Saturday, August 1, 2015

Your Mama Was a Bulldagger

The San Francisco Gay Men's Salon is going to be discussing Stereotypes next month, and I've got my plane ticket and hotel room reserved.  On Thursday morning, by happy chance, Democracy Now! featured Alison Bechdel, the author of the graphic memoir Fun Home, and Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, the composer and writer, respectively, of the Broadway musical based on Bechdel's book. 

Fun Home was amazingly successful, in both its iterations.  The book won numerous awards (scroll down to Awards) and was listed as one of the best of its year by a wide range of queer and heterosexual publications, and Bechdel was awarded a Macarthur Grant.  The play won five Tony awards, and has garnered a surprising amount of media attention, with the authors and cast appearing on TV all over the place.

Fun Home (the book, anyway -- I haven't seen the play yet) is about a lot of things, and its complexity has been noticed by many readers and critics.  But it seems to me that when people are listing what it's about, they tend to leave out "stereotypes" -- which is a bit odd, when I consider that Bechdel herself is a butch lesbian, and one of the key numbers in the musical is "Ring of Keys," based on a brief but important scene in the book where very-young Alison, in a small-town diner with her closeted gay father, is riveted by the entrance of a butch woman delivery-truck driver.



When people talk about stereotypes, they almost always mean negative stereotypes.  As I wrote in this opinion piece for the IU student paper fifteen years ago, the people who seem to embody those negative stereotypes are often the Boogeymen / women who scare gay kids and keep them in the closet longer than they might have stayed otherwise.  When we speak to classes we're often asked how we feel about those stereotypes, do we think they hurt gay people and let down the cause?  Lip service is often paid to the drag queens and butch lesbian of Stonewall, but in general gay people present the sissies and bulldykes as problematic.

Until now, that is.  Bechdel always had a range of types in her decades-long comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and butch characters were presented as a part of the lesbian landscape.  But despite the strip's popularity and longevity, it never got the exposure that Fun Home has had, with a little girl singing an ode to a butch woman on national (international?) television as part of the Tony Awards ceremonies.  "Ring of Keys" also seems to be one of the standout numbers from the musical, and other performers are picking it up for recitals and auditions, to judge by what is turning up on Youtube.  (Another song from the show that's catching on is "I'm Changing My Major to Joan," in which college-age Alison celebrates her first sexual experience.)

Fun Home's composer Jeanine Tesori told the Tony Awards audience that "'Ring of Keys,' ... by the way, is not a song of love, it’s a song of identification, because, for girls, you have to see it to be it."  But Alison Bechdel told Democracy Now's Nermeen Shaikh:
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Alison, one of the things that you’ve said about the performance of this song is that having a child singing about desire in this interesting way is also revolutionary.
ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah, I mean, desire and identification, and the complex relationship between those things. We don’t want to think that children have sexualities, and so that feels very revolutionary, that this kid is discovering this part of herself.
Presenting a stolid butch woman as an object of desire is transgressive whether the desiring person is a child or an adult, and I think that's the most revolutionary thing about this song.  It's not at all the same thing as, say, Ru Paul's Drag Race, where (from what I've seen) it's more or less taken for granted that a drag queen is an object of desire because he's dressed and made-up and moves and performs in conventionally feminine ways.  I'm not the right person to say, of course, because I'm not at all fascinated by these tropes of glamor and beauty; I know very well that many people, probably the majority, love them.  And I think that whatever my own feelings, it's important to remember that contrary to the demonization of the sissy, effeminate males appeal to many people, men and women alike.
 
My own "ring of keys" figure was the early Captain Kangaroo (notice the jingling ring of keys the Captain wields as he opens the Treasure House each morning).  I think I exaggerate these traits in hindsight, but it seems to me that the Captain was a great male role model for little boys, with his gentle voice and the kangaroo-like pouches of his jacket pockets.  He did semi-drag at times, putting on a frilly apron to dust the Treasure House, but it was the absence of machismo in his character that I liked about him.

