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The New Normal Not Good Enough

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"Michelle, I love you so much." The first line of Obama's speech to the Democratic National Convention last week underscored a theme that ran throughout the convention: To be a Democrat is to love. Barack's love for Michelle is the personal expression of a larger political love that includes in its embrace not only all races and all religions but also gays and lesbians. In stark contrast to the Republicans, a host of speakers at the DNC -- including both the President and the First Lady -- affirmed the right to "love who you want." Gay love is now so acceptable that it's this fall's new sitcom: The New Normal.

Gays and lesbians cheered the references to love in those speeches because we know the right to love translates politically as the right to marry. And for a long time now, the gay and lesbian political endgame has been marriage equality. Ever since Obama's declaration in May that "same-sex couples should be able to get married," we've been basking in the warmth of that presidential affirmation. Even The Advocate broke its longstanding policy against presidential endorsements to give the nod to Obama for his support of same-sex marriage. Its August cover shows him serenely seated on the marble throne of the Lincoln Memorial, the white president who signed the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation replaced by the black liberator of same-sex couples.

But same-sex marriage to the exclusion of other issues is a narrow vision of politics and an impoverished vision of love.

How does marriage benefit two gay men in their 60s, both single all their lives, who decide to live together not as an expression of romantic love but to make ends meet? Why should this relationship, more caring and longer lasting than many legal marriages, be less valued than the gay imitation of Ozzie and Harriet? What about the single lesbian mother who finds herself homeless with her two children after escaping her lesbian partner's domestic abuse? Or the F-to-M transgender teenager who tries to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of pills after his parents kick him out because they cannot accept his inability to conform to gender norms? Is marriage going to save his life?

We hear all the time about the benefits of state-sanctioned marriage, but we seldom hear about its harms. In promoting the matrimonial ideal above all others, the marriage-equality movement produces new categories of discrimination, sanctifying "good" gays and lesbians and legitimizing some relationships at the expense of others. Those others -- the new deviants, the new abnormals -- have all but disappeared from our political landscape.

I came out as a lesbian in the early 1990s, before same-sex marriage had become a hot-button issue. The comedian Kate Clinton captured my views: "I thought one of the advantages of being a lesbian was that you didn't have to get married." I learned about politics from a lesbian feminism that was critical of marriage, and from a queer Stonewall rebellion whose street kids and drag queens look nothing like today's new normals.

Today's LGBT focus on marriage equality betrays our movement's origins at society's margins. My heart sinks when I see Kate Clinton in 2012 exhibiting the symptoms of what she calls "mad vow disease." "Same-old-sex marriage is working," Clinton recently said, "and I think we should allow same-sex people to get married as well."

People ask me, "So are you for or against gay marriage?" My answer is that this is the wrong question. The real question should be: How can individual Americans access the resources and benefits they deserve regardless of their relationship status? To squeeze society's obligation to all its citizens into a box called "marriage" is discriminatory and unjust.

My friends often object that my view is impractical. They argue that marriage is the best path to take if we want to secure our rights to inherit our partner's property, to ensure custody of our children, or to visit our partners when they're sick in the hospital. I understand this objection. It comes from a long history of homophobic bigotry that is still with us despite the new normal.

But I don't believe we must sacrifice our political vision in favor of a narrowly defined pragmatism. At its best, our politics can be shaped by a commitment to inclusion. That commitment is not just a theory. It is eminently practical. It is no more complicated -- nor more difficult -- than an attunement to the needs of those who are most marginalized in our society. This means that we push for universal health care, advocate on behalf of homeless youth, and fight for economic policies that will give poor gays and lesbians a fighting chance.

Obama ended his speech at the DNC by linking love to citizenship and the value of caring for others. "We leave no one behind," Obama said. "We pull each other up." That vision of love is much bigger than marriage.