For God and Gaga: Comparing the Same-Sex Marriage Discourse and Homonationalism in Canada and the United States




Lady Gaga, Queer Theory, Love, Same-Sex Marriage.

How to Cite

Potts, G. (2012). For God and Gaga: Comparing the Same-Sex Marriage Discourse and Homonationalism in Canada and the United States. M/C Journal, 15(6).
Vol. 15 No. 6 (2012): marriage
Published 2012-09-14

We Break Up, I Publish: Theorising and Emotional Processing like Taylor Swift

In 2007 after the rather painful end of my first long-term same-sex relationship I asked myself two questions (and like a good graduate student wrote a paper about it that was subsequently published): (1) what is love; (2) and if love exists, are queer and straight love somehow different. I asked myself the second question because, unlike my previous “straight” breakups (back when I honestly thought I was straight), this one was different, was far more messy, and seemed to have a lot to do with the fact that my then fresh ex-boyfriend and I had dramatically different ideas about how the relationship should look, work, be codified, or if it should or could be codified. It was an eye-opening experience since the truth that these different ideas existed—basically his point of view—really only “came out” in my mind through the act and learning involved in that breakup. Until then, from a Queer Theory perspective, you could have described me as a “man who had sex with men,” called himself homosexual, but was so homonormative that if you’d approached me with even a light version of Michel Foucault’s thoughts on “Friendship as a Way of Life” I’d have looked at you as queerly, and cluelessly, as possible.

Mainstream Queer Theory would have put the end of the relationship down to the difference and conflict between what is pejoratively called the “marriage-chasing-Gay-normaliser,” represented by me, and the “radical-Queer(ness)-of-difference” represented by my ex-boyfriend, although like a lot of theory, that misses the personal (which I recall being political...), and a whole host of non-theoretical problems that plagued that relationship. Basically I thought Queer/Homosexual/Lesbian/Transgendered and the rest of the alphabet soup was exactly the same as Straight folks both with respect to a subjective understanding of the self, social relations and formations, and how you acted or enacted yourself in public and private except in the bedroom.. I thought, since Canada had legalised same-sex marriage, all was well and equal (other than the occasional hate-crime which would then be justly punished). Of course I understood that at that point Canada was the exception and not the rule with respect to same-sex rights and same-sex marriage, so it followed in my mind that most of our time collectively should be spent supporting those south of the border or overseas who still faced restrictions on these basic rights, or out-and-out violence, persecution and even state-sanctioned death for just being who they are and/or trying to express it. And now, five years on, stating that Canada is the exception as opposed to the rule with respect to the legalisation of same-sex marriage and the codification of same-sex rights in law has the potential to be outdated as the recent successes of social movements, court rulings and the tenor of political debate and voting has shifted internationally with rapid speed.

But it was only because of that breakup that these theoretical and practical issues had come out of my queer closet and for the first time I started to question some necessary link between love and codification (marriage), and how the queer in Queer relationships does or potentially can disrupt this link. And not just for Queers, but for Straight folk too, which is the primary point that should be underlined now and is addressed at the end of this paper. Because, embittered as I was at the time, I still basically agree with the theoretical position that I came to in that paper on love—based on a queering of the terms of Alain Badiou—where I affirmed that love resisted codification, especially in its queer form, because it is fidelity to an act and truth between two or more partners which resists the rigid walls of State-based codification (Potts, Love Hurts; Badiou, Ethics and Saint Paul).

But as one of the peer reviewers for this paper rightly pointed out, the above distinctions between my ex and myself implicitly rely upon a State-centric model of rights and freedoms, which I attacked in the first paper, but which I freely admit I am guilty of utilising and arguing in favour of here. But that is because I am interested, here, not in talking about love as an abstract concept towards which we should work in our personal relationships, but as the state of things, and specifically the state of same-sex marriage and the discourse and images which surrounds it, which means that the State does matter. This is specifically so given the lack of meaningful challenges to the State System in Canada and the US.

