Defenseless Marriage

I have to start this piece with a sort of humbling retraction. A few months ago, I wrote an essay for this blog about the recall of three Iowa Supreme Court justices due to their having ruled in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in that state. I also remarked on the fact that, despite a red tide giving Republicans majorities in state legislatures across the country, Democrats in my adoptive home state of Illinois kept their grip on power in Springfield:

“How’d they do that, in a year when 19 state legislatures flipped from blue to red? Some of it was old-fashioned machine politics, but a lot of it was done by strategically deferring any potentially unpopular vote on anything that really mattered until after the election. … One controversial vote that isn’t likely to make it through is on SB 1716, the bill that would allow gay couples the same rights as straight ones.”

It is with pleasure that I dig into a steaming plate of crow on this one: in January, Governor Quinn signed a law legalizing civil unions in Illinois, which passed both houses during that very lame-duck period. I read the tea leaves pretty wrong on that one — although given my confident proclamation that Harriet Miers would be confirmed to the Supreme Court, I’m starting to think I should get out of the business of political predictions altogether.

In fact, it was another red-letter date in the struggle for marriage equality last week, when the Justice Department announced it would no longer stand up for the Defense of Marriage Act in federal courts. After two years of gay-rights groups wondering where the president’s leadership on their cause was, the decision was widely hailed among equality advocates; Marriage Equality USA called it a “watershed moment,” Freedom to Marry thanked Obama for the “excellent news.”

These victories, coming in a relatively short span of time, were of course exciting. But they also reminded me of a nagging qualm I’ve had with the way the marriage equality battle has been fought, the danger of which I’m not sure is monumental but I think at least bears remark.

The success of the movement for wider acceptance of homosexual relationships has been thanks to a gradual, at times painfully slow process of reassuring the general public that gay people are no different from you or me. Gay characters and couples appeared more and more frequently on TV and in movies. More and more cultural icons came out of the closet and didn’t suddenly turn into hyper-promiscuous sex-dungeon-keepers. And the institutions that fought for gay rights, and the court cases that lobbied for them, foregrounded ordinary American families, working hard, raising kids — families that happened to have a same-sex couple at either end of the table. Here’s the gay couple at the PTA meeting, there’s the lesbians at the grocery store, and slowly the needle of public opinion starts to move.

This strategy is neither misleading nor, it seems to me, lacking in effectiveness. I think my generation’s perspective on homosexual couples is as completely shifted from my parents’ as theirs was from their own parents about interracial ones — we’ve moved from at best an uneasy, halting acceptance to, by and large, an everyday unthinking acceptance.

But the voices of academia that still bounce around in my head, though fainter with every passing day since graduation, still cry foul when they witness this kind of normalizing process. By insisting that gay couples are also “normal,” doesn’t that rely on a category of “abnormal” against which to define itself?

In some ways, gay-rights groups can sound almost as conservative as the religious right when they talk about marriage: the argument that gay couples are as capable as straight ones of upholding the venerable traditions of the institution of marriage continues to venerate that exclusive institution. These groups are explicitly not trying to radically transform marriage — but without doing that, won’t it continue to be an exclusive club, allowing some entry and denying it to others? Leaning on an idea of the “normal” married couple or family is precisely a process of exclusion, and herein lies the danger.

What might seem like sort of abstract intellectualizing is made very real by an essay called “Sexual Reorientation” by Liz Glazer, a Hofstra Law professor and a dear if distant friend. (Liz, if you read this, I miss you, babe. Are you in town? Let’s talk.)

Glazer talks about the phenomenon, identified by scholar Kenji Yoshino, called “bisexual erasure.” Bisexuals are a precise example of one of the groups left in the cold of the non-normal by the fight for same-sex marriage, a group strategically overlooked and, intentionally or otherwise, excluded from the discussion.

To illustrate this point, Glazer looks at the testimony of Sandy Stier, the partner of Kris Perry, in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case challenging California’s Proposition 8. Stier had been married to a man who died. As a widow, she met Kris Perry, a woman, and fell in love. She testified that she had loved her husband when she married him, so Ted Olson, an attorney for the plaintiff, asked her how she could be so sure she was actually gay. “Well, I’m convinced, because at 47 years old I have fallen in love one time and it’s with Kris,” she replied.

