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Over the rainbow
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
BY MICHAEL BRONSKI


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 US 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.

 

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Issue Date: August 1 - August 7, 2003
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