I maintain, following Butler, that it is through power, and our response to the representatives of power “hailing us,” that we become bodies that matter and subjects (Bodies That Matter; The Psychic Life of Power; and Giving An Account of Oneself). While her re-reading of Althusser in these texts argues that we should come to a philosophical and political position which challenges this State-based form of subject creation and power, she also notes that politically and philosophically we have yet to articulate such a position clearly, and I’d say that this is especially the case for what is covered and argued in the mainstream (media) debate on same-sex marriage.

So apropos what is arguably Foucault’s most mature analysis of “power,” and while agreeing that my State-based argument for inclusion and rights does indeed strengthen the “biopolitical” (The History of Sexuality 140 and 145) control over, in this case, Queer populations, I argue that this is nonetheless the political reality with which we are working in and analyzing, and that is my concern here. Despite a personal desire that this not be the case, the State or state sanctioned institutions do continue to hold a monopoly of power in conferring subjecthood and rights. To take a page from Jeremy Bentham, I would say that arguing from a position which does not start from or seriously consider the State as the current basis for rights and subjecthood, though potentially less ethically problematic and more in line with my personal politics, is tantamount to talking and arguing about “nonsense on stilts.”

Caught in a Bad Romance?” Comparing Homonationalist Trajectories and the Appeal of Militarist Discourse to LGBT Grassroots Organisations

In comparing the discourses and enframings of the debate over same-sex marriage between Canada in the mid 1990s and early 2000s and in the US today, one might presume that how it came to say “I do” in Canada and how it might or might not get “left at the altar” in the US, is the result of very different national cultures. But this would just subscribe to one of a number of “cultural explanations” for perceived differences between Canada and the US that are usually built upon straw-man comparisons which then pillorise the US for something or other. And in doing so it would continue an obscuration that Canada, unlike the US, is unproblematically open and accepting when it comes to multicultural, multiracial and multisexual diversity and inclusion. Which Canada isn’t nor has it ever been.

When you look at the current discourse in both countries—by their key political representatives on the international stage—you find the opposite. In the US, you have President Barack Obama, the first sitting President to come out in favour of same-sex marriage, and the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, setting same-sex rights at home and abroad as key policy planks (Gay Rights are Human Rights). Meanwhile, in Canada, you have Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in office since 2006, openly support his Conservative Party’s “traditional marriage” policy which is thankfully made difficult to implement because of the courts, and John Baird, the badly closeted Minister of Foreign Affairs, who doesn’t mention same-sex rights at home or with respect to foreign relations—unless it is used as supplementary evidence to further other foreign policy goals (c.f. Seguin)—only showing off his sexuality outside of the press-gallery to drum up gay-conservative votes or gay-conservative fundraising at LGBTQ community events which his government is then apt to pull funding for (c.f. Bradshaw). Of course my point is not to just reverse the stereotypes, painting an idyllic picture of the US and a grim one of Canada. What I want to problematise is the supposed national cultural distinctions which are naturalised when arguments are made through them as to why same-sex marriage was legalised in Canada, while the Defense of Marriage Act still stands in the US.

To follow and extend Jasbir Puar’s argument from Terrorist Assemblages, what we see in both same-sex marriage debates and discourses is really the same phenomenon, but, so far, with different outcomes and having different manifestations. Puar contends that same-sex rights, like most equalising rights for minority groups, are only granted when all three of the following conditions prevail: (1) in a state or narrative of exception, where the nation grants a minority group equal rights because “the nation” feels threatened from without; (2) only on the condition that normalisation (or homonormalisation in the case of the Queer community) occurs, with those who don’t conform pushed further from a place in the national-subject; (3) and that the price of admission into being the “allowed Queer” is an ultra-patriotic identification with the Nation.

In Canada, the state or narrative of exception was an “attack” from within which resulted in the third criterion being downplayed (although it is still present). Court challenges in a number of provinces led in each case to a successful ruling in favour of legalising same-sex marriage. Appeals to these rulings made their way to the Supreme Court, who likewise ruled in favour of the legalisation of same-sex marriage. This ruling came with an order to the Canadian Parliament that it had to change the existing marriage laws and definition of marriage to make it inclusive of same-sex marriage. This “attack” was performed by the judiciary who have traditionally (c.f. Makin) been much less partisan in appointment or ruling than their counterparts in the US. When new marriage laws were proposed to take account of the direction made by the courts, the governing Liberal Party and then Prime Minister Paul Martin made it a “free vote” so members of his own party could vote against it if they chose.