Myself, I like to think that the woman who so impressed young Alison was a mother, maybe even heterosexual.  Smash those stereotypes!  I'm thinking of the story the poet Minnie Bruce Pratt tells in S/He about her lesbian friends' reaction to her mother:
But my friends are interested in something else: "We expected a little white lady in gloves. You didn't tell us your mama's a bulldagger!"

She has been the woman who sat at the grey kitchen table with me and my father, her child and her husband. She was always the one next to the stove, within reach of the pot of field peas, more cornbread. I'm so used to this that I saw her hands simply as feminine, though they are huge, capable with iron mattock or steel knitting needles. I'm so used to her height and bulk, her sneakers and windbreaker, her taciturnity and her ease with women, that I've never noticed how much she looks like the white-headed coach of a women's softball team [54].
Oh, I suppose it's more likely than not that the woman young Alison admired was lesbian, given the times -- it would have been the mid-1960s -- though from what writers on the butch-femme experience have said, many hard butches had to be supported by their femmes because no one would hire them.  But any woman who, however anonymously, had a job driving a truck and delivering food to restaurants would have had to dress in a "masculine" way.  Especially in those days, any woman who wasn't wearing a housedress or heels and a string of pearls would have been perceived as a roaring butch anyway.  I wonder if the adult Alison Bechdel, if she could see that woman again, would perceive her the way she did as a child; maybe so, since her father clearly did.

I think it was DOB honchos Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon who observed, in their 1972 book Lesbian / Woman, that if you see a stomping butch in jeans, hiking boots, and backpack on the Appalachian trail, she'll probably have a husband and children with her; the lesbians will be tottering along in capri pants and flimsy shoes, trying to look feminine and fit into society. Besides, butch lesbians did become mothers with surprising frequency, as a surprising number of drag queens I've known became fathers. 

I suspect that the connection between desire and identification tends to be severed after puberty, often forcibly though not always or completely.  That's another stereotype: if we see someone who fascinates us, it must mean we want to copulate with them, right?  Or its flip side: I'm not gay, I don't want to have sex with that fascinating person, I just admire them and maybe identify with them.  The complex relationship between identification and desire, is, by the way, an important theme of Bechdel's (as opposed to Kron and Tesori's) Fun Home, with Bruce Bechdel wanting to be girly.  Though he shares Alison's admiration for stylish male clothing, he discourages her interest in it by pointing out that it would sit poorly on her budding adolescent breasts; mostly he tries to make her into the girl he wants, or thinks he wants, to be.  The adult Bechdel comments in retrospect that she wanted to be the well-dressed man, not to have him.  Yet she desired girly girls powerfully, without wanting to be them.  After she came out, though she had some butch-on-butch relationships (according to some of her earlier autobiographical work) with other women.

What makes Fun Home so rich is this ambivalence, this awareness of the contradictions in all the characters and in the story's creator.  (Creatrix?)  Bechdel has always talked about her own ambivalence about becoming mainstreamed; I worry that as the Fun Home phenomenon spreads inward from the margins and occupies the vast center, its complexity will be eroded, dissipated, lost.  (I also worry that it will become the Token Lesbian Success, as Brokeback Mountain was the Token Gay Male Success: oh, we don't need to do another lesbian play on Broadway, let alone a musical: It's Been Done to death.)  If that happens, it won't be the fault of Bechdel or of Kron and Tesori, it'll be the fault of people who lazily and reflexively fall back on stereotypes, which must then be disassembled and deconstructed over and over again.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Fit to Be Stereotyped

Today got hectic, so I wasn't able to finish the post I began.  It's just as well, though, because I realized I wanted to cite in it an article I wrote for the student newspaper fifteen years ago.  (I'm surprised I haven't republished it here before.)   So here is that older piece, and with luck, I'll be citing it in tomorrow's post.
I'm walking on uncertain ground here, so please bear with me. Gay people have made much progress during the past 30 years, but one thing is pretty much the same as ever: fear and loathing of the Stereotype. It turns up often in coming-out stories: "I didn't want to be gay, because there was this Stereotype of how gay people were supposed to act; and I wasn't like that, so I told myself I wasn't gay until I realized you didn't have to fit the Stereotype to be gay..."

