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Marriage-Rights Mania & The Gay Movement

By Michael Bronski

Gay-movement organizers obsessed with fighting for same-sex marriage seem to have forgotten their roots in a quest for a more liberated world, one they shared with feminists who viewed marriage as hopelessly patriarchal.

Marriage-rights mania is in the air. First, there was the decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal to grant same-sex couples the right to marry, and to urge the Canadian government to change its definition of marriage so that gay and lesbian couples from every province can wed. Then the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gay couples have the right to have sex, prompting Justice Antonin Scalia to fulminate about "the so-called homosexual agenda" and warn: "This reasoning leaves on pretty shaky grounds state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples." And if the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court grants gay and lesbian couples the right to marry when it rules in Goodridge et al. v. Department of Public Health - a decision is expected any day now - the marriage debate will be all we hear about for the next 20 years. Hell, maybe the Bravo network will even commission a sequel to last summer's hit reality miniseries, Gay Weddings. (The network could combine it with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and call it Queer Cupid's Bridal Makeover.) But even if the Massachusetts court doesn't decide in favor of the plaintiffs in Goodridge, full marital equality for gay and lesbian couples is in America's future. The Pew Research Center reported last week that 38 percent of those polled said they backed the idea of gay marriages, up 11 percent from seven years ago. Meanwhile, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from November 1999 found that 66 percent of the public believes it's only a matter of time before queers win the right to marry.

All this can be only good news for a queer activist like myself, who's spent 35 years advocating for gay rights, right? Well, no. Let me explain: I've made a career out of political organizing and advocacy of gay and lesbian issues. I joined New York's Gay Liberation Front less than a month after the Stonewall riots, and I've been working on queer issues ever since. While I can appreciate why winning the right to marry will be seen as a bringing down the walls of a heterosexual Jericho, I also view it as a limited, very small victory.

My problem is not with queer people getting legally hitched, per se. Any change in our culture that brings fuller equality under the law - as mandated by the Constitution - is a good thing. Queer couples who want to marry should get the same benefits now offered only to heterosexual couples. My problem is that gay political organizing seems to have become obsessed with winning the right to marry. I fear that queer political organizers have been caught up in the exhilaration of the moment and that they're not looking into the future - or the past - as much as they should. I fear that for many people, winning the right to marry has become the raison d'être of the movement, not only its alpha but especially its omega. Indeed, cultural and political commentator Andrew Sullivan, author of 1995's Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality and the editor, with Joseph Landau, of 1997's Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con, has proclaimed, "When we get the right for same-sex marriage, we have done all we need to do, we can just pack the movement up and close it down."

I don't want to sound like some cranky old radical - a parody of the aging socialist in some Lower East Side café who complains that nothing good has happened since Lenin published What Is To Be Done? in 1902. Yeah, I know. Too late. But bear with me. Institutional memory in a social movement is both good and necessary.

When the gay-liberation movement formed in 1969, we had a broad, expansive vision of social justice. We wanted to change the world and make it better - not just for gay men and lesbians (this was before bisexuals and transgender people were fighting along with us), but for everyone. We wanted to find alternatives to the traditional structures under which we were raised, structures that many of us found insufficient to meet our needs and desires. We aligned ourselves with other movements and learned from them. We got "Gay Is Good" from the Black Power movement's self-affirming "Black Is Beautiful." From the new feminist movement, we learned that patriarchy - especially when it mandated compulsory heterosexuality - was as bad for queers as it was for women. And we also believed, like many feminists, that marriage was, at its best, an imperfect institution, and, at its worst, a dangerous one.

With such history feeding my politics, I am amazed that the feminist critique has been completely lost in the current debate over marriage. Especially since many of the lesbians now working to secure the right to marry came out and came of age in the early 1970s. Today, there is a complete misconception about what feminists saw as the problem with marriage. It wasn't just that prevailing state laws meant that men had the legal right to rape their wives; or that domestic violence wasn't taken seriously; or that most jurisdictions forbade women from signing legal contracts without the consent of their husbands. It was that marriage privatized intimate relationships, hindered community interaction, and regulated sexuality. The feminist critique of marriage sought to promote personal freedom and sexual liberation. It chafed against the notion that the only valid relationships were those that had been endorsed - and financially supported - by the state. The feminist critique of marriage, signed onto fully by the Gay Liberation Front, made clear that the state had no business telling us what we could do with our bodies (especially with regard to reproduction), what we could do in bed, or with whom we could do it. We understood that what the state allowed, or sanctioned, was in the state's interests, and not ours.