Both Olson’s question and Stier’s response are emblematic of the problem of bisexual erasure, and the problem with the strategy of the pro-equality movement. Olson is insisting, and Stier is confirming, that she has picked a side, that her relationship with a woman is the product of a fundamental fact of her identity — homosexuality — and not just a passing fancy, a love truer than the one she was capable of sharing with her husband. This completely precludes the possibility of bisexuality, the possibility that she might be attracted to both sexes and simply have found a second partner she’d be willing to spend the rest of her life with.

That’s not to insist (Glazer points out) that Stier is actually bi and just doesn’t know it; it’s only to say that such a possibility is completely ignored in the discussions around gay marriage. Lifelong attraction to the same sex is as acceptable as attraction to the opposite sex — homosexual couples and heterosexual couples should be equal — but anything in the middle, anything that threatens to erode those two pillars of conformity, is off-limits. Bisexuality is seen in this debate as at worst a myth, and at best a passing phase that ultimately leads to one pole or the other. Those identifying as bisexual (to say nothing of transgendered or intersex people) are left with no ground to stand on.

So, now’s the point in the essay where I bring it home with an emotional connection to my personal life. There’s the rub: I’m not gay, or bisexual. In fact, I’m not a member of any group that’s historically been denied its civil rights in this country (except for non-land-owners). So it’s easy for me to armchair-philosophize on pushing for more inclusiveness, or a more radical re-imagining of traditions like marriage. I don’t have much skin in the game. Meanwhile, with shades of Martin-versus-Malcolm, pro-equality groups point to the successes of the go-slow, pragmatic approach, and they’re very tangible and real and meaningful: my friends, my brother, my neighbors, my boss, all can now partake in the same privileges as I can here in Illinois when we find a partner we want to spend our lives with. These are achievements I would be a callous bastard to scoff at.

But, grains of salt taken, I think it’s important to be sure that as we fight to alter an institution like marriage, that we’re actually tearing the walls down, and not building them again just farther out, encompassing more territory but still equally as high.

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8 Responses to “Defenseless Marriage”
  1. Ellis says:

    “(except for non-land-owners).” I lol’ed.

    Great piece Will. It makes me think that we need a big fat amendment (or a highlighting of an existing passage) in the constitution that says “If you’re an adult, you can do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” We don’t need to allow or “normalize” gay marriage specifically, we just need to reaffirm that every adult can do whatever phe wants.

  2. George says:

    wonderful to see you on the webs, guzzardi. i would imagine the emphasis on lifelong attraction has to do with the ol family institution, and maybe thats not so bad.

  3. Liz Glazer says:

    Will, you are both sweet and smart–I would same-sex-marry you any day, if only you were a member of my same sex. The link to my paper is much appreciated. I will get you the newly revised paper within the next day or 2, when that will go live, as well.

    See you soon, I hope.


  4. Isabel says:

    Amen, brother.

    Er, I mean, son.

  5. Josh Sharp says:

    Huzzah, Will!

  6. Rob says:

    Great piece. Reminds me of that essay by Mark Greif, “On Repressive Sentimentalism,” which parallels the logic of this piece, but in a more extreme (and at times, less convincing) way. Greif argues that gay marriage (in fact, monogamy in general) constrains “erotic sociality”(by which I think he means deep erotic feelings among friends) and tames what was once wild and liberated about gay culture:

    “To marry is the closest adult thing to making your eyes big, your forehead rounded, and your hands into adorable little paws. Look at hubby-wubby! It is so responsible. It says that your desire is not for pleasure or fun, it is for ?tting in. It is for the maintenance of what already is. How can you refuse these sweet-natured, utterly ordinary and gentle people—gay marriage-ists—who want to sacri?ce themselves to this really rather miserably difficult institution, one which doesn’t even work well for straights, who have it so easy? Opposing gay marriage is like denying the wishes of people who want to feed your pets or take out your garbage. For moderates, on the fence about bigotry, it really will be too cute to deny.”

  7. Sam says:

    Love your last sentence.

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