Although granted with only lacklustre support by the governing party, the Canadian LGBTQ community rejoiced and became less politically active, because we’d won, right? International Queers flocked to Canada—one in four same-sex weddings since legalisation in Canada have been to out of country residents (Postmedia News)—as long as they had the proper socioeconomic profile (which is also a racialised profile) to afford the trip and wedding. This caused a budding same-sex marriage tourism and queer love normalisation industry to be built around the Canada Queer experience because especially at the time of legalisation Canada was still one of the few countries to allow for same-sex marriages.

What this all means is that homonationalism in Canada is much less charged. It manifests itself as fitting in and not just keeping up with the Joneses when it comes to things like community engagement and Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meetings, but trying to do them one better (although only by a bit so as not to offend). In essence, the comparatively bland process in the 1990s by which Canada slowly underwent a state of exception by a non-politically charged and non-radical professional judiciary simply interpreting the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms at the provincial and then the federal level is mirrored in the rather bland and non-radical homonationalism which resulted. So unlike the US, the rhetoric of the LGBT community stays subdued unless there’s a hint that the right to same-sex divorce might get hit by Conservative Party guns, in which case all hell breaks loose (c.f. Ha).

While the US is subject to the same set of logics for the currently in-progress enactment of legalising same-sex marriage, the state of exception is dramatically different. Puar argues it is the never-ending War on Terror. This also means that the enframings and debate in the US are exceptionally charged and political, leading to a very different type of homonationalism and homonationalist subject than is found in Canada. American homonationalism has not radically changed from Puar’s description, but due to leadership from the top (Obama, Clinton and Lady Gaga) the intensity and thereby structured confinement of what is an acceptable Queer-American subject has become increasingly rigid. What is included and given rights is the hyper-patriotic queer-soldier, the defender of the nation. And what reinforces the rigidity of what amounts to a new “glass closet” for queers is that grassroots organisations have bought into the same rhetoric, logic, and direction as to how to achieve equality as the Homecoming advertisement from the Equal Love Campaign in Britain shows. For the other long-leading nation engaged in the War on Terror narrative, Homecoming provides the imagery of a gay member of the armed services draped in the flag proposing to his partner at the end of duty overseas that ends with the following text: “All men can be heroes. All men can be husbands. End discrimination.” Can’t get more patriotic—and heteronormative with the use of the term “husbands”—than that. Well, unless you’re Lady Gaga.

Now Lady Gaga stands out as a public figure whom has taken an explicitly pro-queer and pro-LGBT stance from the outset of her career. And I do not want to diminish the fact that she has been admirably effective in her campaigning and consistent pro-queer and pro-LGBT stance. While above I characterised her input above as leadership from the top, she also, in effect, by standing outside of State Power unlike Obama and Clinton, and being able to be critical of it, is able to push the State in a more progressive direction. This was most obviously evidenced in her very public criticism of the Democratic Party and President Obama for not moving quickly enough to adopt a more pro-queer and pro-LGBT stance after the 2008 election where such promises were made. So Lady Gaga plays a doubled role whereby she also acts as a spokesperson for the grassroots—some would call this co-opting, but that is not the charge made here as she has more accurately given her pre-existing spotlight and Twitter and Facebook presence over to progressive campaigns—and, given her large mainstream media appeal and willingness to use this space to argue for queer and LGBT rights, performs the function of a grassroots organisation by herself as far as the general public is concerned. And in her recent queer activism we see the same sort of discourse and images utilised as in Homecoming.

Her work over the first term of Obama’s Presidency—what I’m going to call “The Lady Gaga Offensive”—is indicative: she literally and metaphorically wrapped herself in the American flag, screaming “Obama, ARE YOU LISTENING!!! Repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and [have the homophobic soldiers] go home, go home, go home!” (Lady Gaga Rallies for Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell). And presumably to the same home of otherness that is occupied by the terrorist or anything that falls under the blanket of “anti-American” in Puar’s critique of this approach to political activism. This speech was modelled on her highly successful one at the National Equality March in 2009, which she ended with “Bless God and Bless the Gays.” When the highly watched speeches are taken together you literally can’t top them for Americanness, unless it is by a piece of old-fashioned American apple-pie bought at a National Rifle Association (NRA) bake-sale. And is likely why, after Obama’s same-sex “evolution,” the pre-election ads put out by the Democratic Party this year focused so heavily on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the queer patriotic soldier or veteran’s obligation to or previous service in bearing arms for the country.

