Leading advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) advancement in the United States debate the central objectives of the movement as well as its proper reformist scope. On the libertarian right, gay rights proponents articulate a narrow vision, devoid of race or class consciousness and focused on obtaining formal equality through spare legal reforms—mainly access to marriage and military inclusion. On the left, advocates envision a larger cultural transformation, one that intersects with racial and economic justice and challenges the norms of powerful institutions such as family, capitalism, and the military. A review of empirical research demonstrates that the needs in the LGBTQ community are diverse and, in many cases, urgent. The most privileged, along axes of race and class, may have few concerns apart from protection against discrimination and formal exclusion from major social institutions. Once the full spectrum of LGBTQ demographics and experience are considered, however, such a constricted range of reform objectives reveals itself to be insufficient to address such obstacles as hunger, homelessness, and unemployment. A fresh approach to evaluating LGBTQ legal needs yields an equally fresh set of alternatives to the mainstream legal reform agenda. An intersectionally and distributively cognizant shift in the movement’s direction could advance the needs of the most disadvantaged members of the community, including homeless youth, transgender sex workers, and low-income parents.
Over the past few years, same-sex marriage reforms have become central to contemporary LGBTQ movements. As a result of their mobilizations, many countries across the world have adopted same-sex marriage reforms. According to scholars, LGBTQ movements were successful in part because they used law and legal discourse, arguing that same-sex marriage flows from states’ legal obligations to protect equality and prohibit discrimination. The turn to law and the law of marriage in the local and transnational contexts may fail, however, to deliver substantive justice for all LGBTQ people. First, same-sex marriage reforms, rather than being just a translation of equality into law, is a product of ideological and legal battles in specific socioeconomic contexts. For instance, in the United States, same-sex marriage, rather than being another form of relationship recognition, became prominent because of the centrality of marriage in the country’s economic, cultural, and legal order. Second, the law of marriage is a system of governance historically shaped by different-sex couples’ needs, with specific one-size-fits-all rules that may not correspond to LGBTQ individuals’ desires, wishes, and lived experiences. Third, as queer theorists have shown, the law of marriage creates an “outside,” a space of exclusion that is inseparable from the legal regime of marriage and the cultural intelligibility of marriage. The emphasis on marriage by LGBTQ movements risks delegitimizing other forms of intimate relationships. The emphasis on marriage may also entrench neoliberalism in contexts in which the marriage, not the state, is seen as a primary safety net. Finally, in the global or transnational setting, claims for same-sex marriage may perhaps unintentionally feed into representations of civilizational conflicts, between those countries that recognize same-sex marriage and those that do not, while also erasing the variety of local practices around sexuality and gender norms.