbow Families” e-mail list they solicit advice on the best local daycare centers, compare the performances of local schools, post notices about upcoming gatherings (such as the annual Easter egg hunt for LGBT families), and exchange information about gay-friendly vacation spots.

Suburban queer couples tend to believe that “good” childrearing requires parents to devote considerable resources and personal energy to it. At least one gay male couple whom I knew when I lived in suburban New Jersey were rarely, if ever, seen in public without their children, a teenage boy and a younger girl, both adoptees from China, in tow, and they readily admitted that they had not had a date with each other in years. Firmly committed to “intensive parenting,” a strategy that requires middle-class resources, the two men devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to their kids, scheduling a myriad of organized after-school activities, using everyday conversations as opportunities to develop their kids’ cognitive and language skills, and regularly intervening with teachers on their behalf. They were fairly typical of gay- and lesbian-headed households I knew in that middle-class suburban community, and closely resembled their straight neighbors in this respect. Perhaps their commitment to the “concerted cultivation” (Lareau 2003) of their children is a sign of their basic similarity to the dominant culture. At the same time, one wonders whether it is a strategy designed to minimize stigma, overcompensating for the widespread belief that gays and lesbians make “bad” parents.

In a community oriented around heterosexual nuclear families with children, sexuality is a salient aspect of identity for these same-sex couples. In a place where face-to-face relationships are key, and where neighbors know each other, they are marked as visibly “queer.” At the same time, their homosexual identities are fairly “routinized” (Seidman, Meeks, and Traschen 2002); they do not engage in the forms of identity management that characterize a closeted life; nor do they see the assertion of their sexual identities as a radical act, or even as the primary way they see themselves or wish to be seen by others. Just as these queer suburbanites seek to integrate their homosexuality into the rest (p.48) of their lives, so do they wish to become integrated into the neighborhoods in which they live, echoing the ongoing process of racial integration of African American families in surrounding middle-class suburbs. Resources of economic and social class, perhaps even more than racial privilege—though, at times, linked to it—afford homosexual suburbanites opportunities to achieve the ordinariness they desire, and to live lives that are distinct from their neighbors down the road in Newark.

Queering Brick City

Driving from Maplewood to Newark—“Brick City”—only eight miles away, one passes through a dramatic tableau of the American class system, moving from leafy suburbs filled with older homes, some of them quite grand, to working-class and poor neighborhoods, broken-down buildings, and men idling in the street. Newark is one of the poorest cities in the country, a “majority minority” city whose population is more than half African American and about a third Latino. While Maplewood’s median household income exceeded $100,000 in 2009, Newark’s was about $35,000, and nearly a third of its residents lived below the poverty line.4

Despite their relative geographic and cultural isolation from each other, Newark and Maplewood in fact have been deeply structurally linked at least since the 1920s, when improved transportation and a booming economy turned Maplewood, South Orange, and other nearby towns into bedroom communities for Newark. Wealthy families built large houses and tennis clubs, and a burgeoning middle class came to inhabit more modest foursquare houses that filled the surrounding suburbs. By the 1950s, Newark, a port city, had a population of about 500,000, mostly middle- and working-class people.5 But the development of surrounding suburban communities, coupled with the economic decline of the city, led to white out-migration. In his novel American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s narrator describes the exodus of middle-class Jews and Italians from Newark to the suburbs: “Everybody else who was picking up and leaving Newark was headed for one of the cozy suburban streets in Maplewood or South Orange” (1997, 307). After the riots of 1967, which left twenty-six people dead, more than (p.49) fifteen hundred wounded, and millions of dollars worth of property destroyed, Newark’s middle-class population deserted the city (Mumford 2007, 98). Still, with 277,000 residents (according to the 2010 U.S. Census), Newark is today New Jersey’s most populous city.

White flight, coupled with decades of incompetent and corrupt leadership and deindustrialization, has resulted in high levels of crime, inadequate provision of social services, and a diminished middle-class population. Less than 10 percent of those older than twenty-five hold a college degree; half of employed Newark residents work in lower-tier service occupations, and the remaining half work in transportation and construction, or for federal, state, or local government. Since becoming mayor in 2006, Cory Booker has made a valiant effort to attract new investment and reduce crime in the city, but the recent recession has slowed the pace of change. Newark continues to be a place where most people have barely tasted the American dream.

