It’s rare for the left and the right to agree, especially in the gay community. But on same-sex marriage, they pretty much do. Many radical queers concur with homocons that matrimony is a conservative institution, and that giving gays and lesbians the right to wed will turn them into paragons of normalcy. Of course, the left abhors this prospect while the right can’t wait for it to happen. Well, I don’t think it will.
I’m convinced that if marriage becomes a legal option, all sorts of queers will exercise it. My guy and I sure will, and it isn’t going to make us change our ways. Of course, we’re not a lesbian couple, or even a typical gay-male couple. But then, there is no such thing.
Under the matching tuxes and gowns on the same-sex wedding cakes lies a universe of particularities. Queers are as various in our sensibilities as the many words that describe us, and so will our relationships be, even if they’re licensed by the state. The media may project an image of us as wholesome folks. I guess that moves the agenda, as activists like to say, but it masks an important truth. That’s why I want to write about a real queer marriage—mine.
In our wedding portrait, we’re walking down a street in D.C., my hand slung over Tony’s shoulder. I’m flashing a look of sheer mischief and delight. His head is slightly bowed. It was that kind of day.
We’d just taken part in the queer version of a Moonie mass wedding. Thousands of same-sex couples stood before the U.S. Treasury building while a New Age minister told us to imagine ourselves bathed in blue light. To complete the disco effect, a sound truck blared the anthem from La Cage Aux Folles. As a late-Beethoven kind of guy, I never thought I would marry to the strains of “I Am What I Am.” But when the wed-person asked us to make the usual promises, couples all around us hugged tightly, and we cried.
It was 1987. AIDS was ravaging the gay community, Reagan had yet to utter the word, and we’d gone to Washington for a march that turned into an angry protest. We were traveling with a dear friend who had come from suctioning the saliva from his lover of many years so he could die more peacefully. Such horror stories abounded, and we knew they might someday apply to us. So we put up with the cosmic kitsch, and while our friend was off lobbying the shuttered Congress, we promised to take care of each other no matter what. That was our wedding vow.
As it turned out, we were among the first-born sons the epidemic passed over. But the promise we made to care for each other, body and soul, remains the basis of our bond. Now it has a more ordinary meaning, as we deal with the usual intimations of mortality: illnesses that take too long to spring back from, unexpected weakness in the joints, and the deaths of our mothers. If that sounds like the typical geezer scenario, it is. We’re approaching our leather anniversary (I’m told hets prefer the word silver). But we don’t date this occasion from our de facto D.C. wedding. Our anniversary marks the night we first fucked—that is, the night we met.
Tony was a real whore back then (we once reckoned that his partners could practically fill the Radio City Music Hall), and I was a conflicted romantic with a jealous streak. I remember lying in his bed during those passion-fruity days and gazing at the books we were reading: a French novel called Tricks for him, Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story for me. This difference sparked a lot of heat between us, and a lot of stress. We’ve come close to the edge on several occasions. But we’ve been seasoned by our crises, and we’ve managed to endure because at the core of our relationship is the vow.
And love, yes: a passionate congruity, an exchange of emotional DNA. In the inner zone where reality and memory meet, we are each other’s father and son. He’s the lava in my light, the trick that keeps on ticking, the one who calms me when I cling to him at night. I may call him my partner for purposes of formality, but in my heart he will always be my boyfriend.
As you can probably tell, we’re liberation babies. I know that times have changed. Gay couples that promise to love and honor, if not obey, may see things differently. A generation raised to fear promiscuity and honor respectability will place a higher value on monogamy. And couples with kids are likely to have a distinct perspective. Children refocus the libido, at least when they’re young. But I suspect that, as these gay swains age, the marriages that last will be those that respect each partner’s deepest sexual proclivities, whatever they may be.
Of course, you can incorporate your fetishes into a relationship, though it takes some fancy dancing in the long run. We’ve come up with a range of bedroom games: swooping eagle and bunny rabbit, Dutch tulip maiden and Latvian herring salesman, and my favorite, because it’s so National Enquirer: Confessions of a Praetorian Guardsman! I French-Kissed Jesus on the Cross!! (Note to readers: One of us was raised Catholic.) If heresy is what it takes to keep the funky faith, I say go for it. But I’m aware that these charades are a sign of something more profound.
As I age, new roles emerge, along with passions I never knew I possessed and sex objects I wouldn’t have noticed in my youth. There’s only so far these changes can be explored in the context of monogamy, at least that’s what we’ve concluded. And so Tony and I maintain the pattern we had when we met. He has tricks and I have affairs. My m.o. is riskier than his, because there’s always the chance of an attachment that can’t be contained. But I think risk can be a source of growth, and besides, as our wedding song proclaims: I am what I am.
