From its roots in bottle-throwing resistance to police brutality and the claiming of queer sexual public space, the focus of lesbian and gay rights work moved toward the more conservative model of equality promoted in US law and culture through the myth of equal opportunity. The thrust of the work of these organizations became the quest for inclusion in and recognition by dominant US institutions rather than questioning and challenging the fundamental inequalities promoted by those institutions. The key agenda items became anti-discrimination laws focused on employment (e.g., the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA], as well as equivalent state statutes), military inclusion, decriminalization of sodomy, hate crime laws, and a range of reforms focused on relationship recognition that increasingly narrowed to focus on the legal recognition of same-sex marriages.
Participatory forms of organizing, such as nonprofessional membership-based grassroots organizations, were replaced by hierarchical, staff-run organizations operated by people with graduate degrees. Broad concerns with policing and punishment, militarism and wealth distribution taken up by some earlier manifestations of lesbian and gay activism were replaced with a focus on formal legal equality that could produce gains only for people already served by existing social and economic arrangements. For example, choosing to frame equal access to health care through a demand for same-sex marriage rights means fighting for health care access that would only affect people with jobs is that include health care benefits they can share with a partner, which is an increasingly uncommon privilege. Similarly, addressing the economic marginalization of queer people solely through the lens of anti-discrimination laws that bar discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation - despite the facts that these laws have been ineffective at eradicating discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability, and national origin, and that most people do not have access to the legal resources needed to enforce these kinds of rights - has been criticized as marking an investment in formal legal equality while ignoring the plight of the most economically marginalized queers. Framing issues related to child custody through a lens of marital recognition, similarly, means ignoring the racist, sexist, and classist operation of the child welfare system and passing up opportunities to form coalitions across populations targeted for family dissolution by that system. Black people, indigenous people, people with disabilities, queer and trans people, prisoners, and poor people face enormous targeting in the child welfare systems. Seeking “family recognition” rights through marriage, therefore, means seeking such rights only for queer and trans people who can actually expect to be protected by that institution. Since the availability of marriage does not protect straight people of color, poor people, prisoners, or people with disabilities from having their families torn apart by child welfare systems, it is unlikely to do so for queer poor people, queer people of color, queer prisoners, and queer people with disabilities. The quest for marriage seems to have far fewer benefits, then, for queers whose families are targets of state violence and who have no spousal access to health care or immigration status, and seems to primarily benefit those whose race, class, immigration, and ability privilege would allow them to increase their well-being by incorporation into the government’s privileged relationship status. The framing of marriage as the most essential legal need of queer people, and as the method through which queer people can obtain key benefits in many realms, ignores how race, class, ability, indigeneity, and immigration status determine access to those benefits and reduces the gay rights agenda to a project of restoring race, class, ability and immigration status privilege to the most privileged gays and lesbians.
Dean Spade in the chapter “Trans Law and Politics on a Neoliberal Landscape” in his book Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law, 60-62.