Though they see themselves as having little connection with each other, a sizeable minority of Maplewoodians work in downtown Newark, the county seat, in education, law, and social services, as well as in health care and other industries. They occasionally venture downtown for dinner in the Ironbound district, a Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking enclave, or to attend a cultural event at the nearby state-of-the-art performing arts center. Hundreds of service workers commute from Newark to Maplewood and other nearby suburbs every day to clean homes, care for aging residents, and work as nannies. To a lesser extent, the “care work” connections extend in the opposite direction as well: a number of Maplewoodians, some of whom are LGBT, have foster-parented and/or adopted children from Newark.

Census figures, which suggest that 0.4 percent of Newark households consist of self-reported same-sex unmarried-partner households, fail to capture the diversity of LGBT life in the city, which has long had a queer community, though it is largely invisible to outsiders.6 Though a couple of neighborhoods have become middle-class gay and lesbian enclaves, high crime levels and underperforming schools have limited the appeal of the city to outsiders seeking inexpensive real estate, and, unlike neighboring cities close to Manhattan, such as Jersey City, Newark has yet to experience gentrification to any considerable extent. (p.50) Nonetheless, there are LGBT individuals as well as several loosely defined, overlapping LGBT communities in the city.

A small enclave of relatively affluent, racially mixed gay men, who are mainly childless, has emerged in the Forest Hill section of the city. There one can buy a large historic home for half a million dollars—a steal by New York metropolitan area standards, which is why the neighborhood has attracted, in the words of the New York Times, “older professionals, families with no kids, and the gay community”—in other words, people who may not have children in the public school system (Capuzzo 2007).

A burgeoning population of young, mainly low-income LGBT Newarkers also live in neighborhoods scattered throughout the city: they are the most visibly “queer,” and can be seen congregating at the central intersection of Broad and Market Streets downtown. On weekend nights, groups of young lesbians, often embodying femme and butch self-presentations, and gay men of color, ranging from those who perform hegemonic masculinity to those in full drag, make their way into Manhattan, spilling out of the Christopher Street transit stop and fanning out into nearby bars or the Hudson River Park to socialize with one another in ways that are not possible in Newark under the watchful eyes of their families and neighbors.

Less publicly visible are the same-sex couples and single lesbians who are raising children; they live a more domestic existence, and their numbers are impossible to estimate. Informal surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that these families, lacking the social and economic capital of their middle-class LGBT neighbors in Maplewood, consist predominantly of women who have children from former marriages or heterosexual liaisons. As surveys suggest, LGBT people of color are twice as likely to have children than their white counterparts (Tavernise 2011). But since many Newark lesbian mothers, like other lesbians of color, are single mothers or live apart from their intimate partners, they do not show up as same-sex couples on census data and they are also less likely to be read as identifiably “queer” in public.7

Finally, there are men who have sex with men, some of whom are married to women, but who do not identify as homosexual. Labeled “down low,” they have at times attracted notoriety and some opprobrium (p.51) from more openly identified gay men as well as from heterosexual women, and they compose the least visible of Newark’s “queer” communities.8

In sum, in Newark there are same-sex couples, but also those who live alone, single gay men and lesbians raising children, families with transgender people, people who do not live with their partner, people who count more than one other adult as a family member—to name but a few of the intimate arrangements—and a sizeable population of men who have sex with men who do not identify as gay. Newark queers negotiate multiple identity statuses based on race, gender, class, and sexuality (and, frequently, for Latino residents, citizenship status). They construct identities in the interstices between the dominant “white” culture and the cultures of their peers and families; they navigate between a hegemonic “coming out” script that privileges the conscious, public formation of queer identities and family forms, and membership in racial and ethnic minority communities, where homosexuality is frequently seen as “acting white” (Carter 2011).

As a number of recent studies document, people of color negotiate varied linkages between their “home” communities, defined in relation to biological families and racial and ethnic identities, and the queer communities they fashion to nurture same-sex relationships. On the basis of in-depth interviews with fifty black gay men in Philadelphia and New York, Marcus Hunter (2010) found that some black gay men privileged a racial identity over a sexual identity, others situated race and sexuality as equally important, and a minority viewed their sexual identities as most salient. Carlos Decena (2011) suggests that the “closet,” and the public/private dichotomy it implies, does not adequately describe the “tacit subjectivities” of queer Dominican immigrant men in New York. They are neither secret nor silent, yet they tend to refuse to engage in public acts of disclosure about their sexuality, in part because their survival and (real or imagined) upward mobility are at stake, but also because they refuse to reduce their complexity of identities to center upon homosexuality.