I can just see this confession quoted on some fundamentalist website dedicated to casting homosexuals as terminally self-absorbed. Marriage isn’t about pleasure, they hold; it’s about God’s plan. But the question always is, who gets to divine that plan? This prompts another question, one that lies at the core of the current debate: What is marriage now?
To the gay right, it’s nothing less than the fulcrum of wholeness. Listen to what Jonathan Rauch has to say: “No other institution has the power to turn narcissism into partnership, lust into devotion, strangers into kin.” Personally, I’d like to hold on to all the narcissism, lust, and strangers I can muster, even as a married man. And I’d hate to see folks fall for the idea that marriage is necessary—or sufficient—for devotion.
In his recent book Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, Rauch maintains that being denied the right to wed is the main reason why many gays have a rough time finding love. I think he’s got it wrong. Stigmatized people don’t find it easier to love simply because they can marry. (Just check out the attitude toward intimacy in gangsta rap.) Freedom from stigma, not matrimony, is the key to wholeness. Still, the two are synergistically linked. Gays won’t have access to legal marriage until the onus against us is lifted, and the onus won’t be fully erased until we gain the right to wed. That’s why I believe marriage rights are an essential part of gay liberation—and vice versa.
Of course, homocons don’t think socially, which is why they can’t see this connection. But they do have a social agenda. Rauch contends that when we can marry, “the gay-rights era will be over and the gay-responsibility era will begin.” This sounds a lot like Andrew Sullivan’s infamous quip that, once gays win the right to wed and serve in the military, “we should have a party and close down the gay movement for good.” It doesn’t strike me as an imminent threat. Most of us understand that at some point in our lives we will come up against homophobia big-time. Being married won’t protect us, but being part of a community can—and we’re not about to give that weapon up.
What really worries me is seeing radical queers buy into the same overloaded image of matrimony that animates the homocons. They fear that by embracing this orthodox institution, gay culture will lose its capacity for subversion. That may happen, but not because we can wed. The visionary potential of any minority depends in no small part on its persecution. When that burden is lifted, banality is a real possibility. But marriage doesn’t create this condition. Nor will it turn us into Stepford spouses. If gays see normalcy as a prospect, it’s because the norm is expanding to include us. And, yes, the meaning of marriage is changing.
A third of all American women are single at the age of 30, a statistic our ancestors would find uncanny. Forty percent of children are being raised in homes without both birth parents. Many young people organize their relationships in a series of steps that may or may not culminate in a formal wedding. As these practices evolve, there will be growing pressure on the law to accommodate them. In the not too distant future, we may see a menu of options for couples, from civil unions to covenant marriages that make it hard to divorce. Gays are beneficiaries of this brave new world, but our agenda didn’t create it.
I won’t be surprised if the first reaction to legal marriage from gay couples is to replicate the most conventional behavior of straights. That’s what happens when you’re let into an exclusive club for the first time. But once these couples relax, and same-sex weddings become commonplace, my gaydar tells me that the liberationist code will assert itself in a new setting.
What is that code? You’ll find its basis in Walt Whitman’s essay “Democratic Vistas.” “The greatest lessons of Nature [are] the lessons of variety and freedom,” he wrote. That’s a pretty good standard for a democracy, but there’s a reason why Whitman is the godfather of gay liberation. We live his ideas in a special way. The values of variety and freedom have always been at the heart of homosexual society.
I don’t think marriage will change that. Some gay couples will choose picket-fence fidelity while others follow the path Tony and I have chosen, or forge an entirely different route to intimacy. That’s what freedom and variety mean in our time, and not just for queers. A lot of straights are embracing these values, too—but not without ambivalence.
Too many straight couples are caught in the conflict between the old hetero ideal of monogamy and the new lived reality. I hope gay couples don’t put themselves in a similar bind. Our tradition is flexibility—and I think this value can help our marriages endure. Indeed, the scant data from Denmark and Vermont suggest that gay and lesbian couples are more likely to stick together than are straights. One reason may be their willingness to be supple about the basis of their bond.
When this fight is won, Tony and I will show up at the marriage bureau, not because we yearn to be normal but because matrimony agrees with us. We’ve both been married before to women whom we still love. I told you we weren’t a typical gay couple. Maybe that makes this advice suspect, but I’ll give it anyway:
Hello, queer lovers, wherever you are.
You can have your wedding cake and eat it, too.
Marriage is what you make of it,
Not what it makes of you.