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In an interview with ABC news, President Barack Obama today announced that he now supports gay marriage. That this position will likely play a key role in his upcoming re-election campaign seems pretty clear, and I seriously doubt that the timing of the revelation is any kind of coincidence.
Now, in practical terms I want to state from the beginning that, since marriage is a state-sanctioned social institution in this country, I support opening the institution of marriage to any two adults who want to enter into that relationship across the United States. For the government to allow certain adult couples to marry but not others is transparently state discrimination.
There have been numerous, thoughtful critiques of the role gay marriage has taken on in the last decade as the single, primary goal of the mainstream gay rights movement (often called the LGBTI movement these days, however let’s be clear where the focus is when it comes to this issue). For example, Sarah Schulman wrote today that the narrow focus on marriage issues represents a type of assimilationist trend in gay politics that has emerged in the wake of the AIDS crisis. She writes
In its origins, the Gay Liberation movement arose to change society, to expand rigid gender roles, to break down confining social mores of privatized families and to defy the consumerism that accompanies monogamy and nuclear family lifestyle in the United States. It stood for sexual expression based on consensual desires, and community based relationships in tandem with monogamous and non-monogamous couples.
However, the assimilation trend has rather resulted that
…instead of changing society, society changed us – and – on the surface- we now have lost a great deal of our specificity and are so recognizable to straight people that even the most powerful heterosexual in the world, Barack Obama is confidently unthreatened enough to endorse equal marriage rights.
I think these are really compelling considerations when it comes to this issue. However, there are also those that have pointed to the fact that marriage is a religious institution in the first place in which the state should play no role. Hence, the state institution we call ‘marriage’ should simply be removed and replaced with civil partnership, which of course should be open to whichever individuals want to enter into that. Personally, that makes sense to me.
So while I do in fact support gay marriage, as it is presently the only ‘game in town’ so to speak, I have reservations about that state endorsing what really is in fact a religious institution. For one thing, it seems clear to me that state marriage itself represents a violation of separation of church and state, and I think when you open the door on that one issue, it’s easy for other religious influence to enter into our political system.
But what bugs me more about this than anything though is how transparent it is in this moment that Obama has little of substance to offer to people who invested their hopes in him, and to the people across the U.S. who are struggling to get by. To me, the timing of this announcement makes clear this is little more than a re-election gimmick. And because Obama has the “courage” to say something he could have been saying all along (setting aside for the moment concerns about the institution of marriage itself) many so-called progressives will cheer him along, even as his campaign team reportedly considers launching his re-election campaign from Bank of America stadium in my birth state of North Carolina.
More than anything, this `evolution’ represents a failure to adequately deal with the gradually worsening health care problems the nation faces, a failure to evolve the nation’s foreign policy in a significantly different direction than his predecessor, a failure to reign in the military-industrial complex money hole, and a failure to reform the tax code so that the wealthiest Americans actually have to pay their share.
In the grand scheme of things, all of those issues affect queers and trans people more significantly than the gay marriage issue. And if Obama really gives in to the austerity measures that the Republicans are demanding, that will affect many far more so than the question of marriage, particularly queers and trans people of color.
And if Obama had succeeded on even one of those issues that I mentioned above, this gimmick of an evolution would be unnecessary for his campaign to have a chance in November.
The last couple of months have been really busy so I’ve fallen behind on blogging, but I wanted to quickly revisit a story from March that I have been meaning to comment on for a while.Back in mid-March, stories began to appear in the Orange County local press about Perla Serrano, a 51-year old trans woman who allegedly committed identity theft over a thirteen year period against another Southern California woman.
These stories linked above contain many of the sadly not-unexpected flaws of mainstream media coverage of trans issues and identities– especially common in local news sources– specifically, they misgender Perla throughout, never even acknowledging the fact that she clearly identifies as a woman and lives her life accordingly. However, unlike some particularly awful local news outlets, they at least avoid the route of intentionally sensationalizing the story or playing it off for cheap laughs.
Unfortunately, another outlet was even less responsible, and several larger media outlets picked up on the story over the next few days and chose the path of blatant ridicule.
The Los Angeles local KTLA 5 broadcast (which was apparently rebroadcasted outside the Southern California area) opens with the sensationalizing line,
If Perla Serrano did indeed commit identity theft, then obviously that is a serious crime. That having been said, do you know what’s actually bizarre about this? The accusation that Serrano would transition to living as a woman purely for the purposes of obtaining free healthcare. That is completely bizarre. And utterly stupid considering the obvious fact that if she had no interest in living as a woman in the first place, she could have simply chosen some man’s identity to steal. Why would anyone, no matter how desperate, go through the trouble of transitioning their body merely to obtain healthcare by posing within the binary gender role with which they do not genuinely identify?
If you think identity theft is a drag, hear this: a bizarre case of stolen identity. A man is arrested after masquerading as his female victim for thirteen years in an elaborate plot to steal her identity and drain her bank account.
