Ryan Conrad is queer. He is also against the fight for gay marriage, and to serve in the U.S military, among other things. Conrad will be speaking at Modern Times tonight at 7 p.m. about the essay collection he edited, titled “Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage.” Conrad chatted with Mission Loc@l recently about how his views incite a certain degree of controversy.

Mission Loc@l: Why did you decide to do this book?

Ryan Conrad: The hope was to make the critical and dynamic conversations that were happening online, offline.

I think it should be made clear that folks that have worked as part of Against Equality don’t really care if you want to be married, or that you’ve been coerced to marry to access health care, or immigration status.

Like, we get it. We are trying to survive too. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be critical of this thing we call marriage and find ways to make sure that everyone, regardless of their relationship status, has access to the material benefits marriage doles out to privileged couples.

ML: Which would be, what, tax breaks? Would you rather have a situation where Annie Leibovitz doesn’t have to pay taxes on the property she inherited from Susan Sontag? Do you want the ability to sponsor people for citizenship? Ability to confer health insurance to other people? In San Francisco, city workers can transfer their health insurance to one other person, whether they’re in a relationship or not.

RC: That’s great you have that here in SF. But it still requires someone lucky enough to have a middle-class job to share their insurance in the first place. Two uninsured partners still aren’t going to have insurance, even with progressive laws like you have here in SF. The challenge is to move beyond the notion that only partners are worthy of care, but that all people are.

ML: But if we’re moving beyond the notion that having sex with someone entitles you to access to their health insurance, aren’t we more arguing for universal health care instead of against marriage?

RC: I think instead of investing energy in the current failing and deeply inequitable economic system, I am more invested in experimenting with alternative economic models like co-operative housing, land projects, community gardens, income-sharing households, etc. People are welcome to try and reform capitalism to make the exploitation feel warmer and fuzzier, but my investments feel far more productive elsewhere.

ML: But in a practical, legislative sense, what would that look like? Universal health care — there are people working on that issue.

RC: So since people are “working on it,” queers shouldn’t?

ML: No. Just that it seems like the movement for universal health care, as it exists, has room for queers. I mean, queers would benefit.

The fight for marriage equality has very specific goals: give gay married couples exactly the same rights as straight ones. What do you want legislatively? Or is this more conceptual?

RC: I’m not interested in legislative change. It’s not conceptual, it’s cultural. Changing a law in a book does little to actually change cultural norms.

The gay marriage campaign spent $6 million in nine months. The largest LGBT fund in Maine that keeps the few small LGBT social service agencies going gives out $40,000 a year. It would take 135-plus years to catch up to less than a year of spending by the gay marriage campaign. Now imagine what could have been done with that kind of funding if we were investing in long-term cultural change as opposed to short-term legislative change.

ML: So, ideally, America’s gays and allies would have spent that $6 million fighting for universal health care?

RC: Or buying a building in six major towns in Maine and opening up an LGBT center with staffing and programing for the next 10 years. Or actually spending that $6 million on the priorities outlined at the Equity Fund’s statewide symposium in 2007, where hundreds of the representatives of the community went through a day-long democratic process to outline community priorities, none of which have been funded but gay marriage.

ML: OK, looking for that right now. It looks like you’re talking retirement homes for LGBT people, health clinics, lots of outreach and social services.

RC: Yeah, you know, the things required for a broad-based social justice movement in my community.

ML: Was there any specific thing that made you decide that the reason things like this weren’t being created was because of the fight for gay marriage?

RC: I mean, gay marriage isn’t the only reason these things aren’t happening. But having recently lived through a terrible, urban-centric, classist failed campaign [PDF] for gay marriage in my home state, I can attest that there has been serious collateral damage from the campaign that very few people are working to clean up after.

