With Hawaii moving closer to permitting same-sex marriages and conservative Christians pushing for a Republican plank in opposition, gay marriage is suddenly in the political spotlight. But Frank Browning, author of "A Queer Geography," objects to the way the issue has been framed. Instead of trying to fit into the American definition of family, Browning tells Laura Miller, gays should be expanding it.
Why do you question the importance of legalizing same sex marriages?
What I find unsatisfying about the gay political movement's concentration on marriage is that it doesn't deal with the larger problem of family structure in America. Families are troubled. They aren't even able to hold together for the duration of their primary function now, which is to provide a nest for the rearing of children.
So you feel that the demand for same sex marriage is a request to participate in a system that isn't even working?
Yes. If we look at the Ozzie and Harriet model, these nuclear families don't seem to be carrying the load. Marriage counselors are forever pointing out that there's too much burden on this frail unit of two adults with two jobs and 2.4 children. In the traditional extended family we had a variety of intense, intimate emotional relationships of parenting, caring and nurturing so that the burden on each one was much lighter. But they were authoritarian, patriarchal and suffocating.
What do you see as a better social structure for gays and lesbians?
The question is what can we in America learn from the queer folk -- gay men and lesbians, whatever you want to call them -- who have begun to invent new kinds of extended families that include not just two but three, four, five people, some of them as much as 20 years older than others, people who aren't lovers but might have once been. You see that in AIDS care and in child-rearing. Gay and lesbian people in San Francisco have kept the health care costs of AIDS at half the rate that they are nationally by relying on these extended families. These are national issues now that the baby boomers are aging.
But doesn't the request for legalized same sex marriage address that?
Not unless we try legislation that opens up marriage on a contractual basis, so that more than two people can marry under specified terms. But not a marriage license that anyone can sign if they want to -- that's noodly and silly -- obligation is as important as personal freedom, which is what most of the discussion of gay marriage has been about.
You're talking about building responsibility, but much of gay activism in the past has been about personal liberation, something that conservatives have criticized.
That's a false characterization. It's not easy to live outside law and convention. You don't survive unless you create some kind of social cohesion. I do see something shifting in America, even with, say, second or third generation Jews, who are asking, "What does it mean to be a Jew?" Blacks are asking what it means to be black. It's not the same to be a gay person now than it was in 1966. As that shifts, then the politics of what it means to be gay shifts.
What do you see it shifting to?
Once the boot is off your face and a little off to the side, you start to ask yourself, "What do I want besides the boot off my face?" We move from identity politics to, "What kind of society do I want to live in?" Do we want an essentially tax-free society, or do we suppose that a civil society requires certain minimum expectations: literacy, schools that work. Gay people have not campaigned for schools in any large measure. Only with ACT-UP, and not for very long, did gay people talk about establishing a civilized national health care system. I'd like it to shift to where you care as much about your straight female buddy's health care as you do about legalizing same sex marriage so you can get coverage for your boyfriend, because health care is the issue, not identity.
To what do you attribute the blinkered and moribund condition of gay political organizing?
To what you see in the society at large, a lurching around for a quick fix. All too often, gay political organizations ask only one thing, "Is it good for the gays?" That means you're only subject to single issue politics. Well fine, once you get this marriage, you may not have a house to live in because you can't afford it, or a hospital to go to when you get sick. And when you have your children, you may not be able to educate them because there may not be any schools left that you have enough money to send them to.
Frank Browning is a reporter for National Public Radio and the author of the critically acclaimed "Culture of Desire." His new book, "A Queer Geography: Journeys Toward a Sexual Self," is published by Crown.
In the land of the Novy Russkie, babushkas are free to sell their medicine on the black market -- and 12-year-olds are free to buy it.
By ANDREW MEIER
MOSCOW -- "Long live May1st, the holiday of spring and labor!'' Boris Yeltsin roared Wednesday in a Red Square ceremony. "Long live the spring of changes Russia has embarked on after long years of lethargy and stagnation! Hurrah!''
Few Muscovites could summon up the same enthusiasm on this May Day, which has become less a celebration of the glory of the proletariat and more an excuse -- like America's Labor Day -- for politicians to mount the hustings. Supporters of Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov far outnumbered Yeltsin backers -- which is not surprising given the meager benefits "the spring of changes" has bestowed on the average Russian.
Signs of the economic imbalance in Russia's so-called "reforms" are everywhere. The homeless -- mostly women and children -- beg all over downtown Moscow. Thousands of babushki (elderly women) line the train stations and metro underpasses hawking Marlboros, kittens, porn tabloids, stockings -- anything that might supplement their meager pensions, which average around $25 a month, that is, when they are paid.
Meanwhile Russia's new Richie Riches -- well-muscled young men with thick wads of dollars -- cruise Moscow's nightclubs and casinos in packs, cell phones and glittering girlfriends attached to their hips.
The even richer bankers and "biznesmeny" choke Moscow's once-grand avenues with their armored entourages of Jeep Cherokees and BMWs -- bodyguards sitting cozily behind the tinted glass. Drive 20 minutes outside the city and you'll see Russia's first suburban subdivisions: rows upon rows of five-story weekend "kottedzi" (cottages) built by the "Novy Russkie" (a pun on "nouveau riches" applied by their poorer compatriots). A far cry from the wooden dachas beloved by the nomenklatura of the old Soviet regime.
Few of the nouveau riches drive down ulitsa Nikolskaya, an ancient narrow street in the center of Moscow, midway between the old KGB headquarters and Red Square. Here each day, outside Moscow's "Pharmacy No. 1," buyers whisper, "Do you have any?" and sellers respond, "How many do you need?" The sellers are hungry octogenarians with prescription medicines, their buyers teenagers with little to do but get high.
It's hard to imagine stranger trading partners than a five-foot-tall
babushka in a pink woolly beret and a 12-year-old punk-rocker wannabee in a black Sex Pistols T-shirt. The pensioners sell their medicines (for high blood pressure, arthritis and so on) to the
teenagers who mix and cook them into cheap amphetamine-like highs. The kids fill the corners and doorways for an entire square block around Pharmacy No. 1, their hands and faces bearing the scars and scabs common to speed abusers in the U.S.
"Is it expensive?" a visitor inquires. "Not when we all get together and share it," responds Petya, 14. "Do the police do anything?" "Nothing, except turn their eyes," says Petya's friend Lyona. "And the elderly here, do they feel bad about selling drugs to teenagers?" "Some probably do," offers a 16-year-old girl, Oksyana. "But after all, what choice do they have?"
Western commentators who have wondered why more Russians aren't protesting in the street over the war in Chechnya, for example, would find the answer here on ulitsa Nikolskaya. "Chechnya?" says Lyudmila, one of the few prescription-peddlers brave enough to talk to a visitor. "Are you crazy? I've got enough troubles of my own to last me until I die."
Andrew Meier, currently traveling through Russia on an Alicia
Patterson Foundation fellowship, has lived in and reported from the
former Soviet Union since the early 1990s.
Quote of the day
Banning the boob tube
"I managed to resist Barbara Walters' Friday night special on women's breasts."
-- The Rev. John E. Gibbons of the Unitarian Universalist First Parish of Bedford, Mass., in support of TV Turnoff Week, which ended Wednesday.