Looking at the ways black gays and lesbians in Los Angeles “negotiate multiple identity statuses based in race and sexuality,” Mignon Moore (2010, 316) finds salient generational differences. Those born (p.52) before 1954 tend to prioritize racial over sexual identities; those born in the 1960s and ’70s struggle to construct identities in which both race and sexuality are salient and linked; black gays and lesbians born after the 1980s, she argues, are less likely to “de-emphasize a gay sexuality in Black social environments” (2010, 317). What these and other studies suggest is that queer people of color are, for a variety of reasons—including lack of access to capital, greater embeddedness in nonnuclear familial networks, feelings of loyalty to and belonging to racial and ethnic minority groups, fear of stigma, and higher rates of religiosity, among others—less likely than their white middle-class counterparts to make sexuality a primary identity.

While there is little evidence to suggest that low-income people of color are more homophobic than white Americans at similar educational and income levels, pressures for gender and sexual conformity within black and Hispanic communities can be considerable (Mumford 2007, 168–69).9 The reasons are at least partially defensive: white policymakers have long pronounced that female-headed African American families are a “tangle of pathology.” Seeking respectability (and political power), moral entrepreneurs within communities of color, fueled by black nationalism and Christian theology, privilege heterosexual nuclear families and view homosexuality as a threat to the family, charging gay men and lesbians with being “race traitors.” In the early 1970s, during the rise of the gay liberation movement, famed Newark-based writer and activist Amiri Baraka repudiated homosexuality, proclaiming that it was a disease of white Western culture. In the aftermath of the Million Man March twenty-five years later, which mobilized a more subtle homophobia, churches in Newark and other black communities across the nation established “Fatherhood Programs” to encourage men to stay attached to their children and families.10 This politics of “respectability” decried the supposed breakdown of the family and called for its restoration, with the father at the helm (Collins 2004; Cohen 1997, 1999; Alexander-Floyd 2007). Today, crusaders for sexual “respectability” in and outside of black communities target ho-mosexuals as well as unmarried heterosexual women.

Sexual stigma and violence is also enacted in the streets against gender nonconforming youth. The brutal slaying in 2003 of fifteen-year-old (p.53) African American butch lesbian Sakia Gunn is a case in point. Gunn was on her way home to Newark from Greenwich Village when two men got out of a car and made sexual advances to her and her friends. When Gunn told them she was a lesbian, she was stabbed in the chest (Collins 2004, 115). Clearly, being out in places like Newark can be dangerous. That’s true in many other places too, of course, but in a poor city like Newark, because of the density of the population, the level of economic desperation, and the influence of religious traditionalism, this risk is amplified. No wonder, then, that Newark queers construct identities that may not conform to the hegemonic “coming out” script that privileges sexuality over other forms of identification and sees public recognition as key.

While Maplewood and Newark are just down the road from each other, culturally and socioeconomically they are clearly very different places. Their LGBT communities consequently look very different and have different political priorities. Maplewood’s middle-class gays and lesbians want their neighbors to recognize them as different but also similar and to accord their homosexuality a kind of “ethnic” rather than a “master” status; they also want the state to grant them the legal rights and economic benefits enjoyed by their heterosexual neighbors. For them, the prospect of marrying represents the culmination of a decades-long fight for equality and is a measure of hard-won progress.

While their middle-class neighbors view same-sex marriage as the most important issue facing LGBT Americans, few queer Newarkers have been committed to the fight for marriage equality. A vivid illustration of this is the fact that, as of June 2011, eight times as many Maplewood couples have obtained civil unions as in Newark, although the population of Newark is twelve times that of Maplewood.11 While there are certainly marriage advocates within black communities nationally, in Newark there are few.12 “[A]ll this talk of marriage is just a luxury,” says longtime Newark queer activist James Credle. “For us, it’s about survival” (Joe.My.God. 2007). At the top of his and other activists’ agendas are safe streets, decent jobs, and access to quality health care.

