June, twenty sixth, Two thousand and fifteen, will be forever marked in American history as the day same sex couples were recognized by the Supreme Court as having the right of same sex couples to marry. Not given, recognized. Every human has the right to bond with humans of their choosing. Every American deserves the privileges that have accrued, rightly or wrongly, to the marriage. I recommend reading the entry for “marriage” on Wikipedia. The lengths sociologists go to in order to try to pin down a universal definition of a marriage is comical. The number of possible options is enlightening. The only thing that they do not juggle is Respectability. I suspect such a loaded term is out of the bounds for a social scientist. I equally suspect that it is the commonality that they are looking for.
As Wikipedia explains, marriage serves a bewildering array of purposes. The one purpose it does not serve is human happiness. Those sociologists even dismiss “Love” as,
“…not the raw emotion that Western representations make it out to be, but a cultural construction shaped by the social and economic conditions of modern industrial society. … love is a label for physiological arousal that is shrouded in cultural symbols that situate the emerging relationship within a particular set of cultural expectations – one of which leads to marriage as an institution.” Not that married people are not happy with each other; they most certainly are. Ten thousand poets and a million songs have affirmed that something both powerful and wonderful brings us together. It is not marriage, though, that brings them happiness. Marriage simply legitimizes the happiness that they feel, as if human happiness required a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.
Does happiness need legitimacy? And is marriage really the friend of happiness? There is a joke about a married couple who have been together years and suddenly one morning at breakfast the wife says “Henry, you are a lousy lover!” Henry drops his news paper on the table says, “How would you know?!” How, indeed, when virgins with no sexual knowledge marry exclusively and permanently? Marriage, in the Western world was never intended to build quality relationships. It’s purpose is creating controlled relationships in the framework of a sex negative society and sex hating religious dogma. It places people in neat packages where they make do with the status quo they are given and don’t go exploring too far from the Respectable bounds of society. Even if the initial ardent passion dies, divorce is a heavy speed to cross on the way out the door.
In 1997, Gabriel Rotello published his book on the AIDS epidemic, Sexual Ecology. Among other things, he advocates for same sex marriage, and adoption, and urges gay men who are able to couple up, move to the suburbs, and adopt a child, to break up the cycle of promiscuity that he thinks is responsible for the crisis. It seems a breathtakingly horrible reason to raise a child, and yet it has been the doctrine of the Catholic church for a thousand years. Heterosexual couples have children. Whether they want them, or not, it is a biological inevitability. Once the children are there, parents step up to the responsibility and do their duty (and rightly so).
Yes, children bring untold pleasure. A dirty secret, though, is that the happiness often comes later and not a few new parents hold their infant thinking, “What the heck do I do with this?” Those children take time, and energy, and financial resources. Marriage bonds people together to devote those resources to their child. But it is also marriage that holds those people together long enough for biology to have it’s way. The strident protest of the right to Life movement has little to do with the existential ‘rights’ of unborn children and everything to do with keeping couples on the straight and narrow. When Mary realizes that Henry is a lousy lover she sighs and stays together for the children. A sex life isn’t “the important thing.”
Today the advent of PrEP (Pre Exposure Prophylaxis), a pill that creates artificial immunity to HIV, offers a long sought relief from the risk and fear of gay sex and yet the AIDS Healthcare Foundation has spoken out against it, deriding it as a mere party drug. I have not heard anyone ask AHF president Michael Weinstein what he thinks about Rotello’s suggestion but I doubt he would disaprove. Sex is disposable whether for the questionably necessary sake of health, or the sake of social conformity. Those advocating PrEP take pains to point out that it is not a party drug and it’s greatest benefit is protecting couples with mixed status. Promiscuity is, after all, not Respectable.
So what of Gay Marriage? Children are a distant dream for many who sincerely want them and certainly not imposed on those who don’t. We don’t marry as naive sexually illiterate adolescents barely out of our teens. Our marriages are not imposed by churches, in fact, it will be decades, if not another generation, before we can stop fighting for full acceptance in mainstream society. There in lies my ambivalence over gay marriage. We have barely managed to pry the “right” to marry out of the homophobic clutching fingers of an unwilling nation. Granted, a nation becoming more willing every year but still one far from ready to accept our equality. Now, I feel certain there will be a rising tide of expectation in the LGBT community to prove we deserve this right that we have been given. “Vote early and vote often,” as the quip goes, except in this case “marry soon and marry for keeps.”
Our progress towards legal equality has taken an interesting trajectory. Of course first there was the obvious push to have sodomy (ie. gay sexual expression) made legal. Then one might have thought we would fight for inclusion in the Civil Rights Act, or at least Employment Non Discrimination. Those would have provided real protections and security for every single member of the LGBT community. Protection, as well, against the backlash that I fear will be an inevitable result of our current victory. Instead, we pressed for the right to serve in the military, an opportunity that only a small minority would take advantage of. Given the predominantly liberal tilt of the LGBT community the military is something that a very large number of us feel ambivalent about if not enmity toward. There was powerful subtext for this privilege, though. Our perceived unfitness for military service has a direct link to our ostracism on the grade school play ground. I may or may not have “thrown like a girl” in fifth grade but I can out shoot any man in the platoon with my M16. Or I could if I wanted to.