Then of course there is the childish reference to `drag’ in the opening sentence. The story continues with reporter `on the beat’ Chip Yost who continues the masquerade by showing pictures of Perla while repeatedly referring to her as a `man.’ The story ends with Yost’s snarky account of Perla’s arrest:
The deputy confronted Serrano, saying he knew Serrano was a man, but Serrano… denied it, insisting she was a woman. That issue was finally settled during the booking process… [after which] Serrano was ultimately placed– in the men’s prison. [emphasis added]
Well of course she denied that she was a man, since she is a woman. Further, the fact is that trans women arrested in the U.S. are usually unjustly placed in the men’s prison so that really doesn’t prove much of anything.
The transphobic news charade continued from this point with Latino Fox News who opened their story with the idiotic line, “Identity theft can be a real drag,” and even the Huffington Post got in on the fun with it’s own report filed under “Weird News.”
Of course, there’s nothing especially `weird’ about a woman posing as another woman to obtain healthcare. It’s wrong of course, but it’s not weird (and I do want to make clear that the victim of Perla’s alleged identity theft deserves full financial and legal restitution for any damages that might have been incurred).
However, stepping beyond the analysis of the transphobic media coverage itself, I think this issue raises another question about why this type of derision would be directed against a most likely impoverished trans woman of color in the first place. Of course, it’s nothing unusual for local media outlets across the United States to belittle trans women by referring to them with slurs and transmisogynistic language– even when reporting that they have been murdered. This isn’t even the worst case. But there’s something particularly ridiculous in the attempt to deny that Perla Serrano even genuinely identifies as a woman in the first place.
For one thing, I think most of us can look at Perla’s image and tell she wasn’t “acting as a woman to get healthcare.” Even someone who is fairly ignorant of trans issues should be able to recognize that she isn’t simply putting on a costume to bilk some healthcare out of the system.
In fact, I don’t think it is Perla who is putting on a costume in this instance; rather it is the privatized U.S. healthcare system that is doing so. The fact that the healthcare system in the United States is gradually spinning out of control has become widely recognized in the past decade or so by many Americans outside the throes of rightwing or libertarian ideologies– both of which are rather up-front about the fact that they have little interest in dealing with real world social problems anyways.
The problems with the system are varied and complex, but the primary issues come down to the fact that privatized healthcare apparently does nothing to reduce costs and that having multiple parties to finance care results in a bloated bureaucracy and massive inefficiencies. Further the fact that doctors in the U.S. are generally paid on a fee structure rather than a salary presents a rather obvious incentive for doctors to order unnecessary tests and lab work, resulting in significant waste and abuse (and American doctors, particularly specialists, who are overpaid in comparison to their European counterparts).
Indeed, studies have shown that the ballooning cost of healthcare will exceed the U.S. budget itself within only a couple of decades.
Given this reality, the powerful lobby groups and insurance industry executives who profit the most from the current situation are presented with a conundrum: how to prop up a system that not only consistently wreaks havoc in the lives of ordinary Americans while propping up profits for a handful of elites, but is actually destined to break the back of the American economy itself?
The answer is of course that at least a significant portion of the population must be duped into actually believing that the system is fair. And that’s where a story like Perla Serrano’s comes to clash with the picture that elites who profit from the system desire to paint. The fact is that in Canada or Japan or elsewhere in the industrialized world Perla would not have needed to commit fraud just to get basic healthcare (which is apparently what she obtained). And that is the real story in this news piece, not her trans status.
In other words, Perla’s arrest and the fact that she felt she had little choice but to commit fraud in order to obtain healthcare makes the system look bad. Fortunately for the corrupt healthcare system and its supporters, the fact that Perla is a trans woman gives them an opportunity to flip the script: instead of presenting a story in which Perla’s situation makes the healthcare system look like a clown, they rely on transphobia and transmisogyny in a disgusting attempt to paint Perla as a clown.
In fact, when we really think about the situation, the fraud allegedly committed by Perla simply mirrors the fraud of a doctor who orders a lab test for you when they know damn well that you don’t need that test. Of course the fees that the doctor would be fraudulently obtaining are spread out among a larger group of people; however, apart from that I don’t see much of a difference. Perla simply took on a corrupt behavior in order make her way in an deeply corrupted system.
And further, and this would be my main point, I think the belief that a health care system that primarily works for those who can afford to buy into it is moral or just almost requires this kind of dehumanization of the poor and others who are left behind in order to provide some semblance of psychological justification to the wealthy and to society as a whole.
So in the end, Perla Serrano’s case is just one more indication that the U.S. healthcare system is in desperate need of a major overhaul. Sadly, President Obama entered the White House with a decisive mandate to reform the system, however, assuming his health care plan even survives a late June decision from a right-leaning Supreme Court, it may well be that he blew the opportunity by relying on reforms that are simply inadequate to deal with the underlying problems.