Newarkers’ reticence to sign on to the fight for same-sex marriage rights has been a source of some frustration for New Jersey LGBT activ-ists, who can’t quite understand why they can’t encourage those who (p.54) seemingly have so much to benefit from and so little to lose by joining the fight.13 Yet from a sociological perspective, there may be very good reasons for Newarkers to have been less committed to the issue than their middle-class neighbors down the road.

What Is Marriage For?

A number of observers have noted ironically that gays and lesbians are seeking membership in an institution that heterosexuals are defecting from in droves—as the decline in marriage rates, rise in divorce rates, and huge increases in the number of single-person households indicate. Even though marriage as an institution may be losing some of its staying power, however, the marital bond continues to exert profound symbolic importance, signifying adulthood, security, and normalcy. Marriage is indelibly linked to romantic love, which remains a crucial repository of emotional meaning in our culture, and also provides numerous economic benefits to couples.

Research suggests that lesbians and gay men who wish to marry do so for the following reasons: to express a commitment to the relationship and an intention to stay together; to express that commitment both to each other and to their families and friends; to establish a legal bond that addresses the practical issues related to living a joint economic life together and pooling some or all of their financial resources; to ensure the well-being of their current or future children; and to make a political statement about the equality of gay men and lesbians or a feminist statement related to the equality of men and women (Badgett 2009, 89). With the exception of the desire to make a political statement, none of these considerations are unique to same-sex couples. They express desires for social recognition, emotional well-being, and economic security.

For lesbians and gay men, declaring a commitment to another person also entails declaring a very public commitment to a nonnormative sexual identity. Lesbians and gay men who marry must be out in most if not all aspects of their lives, making the ritual of marriage not only an affirmation of a relationship, but also a proclamation of one’s sexuality. (Of course this is true of heterosexual marriages as well, but we (p.55) tend not to understand it in those terms.) The existence of millions of individuals engaged in same-sex relationships who are willing to publicly profess their love and commitment and their sexual identities is a relatively new development. For many Americans today, homosexuality is less likely to be a source of shame and stigma that requires individuals to live a double life and engage in the kinds of identity management practices that were so common only a few decades ago. The closet is no longer the central organizing principle, marking a clear distinction between “a private life where one can be oneself and a public life where one has to conceal one’s stigma” (Seidman, Meeks, and Traschen 2002, 435).

In addition to professing their commitment to their partners and seeking recognition for their families, gays and lesbians also wish to be married for material reasons—to establish legal economic bonds and ensure the well-being of current or future children. This is particularly the case in the United States, where economic rights are organized around the couple, and where marital status often determines whether one receives health insurance and other benefits, even citizenship. Heteronormativity has been inscribed into welfare, immigration, and military policy, and actively excludes gay and lesbian people (Canaday 2009). The “straight state” ensures that people with same-sex partners are almost twice as likely as married people to be uninsured (Badgett 2009, 121). Their inability to marry also means that approximately 35,000 binational same-sex couples in the United States must live in fear of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and untold others must live separated by national borders or emigrate elsewhere in order to remain together (Epstein 2009).

For all of these reasons, marriage is a no-brainer for gays and lesbians in committed relationships. A compelling recent study touting the benefits of same-sex marriage offers the Netherlands as a test case (Badgett 2009). But the United States, lacking a strong welfare state, and with a growing gap between rich and poor, is not the Netherlands. So while middle-class gays and lesbians, such as the LGBT population of Maplewood, have embraced the fight for marriage equality, when we introduce class and racial diversity into the mix, the story becomes considerably more complicated.

(p.56) First, if marriage offers economic benefits, it does so mainly for those who possess considerable economic resources. A number of studies that have tried to account for lower rates of marriage among working-class and poor people of color conclude that the reasons that single parenthood is more pervasive in low-income communities is largely economic. Low-income women continue to embrace motherhood while postponing marriage because they face difficulties finding partners who can support them economically (Edin and Kefalas 2005). Workers in the lowest ranks of the workforce are less likely to have jobs with benefits, and more likely to be coupled with people who either are unemployed or hold jobs without benefits (Cahn and Carbone 2010; Chauncey 2004, 118). Testifying to the economic underpinnings of marriage is the fact that during the last ten or twenty years increasing numbers of cohabiting couples in their twenties or early thirties who are not economically secure enough to get married are having children out of wedlock, a trend that is exacerbated by the current economic recession (Cherlin 2010).

