Thoughts on same sex marriage: Can’t You Just Be Happ[il]y [Ever After]?

Posted June 5, 2008

As the boys say, “unless you’ve been living under a rock” you know that the gay marriage ban in California was overturned last week. Here in my home state, marriage has snuck in under what CNN called a “loophole,” a hole looped by my all-time favorite, Governor Patterson, that orders state functionaries to honor MA and CA marriages here in NY, regardless of our own locally segregationist marriage policies.

Perhaps it is too soon to say, but it looks like the days of orientation-segregated marriage are numbered.

What’s Next? Marrying Dogs?”

To tell you the truth, it makes me a little nervous. I don’t like marriage, and to be honest, its not entirely transparent why. Back when I was straight, I limited my engagement with this institution to the city’s back-of-the-bus vehicle for gay partnership, because, really, what kind of person buys into segregated institutions, on purpose, from a position of privilege? Plus, I didn’t–and don’t–think rights like health care, pensions, living wages, education, free movement across borders, living wages, and parental rights (etc) should be allocated on the basis of people’s love lives.

Well, that and the consumer-fest of wedding showers and the specter of adult women playing candy-penis-based games at bachelorette parties make my skin crawl. I suspect I won’t like it any better when the tradition is “transformed” into “pin the boobies on the (other) bride”, and vulva cookies instead of penis Popsicles. I love looking at naked people, but truly hate going to strip clubs. Particularly with (my) blood relatives. Gay strip clubs seems likely to only make that kind of scene more awkward.

I don’t like going to church. I hate posing for pictures, and I despise matching dresses, except in the context of vintage Motown. And, any open bar that I have to pay for seems to entirely defeat the purpose.

It appears that marriage, or at least weddings, just may not be for me.

I could just live an let live, and leave it at that. But, Mattilda has been arguing high and low that the evolution of gay marriage as the number-one demand of the movement was a strategic mistake and an example of the worst kind of right-wing, assimilationist politics. This argument strikes me as essentially correct; universal health care would have been a better demand to focus on in the early nineties. If the queer lib movement had done that, the 2008 elections might be somewhat different, and have more actual political content.

Mattilda makes a good case, but not one that tells us much about gay marriage, the issue at hand; things didn’t go her way a decade and a half ago, so here we are.

Where is that again?

A lot of people are worried that gay marriage will fatally maim “gay culture,” further stigmatizing things like hook-ups, sex work and public sex while undermining the political economy of kinky subcultures and all-night dance clubs. If that happens, it will make me sad, but not in an intensely personal sense; I’d feel the kind of dread one might experience as their favorite island paradise is transformed into a hell of matching condos, but not the kind of identity crisis inspired by losing ones physical or spiritual home.

That’s because my preferred mode of sex and romance looks, on the surface, a lot like traditional, monogamous, boring-old marriage. I can take or leave public sex, promiscuity and kink, but I really like partnership, and the intensity and interdependence of two. I like to be someone’s special someone. I like being proud of my partner, becoming part of a family, commitment, cooking dinner and spooning. I realize these good-for-me things are not necessarily tied to monogamy or pair-bonding, much less to marriage. I’m just pointing out the resemblance to popular, romantic view…

Which makes it seem like I’m nitpicking on this marriage issue. As my mother constantly asks me, while I mercilessly dissect every latest piece of potentially hopeful news, “Why can’t [I] just be happy?”

Because, thats why. I think underneath my sense of ambivalence, lies a serious flaw in the “new,” supposedly gender-neutral marriage. Namely, the new institution will still be segregated. Inherently so. Expanding marriage is expanding social inequality. I hate that.

Honestly, I wouldn’t really miss house music, if it didn’t make it into the brave new world. And if we think about “gay culture” in those terms, the the ill-effects of gay marriage seem to mostly affect the boys; the political economy of public dyke culture has long been comparatively tenuous at best.

But, if we look deeper, we can see that gay marriage may, in fact, undermine core feminist principles, reinforcing ideas of domesticity and adulthood that feminists have been battling since domesticity was invented. This expansion of marriage will segregate the gay world in a way that the straight world has long been segregated, dividing us into ‘single’ and ‘married.’ It will expand the reach of a social logic into a sphere once carved out to oppose it, further legitimizing a series of social assumptions that make people’s lives worse, and whch stigmatize the majority of us that don’t meet the marriage–and parenthood– norm. For example:

“Single people would rather be married/are social failures“; Gays “bachelors” and single women have long been stigmatized as lonely, mentally disturbed, socially unsuitable and sexually dangerous. We are cat ladies and pathetic men with tiny dogs. Sex In the City may signal a decade-long extension for women on the marriage imperative, but it’s by no means an amnesty. Everybody wound up hitched, in the end, right?