These were not crackpot ideas coming from the lunatic hippie fringe. They were at the center of a very lively public debate about the best ways for women and men to lead their personal and sexual lives. In 1970, Kate Millett's Sexual Politics - in which she seriously questioned the idea that marriage was necessary for personal happiness or the successful raising of children - was a New York Times bestseller; Millett herself was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Other books - Shulamith Firestone's 1970 The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution and Dorothy Dinnerstein's 1976 The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Human Malaise and Sexual Arrangements - were widely discussed in the popular press. In 1971, Nena and George O'Neill published Open Marriage - a how-to guide for people who wanted to expand their ideas about intimate relationships. It sold over one million copies in less than a year, making its authors instant media stars. The culture was desperately hungry for alternatives to traditional sexual relationships. Ideas about communal living, extended non-biological families, and collective child-raising were also in the air: nobody was saying, let's get rid of marriage, but they were extraordinarily interested in exploring alternatives to it.

For me, the gay movement was a factory in which alternative visions of everyday life were dreamed up and then shipped out to the rest of the world: rearranging the ways we think about love, making oral sex a permissible topic for heterosexual discussion (though Bill Clinton took care of that for us), teaching heterosexual men and women that they could dress in a less restricting, more comfortable manner. Gay liberation, along with the feminist movement, was also a primary catalyst for radical social change. We told mainstream society that there were plenty of other options and that they should loosen up.

All this, obviously, has changed. The gay movement today has gone out of the radical-social-change business and taken up a franchise in the "let's just fight for equality" business. Not that there is anything wrong with equality - hey, it's a basis for democracy, even if democracy has a hard time attaining and maintaining it - it's just that it doesn't move the world forward at a very fast rate.

My primary problem with the current obsession among gay-rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is that marriage still poses the same problems it did in the late 1960s: is this the best way for most people to organize their most intimate relationships, and does marriage ultimately make people as happy and productive as they might otherwise be? Well, given the 50 percent divorce rate, the ongoing epidemic of domestic violence among straight and gay couples, and the number of people who seek marital counsel from the likes of Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, and Dr. Ruth, not to mention the vital role fantasies of conjugal cheating play on television and in Hollywood, I would have to conclude that marriage falls far, far short of its exalted reputation.

So why would gay people even want to get married? Part of the answer is that in a world wracked by homophobia, getting an official okay on your relationship feels great. It is validating, and it mutes some of the hurt and pain inflicted on so many queers by their families, neighbors, co-workers, and society at large. Most of us will seek almost any remedy for pain, anything that might make it go away, or at least make us feel better. This is evident in the numbers of same-sex couples who have gone to Vermont for civil unions or crossed the northern border to Ontario or British Columbia to be legally wed in Canada. Neither Vermont civil unions nor Canadian marriages have any legal standing in the rest of the United States (though a Nassau County judge in New York ruled earlier this month that a gay man had legal standing - based on his civil union - to file a wrongful-death suit after his partner died while receiving treatment for a broken leg). But the symbolic meaning of such legalities is very compelling for the couples who seek them out. And it is no surprise that this should be. In our culture, marriage is a powerful expectation. Marriage is so much the expectation and norm that even heterosexual couples have to explain why they don't want to get married. It is what we are all brought up to want and never given much permission to question. It is a cultural myth many of us still embrace, despite all the evidence suggesting that "happily ever after" is more aptly applied to fairy tales than marriages. For some couples - straight and gay - getting married is simply easier than not getting married. It is a learned cultural response that is easier to give in to than to fight.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with queers buying in to the marriage myth - although it does strike me as odd, given that we have managed to do so well without it for so long. What I do find irritating is that the fight for marriage rights has become such an idée fixe for both the gay movement and gay culture. It is now the elusive Holy Grail of gay freedom: when we are granted same-sex marriage, we will have finally achieved transcendent acceptance. In the early 1970s, we had continuous, vibrant community discussions about how best to enact the new freedoms we were discovering. In those years, we rejected myth after myth embraced by earlier queer generations: that we had to be private to be safe, that our sexual desire was a form of mental illness, that we were doomed to hell, that we had to replicate the most staid heterosexual relationship patterns to have any chance at personal happiness. Rather, we thought we could create a better world, one more in tune with our needs and desires.

I hear very little discussion now - in the gay press or in our national organizations - about the intricacies of how queer people feel about marriage. Everyone agrees that gay people must have equality under the law, but do we ever hear from people who don't want to get married? From people who think their relationships are fine the way they are now? From people who have found that monogamy doesn't work for them? From people who feel their lives have been seriously encumbered by having kids and being in a traditional relationship? From people who chafe at the idea that under the traditional definition of marriage, monogamy is not only expected but mandated? In my 54 years, I have had several long-term, very successful relationships. None of them was monogamous, because neither I nor my lovers wanted to be - but they were faithful. Most gay men I know (and not a few lesbians) share similar sentiments. Are we just not the marrying sort? Maybe we should be campaigning for open marriage, or marriage with a tricking-on-the-side option, or the we-just want-the-economic-benefits-but-have-no-intention-of-actually-being-traditionally-married marriage.