Now if the goal is to get formal and legal equality quickly, then as a political strategy, to get people onside with same-sex marriage, and from that place to same-sex rights and equal social recognition and respect, this might be a good idea. Before, that is, moving on to a strategy that actually gets to the roots of social inequality and doesn’t rely on “hate of ‘the other’” which Puar’s analysis points out is both a byproduct of and rooted in the base of any nationalist based appeal for minoritarian rights. And I want to underline that I am here talking about what strategy seems to be appealing to people, as opposed to arguing an ethically unproblematic and PC position on equality that is completely inclusive of all forms of love. Because Lady Gaga’s flag-covered and pro-military scream was answered by Obama with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the extension of some benefits to same-sex couples, and has Obama referring to Gaga as “your leader” in the pre-election ads and elsewhere. So it isn’t really surprising to find mainstream LGBT organisations adopting the same discourse and images to get same-sex rights including marriage.

One can also take recent poll numbers from Canada as indicative as well. While only 10 percent of Canadians have trust in political parties, and 17 and 16 percent have trust in Parliament and Prime Minister Harper respectively, a whopping 53 percent have trust in the Canadian Forces (Leblanc). One aspect that undergirds Puar’s argument is that especially at a "time of war," more than average levels of affection or trust is shown for those institutions that defend “us,” so that if the face of that institution is reinscribed to the look of the hyper-patriotic queer-soldier (by advertising of the Homecoming sort which is produced not by the State but by grassroots LGBT organisations), then it looks like these groups seem to be banking that support for Gays and Lesbians in general, and same-sex marriage in specific, will further rise if LGBT and Queer become substantively linked in the imagination of the general public with the armed forces.

But as 1980s Rockers Heart Asked: “But There’s Something That You Forgot. What about Love?”

What these two homonationalist trajectories and rhetorics on same-sex marriage entirely skip over is how exactly you can codify “love.” Because isn’t that the purpose of marriage? Saying you can codify it is like grasping at a perfectly measured and exact cubic foot of air and telling it to stay put in the middle of a hurricane. So to return to how I ended my earlier exploration of love and if it could or should be codified:

it means that as I affirm love, and as I remain in fidelity to it, I subject myself in my fundamental weakness constantly to the "not-known;" to constant heartbreak; to affirmations which I cannot betray as it would be a betrayal of the truth process itself. It's as if at the very moment the Beatles say the words 'All you need is love' they were subjected to wrenching heartbreak and still went on: 'All you need is love...' (Love Hurts)

Which is really depressing when I look back at it now. But it was a bad breakup, and I can tend to the morose in word choice and cultural references when depressed. But it also remains essentially my position. If you impose “till death or divorce do us part” on to love you’re really only just participating in the chimera of static love and giving second wind to a patriarchal institution which has had a crappy record when it comes to equality. It also has the potential to preserve asymmetrical roles “traditional marriage” contains from when the institution was only extended to straight couples. And isn’t equality the underlying philosophical principle and political position that we’re supposedly fighting for if we’re arguing for an equal right to get married?

Again, it’s important to try and codify the same rights for everyone through the State at the present time because I honestly don’t see major changes confronting the nation state system in Canada or the US in the near future. We remain the play-children of a digitally entrenched form of Foucaultian biopower that is State and Capital directed. Because while the Occupy Wall Street movements got a lot of hay in the press, I’ve yet to see any substantive or mainstreamed political change come out of them—if someone can direct me to their substantive contribution to the recent US election I’d be happy to revise my position—which is likely to our long term detriment. So this is a pragmatic analysis, one of locating one node in the matrices of power relations, of seeing how mainstream LGBT political organisations and Lady Gaga are applying the “theoretical tool kits” given to us by Foucault and Puar, and seeing how these organisations and Gaga are applying them, but in this case in a way that is likely counter to authorial intention(s) and personal politics (Power/Knowledge 145, 193; Terrorist Assemblages).

