Sunday, April 21, 2013

What Gets My Hackles Up About Zach Wahls

I'm writing this because many of the site hits going to my essay about why it's ludicrous that queer people should just accept that people have the "right" to trash us at public institutions are clearly from people looking for Zach Wahls.  Now, this is a difficult topic in a way.  Not because Wahls isn't ridiculously critiqueable, but because most of the critiques I have of him are more general critiques of marriage than they are critiques of Wahls himself.  As I said in my earlier essay, Zach Wahls is speaking the narrative that he is familiar with and which the majority of the LGB community has been pumping out for years.  So part of why I didn't write an actual critique earlier is because most of what I have to say is very been there, done that.  If you read the "critiques of marriage" link up there you already have like 3/4 of the story.

There are a few others, though, that I'll bring up.  They aren't all based on the speech you've probably seen on YouTube.  Most of them are based on the speech he gave at my college and likely to many other colleges.  There aren't that many, but they're really important.

Zach Wahls has a serious self-congratulatory ally thing going on.

I think most allies go through a period of self-congratulatory activism; I certainly did.  I still fall into it sometimes.  Self-congratulatory allyship is when you're working with a community you aren't a member of--even if you're really close to people who are--and use this to further your own social prestige, or at least don't do any hard questioning when it results in that.  I was in the second row cringing when he started talking about all his TV appearances.  "And then I was on Ellen! And then I was on The Daily Show!  And I met with politicians!  And I wrote a book!"  I didn't really want to hear his gushing about himself, and it real touches on some of the issues with allies making a career out of being allies.

On the other hand, Zach Wahls doesn't identify as an ally, having been as he would consider it "raised into the community."  I think this is arguable and I have a visceral reaction to heterosexual cisgender people trying to claim a vestige of queerness.  One of the differences in his case is that unlike many other allies, children of same-sex parents are directly affected by things like the legal status of their parents' relationships.  So I guess I'm willing to give him that, but it doesn't make the self-congratulatory part of his speech less annoying.


"Kids of same-sex parents might wind up like ME! I'm so AWESOME!"

I guess this is a sub-set of self-congratulatory allyship, but it's a big enough issue to justify its own category as well.  Wahls sets himself up in his original speech as this clean-cut, all-American, middle-class, educated white hetero cis male who all of us should look up to because that's the perfect thing to be.  He says he's an Eagle Scout and a small business owner and he scored high on the ACTs and he goes to church with his family and do you see where I'm going here?

The entire premise of this guy's speech is that same-sex parents can pump out perfect little hetero emblems of capitalism just as opposite-sex parents can.  It has a really targeted and oppressive definition of "success" that a lot of people--especially queer people--do not identify with.  Wahls' success has more to do with other forms of privilege than the fantasy that he's "normal."  He's not "normal."  He's privileged.  Most children of same-sex parents do not wind up like Zach Wahls.  This is demeaning to children of same-sex couples who don't wind up small business owners while they're in college.  Lack of recognition for same-sex couples is something that affects all their children.

And you know what else?  Even if having one poster boy was a good tactic that didn't create a success bar for other children of queer parents, anti-queer bigots don't believe things like this anyway.  Like I said in my original essay, Zach Wahls' question and answer session wound up being hijacked by somebody who was able to listen to a very poignant story about why same-sex couples need legal rights and still yell a bunch of hogwash about "traditional marriage."  Social conservatives still write ludicrous op-eds about how damaging same-sex parenting is to children without any actual evidence.

"The real issue here is marriage ceremonies!"

I learned something that made me mildly upset.  Zach Wahls actually wrote on separating legal rights from marriage early on in his "career."  Like many he was arguing that all couples should be joined by civil unions with marriage being a religious ceremony.  This makes a lot of sense: When same-sex couples fight for marriage, what they're really fighting for is the legal recognition of their relationships.  Religious marriage is something available to anybody able to find a willing minister.  Keep in mind that there was a woman who was able to find a person to officiate a wedding ceremony between herself and the Eiffel Tower.  Or this guy who married his dog in Australia.  You will find somebody willing to religiously or socially marry you to whoever or whatever the fuck you want.  And there are plenty of people who don't believe you need an officiant; a socially conservative religious guy I met at an anti-everything protest he was putting on told me he believed same-sex marriage was totally legal because in his faith marriage is between you, your partner, and God--not the State (so God hates gay marriage, but it exists).

So Zach Wahls, during this speech, gives this really good, really emotional story about his mom having Multiple Sclerosis and having to go to the emergency room.  She almost died and her partner wasn't allowed in with her even though they had the legal documentation to prove she had that right.  This was an excellent, important story.  This is the kind of story people need to hear to understand just how much same-sex couples are disadvantaged even when they try to do everything legal.  This type of occurrence is not rare.  I've known many people who were not allowed to visit their long-term partners in the hospital, either because they couldn't get documentation or because they didn't want to carry a bunch of paper with them absolutely everywhere and their partner had an accident away from home.

So he goes through this long and emotional speech and then the entire end of his speech was dedicated to making the issue about wedding ceremonies.  This was the most disturbingly offensive part of Wahls' speech.  He said when we picture "marriage" we don't picture going to a courthouse, we picture a church wedding, and that legitimacy is what same-sex couples really need.  By the way, my parents were married in a courthouse and I fail to see how that makes a difference.  It was such a heartbreaking oversight that I had to leave.  Zach Wahls, the allies' ally who was essentially there to tell straight people why marriage is important, had entirely missed the point and strengthened a pervasive myth people have about same-sex couples: They already have everything they legally need--or can get it through existing civil unions--they just want social prestige.

I may not agree with legal marriage as a concept, but if you're going to fight for marriage it has to be for a reason that makes some fucking sense.  "My moms should have a church wedding" is not a reason that makes any sense.  They can have that already.  They did have that already if their bio is believed.  The marriage issue absolutely IS about the right to get a marriage license at a courthouse, not the right to walk down an aisle.  The social prestige element is only limited to the fact that people are unlikely to view civil unions as equal to legal marriages even where they are legal, hence why a hospital might deny legally acquired rights to a same-sex couple because it's not called "marriage."

The worst part is that what he's saying here isn't even what mainstream gay activists have been saying.  "We are fighting for legal rights" is one of the most important distinctions activists make, and he failed in that regard by even mentioning this point.



There were probably other critiques to be had, I assume, but these are the three major issues that really stuck out, having not felt like taking a bunch of notes that day.  Zach Wahls is a powerful figure for changing social perspectives on same-sex parenting, so I think it's a shame that in many ways he's making the same mistakes capitalism-preserving mainstream gay organizations do.