The campaign strategy didn’t really attempt to do any community education, but focused on getting out the vote in the winnable parts of the state. There was no one to combat the violently anti-gay sentiment in most of the state. All the campaign dollars were used elsewhere. This created an environment where people like me who volunteer for one of the few LGBTQ youth organizations had to process and work through this with young people who felt destroyed by this kind of homophobia.

These LGBTQ youth organizations are the same ones that lose funding because of the overemphasis on gay marriage. So while the bodies of dead queer and trans teens continue to pile up, we are merrily distracted at the altar.

ML: How’s your book tour been?

RC: The tour has been wonderful. Everywhere we have gone audiences have been overwhelmingly sympathetic to our critique and our politics. Athough there are definitely folks that show up that don’t necessarily agree with our strategies.

Although no one has shown up in person to aggressively fight with us, Yasmin and I have been getting death threats from gay marriage proponents on Facebook. It has been a bit disconcerting to receive detailed accounts about how someone is going to chop us up into little pieces and smash our bodies to bits in the bottom of a dumpster. But I think this kind of thing shows how little room there is in our culture to have complicated conversations.

ML: Have you been able to have complicated conversations about marriage with more conventionally-relationshipped people, gay or straight?

RC: I have had numerous people come up to me after talks telling me that they came pretty pissed off that a group like ours would be given space to talk in their community, and how they now have a lot to think about and re-evaluate.

ML: Do you feel like upper-middle-class gay men who both want to be married to each other and support social justice issues are your allies? I’m thinking of people like Dan Savage and Terry Miller.

RC: Dan Savage’s blog posted a not-so-nice article about us while I was recently in Seattle doing an event with Queer Youth Space. So maybe not so much an ally?

ML: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

RC: Thanks so much!

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. I read Against Equality and ordered a copy for my local library. Conrad and others make some great points. Just terrible to hear that “gay marriage” activists are sending him death threats.

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  2. excellent interviiew; good argument. although understandable, i dont agree with only living in the world that “is”; if we do, we won’t get to the world of “ought”. too often today, the argument that “political reality” forecloses progressive options, is used as it was in the health care debate anf the tax cuts for the rich, as a cudgel to silence debate, and to obscure the issues and the interests at play. the only reality is change.

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  3. this guy lives in the world of “ought”. i live in the world of “is”.

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  4. I concur with the first poster – thank you for this interview. I’m Ryan’s co-conspirator on the AE book (I wrote the introduction and contributed work), and we relish getting a chance to actually address some of these questions so directly.

    Just one point, though: the story about Annie Liebovitz was debunked a long time ago You can read about it here:


    To quote the most pertinent part: “When the state of Leibovitz’s finances later became public, outlets like Salon trumpeted the “gay tax” theory, the idea that Leibovitz’s finances had been depleted by the taxes she’d had to pay on her inheritance from Sontag. That wasn’t true. With the exception of four items of only sentimental value, the bulk of Sontag’s estate went to David Rieff, Sontag’s only child. Leibovitz’s relationship with Sontag was not mentioned in Sontag’s New York Times obituary, and Leibovitz did not speak at Sontag’s memorial service.”

    Many will, of course, ask: what of those gays and lesbians who only want to leave their estates to their partners? Much of this came about around the discussion of the infamously titled “death tax,” a scaremongering name for what was in fact supported even by millionaires like Gates and Buffet.

    Nancy Polikoff had one of the best responses to this scaremongering, which I’ll excerpt here: “I think everyone knows that I don’t believe marriage deserves “special rights” — gay or straight. But somehow no one has mentioned what I consider the most important point (aside from not spreading untruths): “THE ONLY TIME AN ESTATE TAX IS LEVIED IS WHEN THE DECEDENT HAS MORE THAN $3.5 MILLION (It was $2 million, I believe, when Sontag died). As far as I am concerned NO ONE should be able to leave ANYONE more money than that without paying taxes. Including spouses.”

    You can read the rest of her excellent response, and that of others, here:

    Cheers, everyone! Have a great time at Ryan’s Modern Times presentation tonight.

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