So what this means is that we’re likely to continue to see, in mainstream images of same-sex couples put out by grassroots LGBT organisations, a homonationalism and ideological construction that grows more and more out of touch with Queer realities—the “upper-class house-holding PTA Gay”; although on a positive note I should point out that the Democratic Party in the US seems to be at least including both white and non-white faces in their pre-election same-sex marriage ads—and one that most Queers don’t or can’t fit themselves into especially when it comes down to the economic aspect of that picture, which is contradictory and problematic (c.f. Christopher). It also means that in the US the homonationalism on the horizon looks the same as in Canada except with a healthy dose of paranoia of outsiders and “the other” and a flag draped membership in the NRA, that is, for when the queer super-soldier is not in uniform. It’s a straightjacket for a closet that is becoming smaller because it seeks, through the images projected, inclusion for only a smaller and smaller social sub-set of the Lesbian and Gay community and leaves out more and more of the Queer community than it was five years ago when Puar described it.

So instead of trying to dunk the queer into the institution of patriarchy, why not, by showing how so many Queers, their relationships, and their loving styles don’t fit into these archetypes help give everyone, including my “marriage-chasing-Gay-normaliser” former self a little “queer eye, for all eyes.” To look at and see modern straight marriage through the lenses and reasons LGBT and Queer communities (by-and-large) fought for years for access to it: as the codification and breakdown of some rights and responsibilities (i.e. taking care of children); as an act which gives you straightforward access to health benefits and hospital visitation rights; as an easy social signifier for others of a commitment to another person that doesn’t use diluted language like “special friend;” and because when it comes down to it that “in sickness and in health” part of the vow—in the language of a queered Badiou, a vow can be read as the affirmation of a universal and disinterested truth (love) and a moment which can’t be erased retrospectively, say, by divorce—seems like a sincere way to value at least one of those you really care for in the world. And hopefully it, as a side-benefit, it acts as a reminder but is not the actuality of that first fuzzy feeling which (hopefully) doesn’t go away.

But I learned my lesson the first time and know that the fuzzy feeling might disappear as it often does. It doesn’t matter how far we try and cram it into any variety of homonationalist closets, since it’ll always find a way to not be there, no matter how tight you thought you’d locked the door to keep it in for good if it wants out. Because you can’t keep emotions by contract: so at the end of the day the logical, ethical and theoretically sound position is to argue for the abolition of marriage as an institution. However, Plato and others have been making that argument for thousands of years, and it still doesn’t seem to have gained popular traction. And we also need to realise, contrary to the opinion of my former self and The Beatles, that you really do need more than love as fidelity to an event of you and your partner’s making when you are being denied your partners health benefits just because you are a same-sex couple, especially when those health benefits could be saving your life. And if same-sex marriage codification is a quick fix for that and similar issues for those who can fit into the State sanctioned same-sex marriage walls, which admittedly leaves some members of the Queer community who don’t overlap out, as part of an overall and more inclusive strategy that does include them then I’m in favour of it. That is, till the time comes that Straight and Queer can, over time and with a lot of mutual social learning, explore how to recognise and give equal rights with or without State based codification to the multiple queer and sometimes polyamorous relationship models that already populate the Gay and Straight worlds right now. So in the meantime continue to count me down as a “marriage-chasing-Gay.” But just pragmatically, not to normalise, as one of a diversity of political strategies for equality and just for now.


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Author Biography

Graham Potts, York University (Toronto)

Graham Potts is currently completing his PhD in the Social and Political Thought Program at York University in Toronto. He has an MA in Political Science from the University of Toronto, and a BA in Social and Political Thought from the University of Western Ontario. He writes about postmodern theory, queer theory and critical digital studies and how they intersect and are expressed within popular culture. His dissertation looks at how social network sites create contemporary subjectivities and are a reflection of the current mode of cultural production. He's also a massive Lady Gaga fan and lists his Facebook religious preference as "Latter Day Material Girl (Lady Gagaist)"