"Ready for dinner"
Lately straight relatives and friends have been calling to talk about Vermont and the fact that same-sex “unions” are now legal in that state. They can barely contain their excitement as they ask: “Aren’t you just thrilled? You and Liza will go and get married, won’t you?”
I hate to disappoint them. They so desperately want us to be just like they are, to aspire to nothing more nor less than legal recognition till death do us part. I couch my rejection in subjunctives: “It would be nice if we could be recognized as a family. If we were married, we would save thousands of dollars in insurance bills alone.”
But the reality is that I don’t want to marry Liza (nor she me). In fact, I’m against same-sex marriage for the same reasons I’m against all marriage.
Although we like to pretend that marriage is natural and universal, it is an institution founded in historical, material and cultural conditions that ensured women’s oppression — and everyone’s disappointment. Monogamous, heterosexual marriages were an invention of the Industrial Revolution’s emerging middle class. The Victorians created the domestic sphere in which middle-class women’s labor could be confined and unpaid. At the same time, by infusing the patriarchal family with the romance of monogamy for both parties, the Victorians reduced sexual pleasure to sexual reproduction. All other forms of sex — homosexuality, masturbation, nonreproductive sex — were strictly forbidden.
But in the American culture of the ’00s, we like to be paid for our labor and we insist on indulging in our pleasures. That’s why a truly monogamous and lifelong marriage today is as rare as a Jane Austen book that hasn’t been made into a movie.
Now don’t go getting your wedding dresses in a twist. I don’t care if you’re married, had a huge wedding, spent $15,000 on a useless dress and let your father “give you away.” I really don’t care what personal perversions people partake of in their quest for pleasure.
What annoys me is that no one, not even queers, can imagine anything other than marriage as a model for organizing our desires. In the past, we queers have had to beg, cheat, steal and lie in order to create our families. But it’s exactly this lack of state and societal recognition that gave us the freedom to organize our lives according to desire rather than convention.
Lesbians and gay men have created alliances and households and children together. Lesbians have bought sperm and used it to devious ends, gay men have explored sex as a public spectacle that is democratically available to all — and we have done this while forming intimate, lifelong allegiances with one another. And yes, many gays and lesbians, including me, have mimicked heterosexual marriage as best we could.
But why should those of us who have organized our lives in a way that looks a lot like heterosexual marriage be afforded special recognition by the government because of that? What about people who organize their lives in threes, or fours, or ones? What about my friend who is professionally promiscuous, who for ideological and psychological and sexual reasons has refused to ever be paired with anyone? What about my sister who is straight but has never in her 40-odd years seen a reason to participate in marriage? Which group will gain state recognition next? The polygamous? The lifelong celibate?
My point is not that we should do away with marriage but that we should do away with favoring some relationships over others with state recognition and privilege. Religions, not the state, should determine what is morally right and desirable in our personal lives. We can choose to be followers of those religions or thumb our noses at them. But the state has no place in my bedroom or family room, or in yours, either.
“Ah,” but you say, “the state must recognize monogamous couples as more conducive to stable families and therefore better for children.” Hello? Have you noticed that a huge number of marriages end in divorce? Even the supposedly “happy” ones aren’t necessarily cheery little islands of serenity. What were your parents like?
There is absolutely no evidence that monogamous, state-sanctioned couplings are more stable than other sorts of arrangements. Even if there were such evidence, couples should be recognized by the state only when they decide to become parents. Why should anyone get societal privileges, let alone gifts, when he or she marries for the fourth time at age 68 with no intention of ever becoming a parent?
Still, as much as I hate to admit it, I am liberal at heart. If gays and lesbians want to get married, then I don’t want to stop them. I just want to lay a couple of ground rules:
First, do not expect me to be happy. The legalization of gay marriage does not make me feel liberated as much as it makes me feel depressed. It’s sort of like getting excited about gays in the military — until I remember that I don’t really care about the military as an institution.
Second, under absolutely no circumstances should you expect me to give you a gift for such a decision. If you’re insane enough to waste money on tacky clothes and bad cake, I’m not going to underwrite your actions with a toaster oven.
Laurie Essig is a professor of sociology at Yale University and the author of "Queer in Russia" (Duke University Press, 1999).More Laurie Essig.