Lower-income same-sex couples are less likely to have health insurance, or be able to transfer their health insurance to a partner lacking insurance. They are less likely to own property and be concerned with questions of inheritance. Concentrated in lower-level service jobs, which often lack benefits, it’s no wonder Newark’s gays and lesbians generally have less economic incentive to marry than their middle-class counterparts.

Second, marriage, by definition, requires individuals to be able and willing to declare their relationships publicly; in Newark and places like it, “coming out” as gay or lesbian, as I have argued, often looks different. Queers of color live at the intersection of racial, sexual, and gender marginality and they exercise agency in relation to the complex inequalities that pattern their lives. While they are just as likely to be embedded in family networks as their middle-class peers, they are somewhat less likely to move away from their families of origin in order to act on their homosexuality and are less likely to construct identities in which sexuality is primary (Decena 2011; Hunter 2010; Moore 2010).

Much like their national counterparts, Newark’s LGBT activists see the threat of violence and lack of access to good jobs as the most important (p.57) issues facing them, rather than the inability to marry (Albelda et al. 2009, i–ii). The combined effects of sexual stigma, lack of access to the economic benefits accrued through marriage, weaker symbolic commitment to marriage, and a more complex and multilayered conception of identity make the prospect of marrying simultaneously less accessible and less appealing for queer Newarkers.

The Limits of Queer Liberalism

When local television stations cover the issue of same-sex marriage in New Jersey, they send film crews to Maplewood or places like it, finding news value in “ordinary” gays and lesbians and their families, and reinforcing the belief that gays and lesbians are predominantly white and middle class. Mainstream gay and lesbian organizations tend to reproduce this view, along with most social scientists—and I am among those who have been guilty of this on occasion. But the preceding “tale of two cities” forces us to recognize that there is no one queer America; studies that conceptualize sexuality in class and race-neutral ways are incomplete (Vaid 2010).14 This is an intellectual as well as a political problem. It leads us, for example, to overgeneralize about support for marriage equality and universalize its potential benefits. While the right to marry will certainly benefit my Maplewood neighbors, whether it will be equally beneficial to low-income lesbians and gay men such as those in Newark is less certain. Indeed, recent work (Stacey 2011) suggests that expanding access to marriage to same-sex couples is likely to increase race and class inequality.

Queer liberalism, framed by the rhetoric of “choice,” emphasizes the importance of coming out and creating “chosen families.” It embodies late modernity’s “reflexive individualism,” a self-consciousness committed to self-creation, common among relatively privileged members of advanced capitalist societies (Giddens 1991). Middle-class gay and lesbian families exercise greater choice over a wider array of areas—reproduction, their children’s educational experiences, and the kinds of extracurricular activities their children engage in, and so on—than their less economically privileged counterparts. In other words, it takes resources for middle-class families to achieve the “ordinariness” (p.58) they desire. In middle-class Maplewood, “things [are] negotiated, resourced, and planned”; in low-income Newark, things “just happen” (Taylor 2009, 67). That is, in Newark so many of the decisions that structure one’s life—about where to live, what kinds of jobs to labor in, how to get to work in the morning, and so forth—are beyond one’s control.

Those who view queer communities of color within liberal frameworks tend to find them wanting. They see gays and lesbians of color, who are less likely to embrace public identifications and frame their identities as “chosen,” as less capable of carving out social spaces and as victims of oppression, shame, duplicity, and the persistence of the closet. Privileging “chosen families” over “families that just happen,” liberals suggest that the most “advanced” form of same-sex partnership is the one that unites monogamous couples and is blessed by the state. But this queer-liberal narrative, as I have suggested, presupposes access to cultural and economic capital and is much better suited to the lives of middle-class gays and lesbians than to lower-income people of color who have, by choice or necessity, pursued different family formations.

Being “just like everyone else” requires economic and cultural capital that is out of reach for many low-income people of color and may not hold the same allure or meaning. The combined effects of racism, classed hierarchies, and cultural differences make the process of sexual identification more complex, and the potential benefits of marriage—both material and symbolic—fewer. Newarkers express a diverse range of same-sex intimacies that do not conform to the hegemonic “coming out” script and “families we choose” model with which it is linked. While these and other race/class/gender identities may look different from the hegemonic model embraced mainly (but not exclusively) by white middle-class gays and lesbians, they are no less “queer.” (Indeed one might argue that the range of same-sex intimacies in Newark is in fact more diverse and even “queerer” than those of middle-class suburbs such as Maplewood.)