It’s okay. Don’t tell me how the movie turns out. I don’t want to know. I’m just afraid that adding the choice of gay marriage to the pre fixe menu of adulthood options will only make this worse.

“Single people would rather be married to one person:” The fight for gay marriage makes it hard to talk about families based on mutually supportive romantic relationships between more than two people. When even Dan Savage can’t come out and say that he has your back, you know you are being thrown under the bus of socio-sexual normativity.

“Single people are social children”: Surely I’m not the only one who has faced demotion to the “kids table” upon finding myself single or arriving at family events partner-free? Only to have someone ask when I’ll be “settling down?” More marriage will make us even weirder at Thanksgiving, glaring enviously as our married lesbian cousins are offered more wine, while the singles smile and convince small children to stop throwing soft food.

“Reproduction and parenthood truly gives life meaning–especially for women”: Opponents of gay marriage have been making the rounds arguing idiotically that gay marriage is wrong because children deserve two parents. Personally, I think children deserve at least four parents, but that is another post.

My point here is that these right-wing asswipes assume that the purpose of marriage is to create infrastructure for childbearing and parenthood. One walk around Park Slope and I quickly begin to worry that gay marriage aficionados disagree only in the details.

I think children can be great, but I hate to reinforce the idea that having children is the highest purpose that women–or other adults–have in life. Writing books, doing fantastic plumbing, making art, teaching, being a great friend, aunt or conversationalist also strike me as worthy goals.

Gay parenting, at least in part, also depends particularly heavily on a social structure that systematically separates children in oppressed nations (domestically and internationally) from their families. My thoughts on adoption are much longer than we have time for here, and in no way amount to a blanket condemnation, but it is worth worrying about the degree to which increased heteronormativity among the gay upper-crust can create “demand” in a market for human babies. To the extent that this happens, its a great example of how the heteronormative “success” of some is dependent on the normative failure of others, particularly poor women.

“Friends are nice, but not very important”: We all have priorities. But state-and-culture sanctioned marriage vastly elevates a single relationship above all other relationships we have in life. Fidelity and honesty are the least common denominator for human decency in the context of marriage, but fucking over ones friends is much less stigmatized in society at large that cheating on a spouse. When you “break up” with a friend, few will ask “what happened!?!” or offer condolences. Its my opinion that we’d all be happier with rich social lives filled with significant relationships. Straight culture doesn’t have much time for that perspective; will the gays go the same sad way after marriage?

“Extended family is nice, but not very important”; Marriage has, at various times and places, operated as a kind of treaty between extended families and clans, but in our world reflects the formation of an autonomous, nuclear unit. Stigma against, for example, single mothers, discounts the value of supportive extended family networks and is usually based in the belief that there is one, and only one, right way to go–two parents and one or two kids.

For queer people, “family” can mean a non-biologically based version of this extended family model. As the gay version of the nuclear family becomes more socially valued and–likely–more popular, can both models co-exist?

If not, I know which side I’m on.

“Working class and poor people, and Black people are not responsible or successful”; Related to the assumptions above, its already the case that the straight ideal of marriage and the nuclear family is heavily class-biased and much more difficult to attain and maintain under economic duress; for example, in situations where where workers are forced to migrate long distances away from their families, in circumstances where large percentages of a community are in prison, or where unemployment is high. These days, all over the world, we are talking about a lot of people.

Failure to meet these family/marriage norms used to be something that queer people shared with this majority, helping, I think, to contribute to a left queer and liberal gay political spectrum; what will happen (has been happening?) to queer politics as the elite minority of gay people get hitched, fit in, and lose any vestigial sense of connection to other oppressed people?

Sorry. That was rhetorical question.