But this isn't how it works. You don't win the right to marry by telling the world that queer people's lives are as confusing, messy, tattered, and complicated as heterosexual lives. You win the right to marry by presenting to the world, and to the courts, the most acceptable, most homogeneous, most lovable, most traditional couples (with kids if possible) you can find. And given that marriage is, for everyone, a form of sexual regulation, it is also important to present to the world the most conventional images of gay sexual behavior. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the writings of William N. Eskridge Jr., the noted gay legal scholar who has been a major theoretician and proponent of full marital equality for same-sex couples. In 1996's The Case for Same-Sex Marriage: From Sexual Liberty to Civilized Commitment, Eskridge argues that, along with providing equality under the law, marriage would be of enormous social and psychological benefit to both queer and heterosexual communities, since it would regulate gay-male promiscuity. "Gay marriage will have a civilizing effect on gay men," he argues. Aside from the idiocy of this argument - as if heterosexuals have ever allowed marriage vows to curb their sexual wanderings - it is also deeply, profoundly homophobic.

Eskridge pleads for equality under the law by reeling out the same stereotypes that have made gay people second-class citizens. His theory embodies everything we thought was wrong with marriage in the 1970s: it is not about love and commitment - it is simply about regulating sex. Indeed, in Eskridge's world there would be two kinds of gay men - good ones who had sex in marriage and bad ones who had sex outside of marriage; not all that different from the '50s-era stereotypes of "good" and "bad" girls that feminists condemned as repressive and destructive. Most interestingly, Eskridge's views are not on the fringe. He is one of the most frequent commentators on winning the freedom to marry in the gay and mainstream press, and his archconservative, destructive views on sexual morality are almost never challenged. Eskridge's sales pitch for queer marital equality is based on a lie. And while I understand that the marriage battle requires "perfect" queer couples to act as poster children, I also think we have abdicated our responsibility to ourselves to debate the pros and cons of the matter. Not only aren't we talking about new visions of how we might want to live our lives, we aren't even talking about how we actually live them now.

In this age of marriage mania, I miss not just the vigorous public and community discussions but the visionary impulses that fueled the early movement. Why aren't we having demanding and intelligent debates over whether we want to fight for marriage or something similar to, say, the French pacte civil de solidarité - which essentially gives marriage rights to any two people (gay, straight, the sexually involved, or those who are just roommates) who want to declare themselves a legal couple? That legal arrangement would also grant us all equality under the law, as well as enlarge our idea of what family might be. Some activists have argued that such a radical proposal would stand no chance of becoming law in the United States. But the reality is that you get only what you organize for - five years ago same-sex marriage was unthinkable, 35 years ago anti-discrimination bills were unthinkable. The queer movement did not get to where it is now by thinking small. Activist and writer Patrick Califia-Rice has written, "Years ago, when we spoke of gay family we meant our community, now we mean parents raising children in the suburbs." And I have to wonder, with the fight for marriage in full swing, are we thinking large or small? What do we gain? What do we lose?

Marriage has become such a fixation in gay politics that I fear we may lose touch with other equally, if not more, important issues. Yes, queer legal groups like Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, who are litigating the Goodridge case and who litigated the Vermont case that resulted in civil unions, are doing incredibly important work. But that nearly every other queer legal and advocacy group has made marriage its priority strikes me as intellectually lazy. It's the I'll-have-what-they're-having fight rather than the this-is-how-to-make-the-world-better-for-everyone fight. Fighting for marriage is like fighting over yesterday's leftovers rather than coming up with something new and better. Even as we fight for the right to marry, there is still so much to do. We can't even pass a federal nondiscrimination bill, much less make the streets safe for transgender kids who are being murdered in their own neighborhoods. So much energy is being expended on marriage that we might not have the resources to fight for other issues in the future, both near and far.

It is tempting for social movements to become consumed by their own obsessions. The early women's movement focused entirely, fetishistically, on suffrage for nearly 70 years. When that battle was finally won, the movement nearly died and - despite so much more to be accomplished - did almost nothing until the late 1960s. Could this happen to the gay-rights movement? Only time will tell, but I do know that a movement only moves forward when it is filled with healthy debate and dissent, when it has visions of the future, and when it acknowledges its past.

As an old-time gay liberationist, I find the frenzy around marriage organizing exciting but depressing. I would never have imagined that a movement that started out in the bars, the streets, and in public cruising places could have come this far. The gay-liberation movement had a vision of radical change and making the world a better place. Securing the right to marry will make the world a better place, but it will not change the world. Heck, it doesn't even change marriage. In the end, it is such a small gain for such a big fight.

In 1969, we didn't just want - as we said then - a piece of the pie we had been denied for so long. We wanted to take over the bakery and produce a huge array of tasty, extravagant, nutritious, luscious, and inviting foodstuffs for queers and everyone else. I don't think we ever imagined that our movement would one day be happy to settle for such small crumbs, no matter how sweet.
Reprinted courtesy of The Boston Phoenix: http://www.bostonphoenix.com
Michael Bronski: MABronski@aol.com
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