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Sean Santiago Headshot

Marriage Equality and the New American Caste System

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The other week I came across an article announcing the purchase of a $2-million home by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and his husband, Sean Eldridge. Eldridge is rumored to be planning a run for office in the congressional district of the couple's new home, and I found myself struggling to determine the unique cultural context for such aspirations. It's not that Eldridge would be the first or only openly gay person to hold political office, but it would seem to me that an openly gay man with a husband might still be a subversive proposition to constituents outside a major urban center. The article quotes the incumbent representative's spokesperson listing off the "all-American" qualities of her boss; she derides Hughes and Eldridge for thinking that purchasing a "multi-million dollar home at the top of a hill" could ingratiate the couple with their neighbors. Her language paints them as out-of-touch city slickers, yet their sexuality is not mentioned, let alone demonized. Is this progress?

Hughes directed social media engagement for President Obama's 2008 campaign, and Eldridge currently serves as Senior Advisor at Freedom to Marry. The couple hosts fundraisers at their New York City residence, but insofar as the sociocultural effects of these efforts are concerned, I have a hard time drawing the line from privileged, urban white couple to, for instance, economically disadvantaged transgender youth in the Bronx. You might say that Hughes and Eldridge's marriage is indicative of a sea change, but self-identified gay white men who conform to socially accepted modes of sex representation have historically had an easier time, at least financially, than other members of the LGBT family tree. Increased visibility and awareness of their stories doesn't necessarily open doors for queer people of color, women or trans people. The following paragraph in a New York Times piece published briefly before Hughes and Eldridge's wedding speaks to this divide:

On a cloudy Sunday in March, Mr. Hughes and Mr. Eldridge were relaxing at their estate in Garrison, N.Y., a quiet, countrified enclave 50 miles from the city.... The couple acquired 80 acres in 2011 for an estimated $5 million, after buying [their] SoHo loft for $5 million a year before. While they enjoy city life, Mr. Eldridge said, Garrison is where "we put down roots, where we want to have a family"....



Their property includes a former farmhouse built in the 1800s that was inhabited a century later by Vanderbilt Webb, a descendant of the industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, who held lavish society parties there with his wife, Aileen Osborn Webb, a patron of the arts. They enjoy hiking in the Catskills, an hour away.

There was a time when this kind of gentrified rhetoric would have had me in raptures, conjuring up my own farmhouse family fantasy. As I've grown older and shed my delusions, I've come to the realization that a love story such as Hughes and Eldridge's speaks as much to my life as a grab bag of Taylor Swift lyrics. The rapidity of the social changes that have secured this couple's place atop their hill in upstate New York is astonishing; 10 years ago I could never have imagined a gay couple, no matter how wealthy, living their lives together so publicly and being so politically viable. It makes me wonder if we're not witnessing the establishment of the queer Kennedys. I can imagine the future Gawker headlines as Hughes and Eldridge coordinate play dates for theirs and Chelsea Clinton's offspring. As a young gay male looking for LGBT success stories in the media, I have to wonder if theirs is really one of them, a victory for a collective "us." If so, it presents a uniquely American queer theory that smacks of Reaganomics, as if the wedded bliss of a wealthy few will trickle down as alternative lifestyle dividends for the rest of us.

The privileges attendant to this kind of Romney-bracket wealth divorce Hughes and Eldridge from an entire realm of unpleasant experiences that are dealt with in the queer community, though money and a high place in the social hierarchy haven't always provided insulation from rejection and stigma. Anderson Cooper, himself a member of one of America's iconic dynastic families, only recently felt comfortable enough with his sexuality to publicly come out of the closet. But contrast Cooper with openly gay 19-year-old Peter Brant II, who garnered middling notoriety for the social media gaffe of his "contingency plan" text, in which he joked that he would "kill Obama," appearing on Instagram. That Brant could even jokingly wish to assassinate the president with the most progressive civil equality stance in our nation's history because of his tax codes is telling. When being gay is no longer a factor to struggle with in the formation of one's identity, one is free to resume one's duties as an oblivious teen billionaire.

For Hughes and Eldridge, in their unique financial position at this point in time, homosexuality is no longer a liability. But it is important to note that in the narrative constructed around these men and their life together, marriage retains a heteronormative function. It is for people who want to come together to lead a heteronormative lifestyle -- one partner for life, with benefits and children -- regardless of their sexuality. Arguably antiquated ideas about companionship and fidelity inform this lifestyle and reinforce its dominance in our society; how queer is that? Though there's nothing wrong with the urge to partner up, it should be equally fine to not feel that way -- and to have that choice respected by federal legislation.

I wonder who will reap the rewards of Hughes and Eldridge's equality crusade outside the parameters of marital bliss, as I'm sure that neither man will rest on his laurels when and if DOMA is repealed, for instance. But aspiring to their level of success, or a superficially modified version of the American dream with a white picket fence and "gaybies," is not for me and is out of reach for a lot of us. I don't intend to belittle what the couple has achieved; my biggest fear is that the media will exploit their story, and others like it, as something more representative of LGBT issues than it really is, just to fill a quota. In truth, we've heard this story before, and it has very little to do with the realities and diversity of queer culture.

As the fight for civil equality marches forward, I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, but that is tempered with an awareness of the increasing wealth disparity between social classes in this country and a fear that rather than instigating real social change, we're simply tweaking a caste system.