Advocates for same-sex marriage suggest that Newark gays and lesbians are simply at an earlier stage in their fight for equality, and that (p.59) once they solve more pressing issues, such as ensuring safe streets, creating decent jobs, or improving provisions for health care, they will be able to take full advantage of the benefits of marriage. In the meantime, access to marriage will normalize same-sex relationships, bringing them more fully out into the open (see, for example, Moore 2010). It will change social attitudes and mean that fewer gay youth in Newark are kicked out of their homes or attacked in the streets. It will allow those who are partnered with individuals who have benefits to be able to share them and potentially move two relatively low-income households into one higher-income family. In short, they argue that marriage equality will not make our profoundly unequal society suddenly fair, but that it will close some of the gaps.

On the other side are those who argue that marriage in fact exacerbates inequalities rather than alleviates them. Marriage, according to sociologists, tends to bring together people who are very much like each other. This pull toward similarity has accelerated during the past few decades among heterosexuals: highly educated men are now even more likely to marry highly educated women than they once were, and high-income men increasingly marry high-income women (see, for example, Blackwell and Lichter 2004; Kalmijn 1994; and Gardyn 2002). While there is a somewhat higher incidence of interracial coupling among gays and lesbians, there is little evidence that, when it comes to socioeconomic class, they are much different from heterosexuals: they tend to choose partners who are fairly similar to themselves.15 Following this logic, one might conclude that access to marriage will not be as beneficial to the men and women engaged in same-sex relationships in low-income Newark as it would be for their middle-class counterparts. Moreover, without alleviating barriers to economic opportunity, increasing access to marriage may well contribute to the widening in-come gap in our country (see also Farrow 2004; Cahill 2005).

Maplewood’s LGBT community, much like national mainstream LGBT activists generally, tends to subscribe to the former position, believing that they champion a stance that will ultimately benefit all queers, and, by implication, all Americans. However, Newark’s LGBT activists are divided: while a relatively small number have placed the (p.60) fight for marriage equality high on their agenda, most prioritize community building, combating street violence, and integrating queerfriendly educational curricula in the secondary schools over the right to marry.16

The queer-liberal progress narrative, which makes the fight for marriage equality its centerpiece, makes a great deal of sense if one imagines that Maplewood is queer America. But it’s not. A century ago, classical liberals formulated the belief that capitalist economic development is tantamount to progress, and that modernization would lead to a better life for all of the world’s peoples. Over the last fifty years, a host of critiques have called into question the universality of such claims, revealing that economic development has had mixed results, wildly varying across and within cultures. Much the same could be said of the progress narrative embedded in liberal same-sex marriage discourse: it will benefit some queer people, diminish many of those who cannot or do not wish to marry, and have a negligible impact upon others. It is particularism masquerading as universalism. The LGBT movement’s overriding focus on marriage equality may prevent us from thinking more expansively about how to protect and nurture alternative family forms—including the kinds of nonnuclear families that many low-income people, such as those in Newark, create.17

Those who wish to marry should be entitled to do so. But rather than working solely to open membership to comparatively privileged same-sex couples, a transformational queer politics would support the diversity of family structures—not only those living in couples, but also people living alone, singles raising children, people who do not marry their partners, families with transgender people, people who do not live with their partner, people who count more than one other adult as a family member—to name but a few of the forms of family that make up our communities today. It would see the struggle for same-sex marriage not simply as the culmination of the fight for social justice but as one strategy in a more comprehensive menu of activism that addresses racial and economic inequality, including access to decent jobs, health-care benefits, and social services. Addressing the ways that marriage exacerbates economic inequality, it would decouple benefits and privileges from marital status. It would embrace an expansive conception (p.61) of what makes “good” parents, children, and citizens. And it would reimagine queer America in more inclusive ways, as a place that includes Newark, too.