In any case, you can play this game at home. There are many more oppressive and divisive assumptions that marriage–even gay marriage–help to reinforce. Feel free to contribute–I live for participatory rants. In the mean time, I’ll wrap this over-long post up by suggesting that this kind of (il)logic has always been oppressively applied to gays in the straight world, and to some extent even within the queer sphere. But gay marriage further entrenches this normative logic in a realm where it was once seriously contested. Part of me is glad that it looks like people who want to get married will now be able to, but, as a woman who, in all likelihood will never be a mother, and a human who hopes for liberation not just for the elite, these developments also make me feel a little like dressing up in a sequined mini and heading out for fabulous karaoke rendition of Nowhere to Run.


5 responses to “Thoughts on same sex marriage: Can’t You Just Be Happ[il]y [Ever After]?”

  1. Avatar

    The only good thing about repealing DADT is that it would prevent a lot of good guys from losing their jobs. On the other hand, not much will change, since the military will still be fundamentally homophobic. I’m not gay and never was (at least that I know of, hah), but I am currently stationed in Pendleton, and happen to know quite a few men that are forced to serve in the closet. There have been times when I have asked a couple of them if they’d come out if DADT was ever repealed, and the answer was always that they would like to, but they wouldn’t. The real problem here is the homophobic majority of ppl serving in the armed forces that give in to group think and suffer from alpha male syndrome. Even if DADT never existed, I couldn’t even imagine a gay soldier coming out of the closet because of his or her anxiety from having to watch his ass from getting jumped from that day on. Imo, the military’s obsession with uniformity and control of its members down to their very ideologies has allowed homosexuality to be stigmatized and reviled far more than it already has by the civilian majority of this country.

  2.  Avatar

    There’s a version of the drive for gay-marriage that is assimilationist — we can be just like you.

    But alongside it, and perhaps as significant, is a drive, since the 60s, to make things more messy, more open, more varied. All kinds of families, arrangements, partnerships.

    The latter drive can be both positive and negative. Men may be less “all-in or all-out” for example, if they have children with someone not their spouse.

    Thanks, Kate, for helping keep all these threads lively. A particularly potent topic for me this week.

    — mac

  3. giannirebl Avatar

    You nailed it Kate, thanks for the insights. As a civil-libertarian, I believe that any exclusionary laws regarding marriage are abhorrent; there was a time in this country (under slavery) when black people could not marry without the master’s permission. There were many years AFTER slavery when black people and white people could not marry due to “miscegenation” laws. Clearly a gross violation of civil and human rights-and to deny a person marital rights on same-gender grounds is no less heinous than denying them on racial grounds. Again, that is the level-headed,methodical civil libertarian speaking in me. The gay sexual outlaw/ social arsonist in me, however, might state it differently (ahem): “The gay marriage issue is almost identical to the gays in the military issue. If gay people want to fight and die for this country, they should have the right. Let ’em. It’s their funeral. I sure ain’t fightin’. And if gay people want to get married, they should have the right. Let ’em. That’s also their funeral—–and I sure ain’t gettin married…”

  4. Kate G Avatar
    Kate G


    As for whether marriage is something we could ever want to expand, i often wonder about that. For example, what if you could marry as many people as you want and be considered a legal entity wiht rights and responsibilites to all of your “spice” ? Such a situation might be usful not only for polyamorous people, but also for lefties trying to build some form of collective living. This, of course, seems unlikely to happen.

    Ending legal marriage would end the one collective legal identity most of us have access to.


    thanks! Isnt it funny how those two issues became the top-billed “gay” issues in the last 20 years? There are , of course, tons of people fighting to make discrimination illegal on the job and win healthcare rights etc, but they dont get as much play for sure.

  5. Isaac Avatar

    Kate, I feel obligated to comment on this because it’s such a thoughtful piece and I don’t want it to slip down the list without a discussion…

    Figuring out a position on “democratic” struggles (extending rights/freedoms to everybody in a society) struggles is complicated when those freedoms are themselves oppressive. Gays or women in the military would be another example. I’m thinking of Peggy McIntosh’s argument, in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” that We might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages, which we can work to spread, and negative types of advantage, which unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies.

    Is marriage – a foundation of patriarchal capitalism and of hetero-normativity – something that we want to extend? Like you say, if only the queer lib movement had taken up universal health care and visitation rights….

    You know, to take up another point, it’s also a strange predicament to be one of the people WITH the “right” to marry who rejects it for political reasons. The laundry list of pervasive pro-marriage propaganda in our society really gets into people’s heads, and I’ve been in relationships that ended because it “wasn’t going anywhere” – with the obvious “place to go” being marriage.