Now we have again passed up more powerful steps towards full equality for Same Sex Marriage. Make no mistake, I know first hand the pain and tragedy caused by not having a legal union with one’s partner. Marriage allegedly endows a couple with 1,200 rights and privileges not accorded unmarried couples. One need not ask why. Those are twelve hundred more carrots to lure one into the bonds of matrimony and keep one there.
We have fought for the right to have our relationships legally recognized for over 30 years. We could have fought to have those 1,200 rights decoupled from a religious convention. We could have argued that there are many kinds of households both sexual and platonic, gay and straight, that deserve legal recognition. We could have said, as many neo-pagans do, that to swear an oath “until death do we part” is an unethical promise that one may not be able to keep,or that there is no secular reason to limit oneself to one partner. (Have no worry on that score as “till death” actually means “till divorce” and then you can swear again.)
No, we have fought on. Even when many of those who found the idea of a same sex marriage antithetical to their religious beliefs said that they had no problem with our legal rights, only the use of “their” word. The reason for our hard fought battle is Respectability. We want so bad to be in the “In Crowd,” among the popular kids. It hasn’t worked. They still hate you. The Civil Rights act was signed 50 years ago and last week nine innocent people were murdered because some people still hate black people…fifty years later. On the radio yesterday, after the ruling was announced the principal of a christian school said that, if his football coach married another man, he would congratulate him and then fire him, and the Supreme Court couldn’t change that. Ironically, he hasn’t figured out yet that legalized marriage doesn’t protect us from retribution. I’m not sure that all of us realize that, either. We can still be fired for being gay, evicted from homes for being gay, refused service in restaurants and accommodation in hotels for being gay. Granted, that is becoming less acceptable by the day but it is legal.
The firestorms of controversy that surround the refusal of red neck small town bakeries to make cakes exposes the heart of the issue. Why do you want someone who hates you to bake you a cake, anyway? Such petty acts of homophobia happen everyday, if LGBT people in cities don’t know that, ones in small towns do. This slight is different, though, because our marriage license is supposed to be the golden ticket. It hurts to have it thrown back in your face before the deal is even sealed. You have to respect us, now that we are just as married as you are!
Being cast out into the social/ cultural wilderness by a homophobic society is hurtful in infinite ways and deadly in many others. It made us strong, though, and it forced us to forge a community of our own. We made our own rules. We followed our own hearts. And we influenced and inspired the more flexible parts of mainstream society. I know for a fact heterosexual relations would not be what it is today were it not for the inspiration (or temptation) our community provided.
Our relationships and sexual practices, collectively if not individually, have been honest, even courageous. We have been loving and committed in the face of hate and fear; we have been outrageously promiscuous and unashamed; we have explored the furthest reaches of kink, sex magic, and polymorphous perversity; we formed genuine families of choice that range from straitlaced monogamous suburban couples to a man and his lover and his slave and his lover’s boy and the boy’s pup and the man’s former Master and the various house guests who invariably end up in somebody’s bed. Being cast outside the bounds of Respectability however painful, also set us free!
Of course, the “bad” example that we have set is part of the reason we are hated. Not having children, not being constrained by the bonds of matrimony, not being pushed into the mirror image gender roles that those bonds encourage and enforce, makes us a revolutionary catalytic force in our society. A “dangerous” force in the eyes of those who hold tight to Tradition and Conformity. An embarrassing force to those of our community who have run back into their embrace, held out our hands and begged for shackles to be put on our wrists. Yes, that is exactly what we have done, and will do. The wagons will be circled that much tighter, although more and more straight people are sneaking across the border to the “wild side” where those who refuse to be tamed still frolic. Our critics have good reason to fear that, “group marriage will be next!”
We have gained entrance into the fortress of Respectability but that comes at cost. We have to be Good. We have to be far more Good than the straight people whose Respectability is theirs to lose. Ours in granted on a provisional basis. Those in our community for whom it is most precious will police it with fanatical devotion. Every couple, together more than a year, will be asked when they are getting married and there will be a growing collective disapproval from those who do toward those who don’t. It was not twelve hours after the ruling was announced that I was told, admittedly, very sweetly and half jokingly, to find a partner because my wedding was anticipated. It was not meant to be judgemental and I did not resent it, but it is still a sign of things to come.
“Living together” is not the horror in the mainstream world that it was fifty years ago but it is still “less than.” In the LGBT world it has been the only choice but it will soon be the inferior one there, too. In the same way, promiscuity, which became very suspect in light of the HIV epidemic, will be far more so now. The kind of free ranging negotiated relationships that have been ours for the taking will not be appropriate within the bonds of matrimony and “what will the neighbors think?” We have to, above all, deserve the marriages we’ve been given.
We have expended an enormous amount of social and political capital to win this fight. I don’t begrudge the deep and sincere joy of those for whom this is a victory. But make no mistake, it is not a victory for adoption rights, health insurance, powers of attorney, inheritance, and shared pension benefits. All of those could have been ours, anyway. It is really only a victory for the privilege to say, “my marriage is just as good as your marriage,” …but they still wont bake you a cake.