For their comments on an earlier version of this chapter, I am grateful to Cynthia Chris, Darnell Moore, Judith Stacey, Urvashi Vaid, the gender group in the Department of Sociology at Rutgers, and audiences at conferences at Rutgers’ Institute for Research on Women and at the School of Law in Newark, as well as Mary Bernstein, Verta Taylor, Nancy Whittier, and Peter Hennen.


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(1.) Following Eng (2010), I am using the terms “queer” and “queering” broadly—including those who pose radical critiques of heteronormativity, as well as those who embrace and/or practice more normative (liberal, assimilationist) versions of homosexuality. His point, as I understand it, is that as LGBT couples and families have become increasingly assimilated, “queerness” has become a more generic category.

(2.) Interviews by Brekhus (2003) with suburban gay men found that degree of “urbanness” was more salient as a determinant of informants’ worldviews than sexual orientation, and that urbanness, occupation, race, gender, and sexual orientation all intersected and shaped the self-identities and worldviews of these men. Brekhus differentiates among identity lifestylers, identity commuters, and identity integrators. Identity lifestylers select a particular identity and organize their lives, activities, auxiliary characteristics, and social networks around that identity as their central core essence. The identity commuter travels to identity-specific spaces to immerse him- or herself in an identity subculture, such as gay bars in New York. The identity integrator sees him- or herself as defined by a constellation of multiple dimensions. This last strategy best describes the lives of most queer parents in Maplewood.

(3.) Racial demographics are from City-Data.com, http://www.city-data.com/city/Maplewood-New-Jersey.html.

(4.) Income figures on Maplewood for 2009 are from City-Data.com, http://www.city-data.com/city/Maplewood-New-Jersey.html; Newark figures are from City-Data. com, http://www.city-data.com/city/Newark-New-Jersey.html.

(5.) In the late 1950s, several Newark neighborhoods were predominantly Jewish, and at least one was over 80 percent Jewish (Ortner 2003, 4).

(6.) Census figures are from City-Data.com, http://www.city-data.com/city/Newark-New-Jersey.html.

(7.) While no less committed to their children than their counterparts in Maplewood, lesbian mothers in Newark tend to employ parenting strategies that are quite different, reflecting what Annette Lareau (2003) calls “natural growth.” While protect-ing their children’s health and safety, they tend to defer to schools to diagnose and address problems that arise.

(8.) Closeted bisexual and homosexual men have at times been accused of importing AIDS into the black community and infecting women (Cohen 1997).

(9.) Surveys suggest that African Americans are supportive of gay civil rights even (p.62) though they also expressed more moral disapproval of homosexuality. Alan Yang, “From Wrongs to Rights,” cited in Chauncey 2004, 55.

(10.) More recently, black women united (virtually) to proclaim “No Wedding, No Womb,” targeting black men for refusing to marry the women they impregnate (Martin 2010).

(11.) Marriage data are from the Registrar of Maplewood Township, N.J., and the Office of the City Clerk, Newark, N.J., June 2011.

(12.) See, for example, Jumping the Broom (2005). Moore (2011), on the basis of interviews and participant observation in Los Angeles, presents a somewhat different perspective, arguing that same-sex marriage offers openings for queer people of color to educate and engage with their families around issues of homosexuality. While I do not disagree with this claim, it may be less descriptive of lower-income communities of color, as the recent experience of Newark suggests.

(13.) Personal communication, Darnell Moore, chair of the mayor’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Advisory Commission, Newark, November 2010.

(14.) See also Duggan (2003) and Eng (2010). For a rare media acknowledgment of the diversity of gay and lesbian family life, see Tavernise (2011). Similarly, analyses of race and class that fail to consider the centrality of heteronormativity—the practices and institutions that legitimize and privilege heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships—are missing a crucial part of the story.

(15.) Gay men may be more apt to cross class boundaries intimately than heterosexuals or lesbians, according to research by Stacey (2011).

(16.) In 2009, Mayor Corey Booker appointed the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Advisory Commission to advise him on matters of importance to the gay and lesbian community. In April 2011, the city announced the establishment of the Sakia Gunn High School for Civic Engagement, named after the young victim of a brutal homophobic hate crime. A brochure circulating to potential students and their families announced that the school is “committed to challenging students to understand the importance of advocacy at all levels of society: local, national, and global,” and that it aims to empower “student-citizens.”

(17.) For an elaboration of this argument, see Vaid (2010).