… or why I, as a gay American man, do not support same-sex marriage. Call it whatever else you want, but marriage it is not. And, personally, I want nothing to do with it.
What’s that? “Blasphemy!” someone is shouting? “Call the gay thought police?”
Hear me out.
Yesterday, an Op-Ed piece ran in the New York Times about Judge James Ware’s decision to release the California Proposition 8 trial tapes. As we all know, Prop 8 supporters are attempting to block the release, while (not surprisingly) equality proponents are eager for the public to see what actually went on during the trial. As Chad Griffin, board president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, was quoted as saying (also in the New York Times), Americans would be able “to see the case they put on and the case we put on, and they can decide whether the case was properly decided.”
Which is a clever way of asking, “What have you got to hide?”
Personally, I’m opposed to calling same-sex marriage “marriage” at all, for several reasons. For one, I actually agree with conservatives (and my parents) that marriage refers to a specific relationship that is somewhat exclusive to heterosexuals — and that this isn’t necessarily something for them to brag about. I’ve written about this before, but it’s not bad to have another go at explaining myself.
My own position begins and ends with the history of marriage and sexual politics, basically since the beginning of civilization. What it comes down to is that marriage is essentially a legal contract, not a basic human right, and we must keep that in mind. Without getting too deep into it, we can largely thank the Victorian era and the Cult of Domesticity for changing and romanticizing our ideas about marriage.
Historically speaking, marriage has always been a contract, and a deeply anti-feminist one at that. The most beautiful and moving aspect of a wedding (namely, a father walking his beloved daughter down the aisle) is a reflection of its original intent: that a woman was viewed as property, without rights of her own, and therefore a transferable commodity. A woman wore a ring as a mark of belonging to her husband’s household. Even the practice of a woman adopting her husband’s surname is an ancient holdover, one that couples do every day without question.
An even more ancient leftover is the custom of having a best man, and this too is tied into its anti-feminist history. In olden times, a man would often simply abduct his bride, and (as you might expect) her father and other close male relations would take offense. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, anyone? (Yes, I am a gay man.) So a groom would enlist a trusted friend to act as his second, as backup and as defense. After all, nothing says romance like raping your bride — and I’m using that term in both the sense of “an act of plunder, violent seizure or carrying off by force” as well as likely sexual. Most women probably dream of being swept off their feet, but I doubt it would be in the literal sense.
Aside from the misogynistic, chauvinistic roots of “traditional” marriage, there is also the inescapable connection of the institution to the Church — an institution that itself has not been the friendliest to anyone who was not capable of breeding more Christians to do the bidding of sky-father God to spread the mind virus of faith throughout the world. I can see the argument being made that this is where change needs to start, from within; but until the Pope Benedicts and the John Pipers of Christendom see differently, there will never be a true place at the table for gays, lesbians, or anyone under the “alternative” umbrella.
Don’t get me wrong. A marriage ceremony is an expression of love and commitment, and it’s easy to see how the GLBT community wants in on that. But at what cost? In seeking marriage equality, aren’t we selling out to the heterosexual majority in exchange for acceptance? Yes, extend the same legal rights and benefits to gay unions; but don’t merely swap out a bride for another groom on the wedding cake (or groom for bride).
The mere notion of “swapping out” a bride for a groom (and vice versa) is telling of how artificial “gay marriage” is, which is why I’m largely opposed to it and all for coming up with something new, a ceremony that reflects our unique relationships. The symbolic language of the traditional marriage ceremony is ultimately that of transaction, subjugation and bondage (not to mention fertility—you think flowers are there just for aesthetic appeal?). So why would we want to be a part of that?
What I think gays and lesbians are deeply wanting is the sense of collective celebration surrounding our unions. Weddings are massive events that bring together family and friends from all over. That’s really what’s going on — not a contract, not a legal binding. Attendants are no longer even considered witnesses in the sense that they once were. Actually, a fascinating piece of wedding arcana is that at one time the Church was so obsessed with a marriage being properly consummated that they required witnesses to attest that the deed was, in fact, done. (That’d certainly put a different twist on being the best man! The most we have to worry about now is not screwing up the speech.)
Lobbying for gay marriage provides an emotional locus, yes—far more effective and unifying than lobbying for, say, the legal rights and benefits of marriage. However, in the fight to achieve equal legal and societal standing, I think it’s important that we know what exactly it is that we’re fighting for. Most would probably say that I’m splitting hairs here, and that what really matters is gaining marriage equality; that we can talk definitions later.
But I think it’s precisely that lack of definition here that’s to blame for so much of the rancor surrounding this issue, and why it seems so costly to both sides.
Conservatives are fighting against the perceived threat of the “homosexual agenda,” which is code for “normalizing” and thereby recruiting (again, that’s code for “turning”) young people to the “gay lifestyle.” What we have here is a whole lot of inflammatory language and very little in the way of substance. It’s an effective use of apocalyptic imagery though. When in doubt, stress that our children are in danger!
So here is where the war needs to be waged, on the front of public education and clarifying definitions. And I suspect that there are many conservatives who, if you were to sit down with them in their living room and lay out what exactly we’re after (instead of on opposite sides of a picket line), they might say, “Oh, that’s what you wanted? Why didn’t you say so!” (When that day arrives, let’s resist the collective urge to be sarcastic. It’ll be a big step for conservatives to even admit that.)
This is another discussion entirely, but why that isn’t happening right now is that this is the last important social issue for religious conservatives and they want to keep it going as long as they can, or until they win. Once all unions, gay and straight, are recognized as being fundamentally equal, they will lose what little credibility and moral authority they have left. And they know it. Their entire argument that homosexuality is wrong (and therefore undeserving of legal or societal recognition) hinges on the validity and inerrancy of the Bible, and that God said that it’s wrong. That’s the sum and essence of it, right there. Take all that away and what’s left is a small, ugly voice whining, “You can’t be gay because I don’t like it and it makes me uncomfortable!”
Sorry, I meandered slightly.
As I said earlier, I think what we’re largely after in the fight for same-sex marriage is the deep sense of affirmation and celebration that surrounds the institution. It’s not about getting a piece of paper, or whatever else opponents may say, though an essential piece is certainly gaining the same rights, protections and privileges as heterosexual couples. But that doesn’t make same-sex marriage “marriage,” at least in the definitive sense, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Again, why would a gay couple want to participate in an institution that 1) has discriminated against them for centuries; and 2) is deeply chauvinist and misogynist?
Besides, the last thing I want anyone asking me is, “So who’s walking you/your partner down the aisle?” Because I can just see that conversation happening, and some bitch getting a martini to the face.
At the same time, I can see the point being made at how having “our own ceremony” still leaves us second-class citizens. In reply, I think the best solution of all is follow the lead of many European countries and totally separate Church and State. In places like the Netherlands, marriage is a contract, nothing more. You go and sign the license, which is the legally binding part; and then you have the church ceremony, which is about family, friends, etc. But the pastor or priest is not the officiant. The “By The Power Vested In Me” part is performed at City Hall (or wherever). The two are separate, but legally, as long as it’s between two consenting adults (which I think should be part of any definition), the two are indistinguishable. Granted, we’re talking about a radical cultural shift in thinking, and that’s never easy to bring about; but I don’t think it’s that outrageous.
And as I’ve said about religion, I think that definitions are important. And defining what exactly we want out of a “marriage” might take considerable wind out of religious and conservative arguments against it. At the very least, let’s know what we’re talking about before we go to war over it.
As they say, truth will out.