Fair enough. I don't wish to minimize the fears and pain of so many gay kids, and I certainly agree that there is no single way a gay person must act. But that's just the trouble. Many people think there is a single way a gay person must act, conforming as much as possible to the sex-role (or "gender," to use the newer jargon) norms of American society. Those who can't or won't do so are condemned for fitting the Stereotype, giving us a bad name, and hurting the cause. The standard coming-out story I quoted earlier excludes those gay people who don't conform to prescribed sex roles, the sissy boys and the butch girls -- or rather, it includes them only as the Stereotypes who scared other "normal" gay kids.

Some people might imagine that such kids come to terms with their sexuality more easily. After all, they embody the Stereotype, so they don't feel any conflict, right? Maybe for some of them it works like that, but not for all. They are targeted by parents, teachers, child psychologists and, of course, by other kids for not acting as they should. The psychiatric establishment has declared that homosexuality is not an illness, and repudiated attempts to change sexual orientation -- but not gender nonconformity, especially in children, who still are considered fair game for mental health professionals. The amazing thing is that so many resist from earliest childhood; author Phyllis Burke has documented this in her important book Gender Shock.

But the relentless pressure and (all too often) abuse take their toll. The gay movement has publicized the high rate of suicide among gay teens almost to the point of romanticizing it, but what is seldom mentioned is that many, perhaps most of the gay kids who kill themselves are gender nonconformists. It doesn't appear that such kids have an easier time of it, or feel better about themselves -- instead they feel doubly stigmatized.

To add to the confusion, the science which claims a biological basis for homosexuality assumes that gay men are biologically feminized and lesbians masculinized. (Where bisexuals fit in, I don't know.) From neuroscientist Simon LeVay, who found that gay men have the hypothalamus of a woman in the body of a man, to researchers who believe that lesbians got an extra dose of testosterone in the womb, the underlying model of sex and gender has changed little since the 1800s. Ironically, this primitive model is widely embraced by gender-conformist gays, who miss its implication: that gender nonconformity is the essence of being gay.

Let me stress as firmly as possible: I reject the biological model of homosexuality, and I am not telling gender-conformist gay kids they ought to take up drag or leather. I'm trying to point out a fundamental contradiction in the advice we give people in the process of coming out.  I don't have any answers to offer. I only have what I think is a very important question: How can we help gay kids to like themselves better without demonizing those who are gender nonconformist? Something is terribly wrong when sissy boys and butch girls are portrayed as the horrible stereotypes whose example keeps other gay kids terrified in their closets. Until we address this issue and try to find solutions, gay adolescents will continue to suffer.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

This Man Must Be a Prophet - He Just Told Me Everything I've Ever Done

... One day you are peacefully reading in your house when a friend drops by and says: "What a lot of books you have!"  This sounds to you as if he were saying: "How intelligent you are!" and the damage has been done.  You know the rest.  You begin to count your books by the hundreds, then by the thousands, and feel more and more intelligent.  As the years pass (unless you really are a poor unfortunate idealist) you generally have greater economic resources at your disposal, have frequented more bookstores, and naturally, have become a writer and consequently own so many books you are no longer simply intelligent: At heart you are a genius.  This is at the root of your pride in owning so many books.
 -- Augusto Monterroso, "How I Got Rid of Five Hundred Books," in Complete Works and Other Stories, University of Texas Press, 1995, pages 118-19.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Triumph of the Trump

I'm traveling again, and staying in a motel, so I'm seeing more TV news than usual.  The Donald Trump campaign has been getting a lot of attention.  Even the Chinese restaurant in my home town had their TVs tuned to Fox News, featuring Trump at the border, trying to look like a regular guy in a baseball cap.

I liked what Amanda Marcotte had to say about the whole depressing spectacle.
At this point, there is no doubt that the ongoing love for Donald Trump on display by the Republican base really says something about said base. Certainly, it makes it that much harder to buy the generous argument that the conservative base is a bunch of white people who have been manipulated through genius trickery into voting against their own economic interests, and makes it clear that we’re looking at bullies who would rather burn the country to the ground than share it with people they hate for utterly irrational reasons.
This gave me something to think about, however.
[Trump] is saying “forbidden” things that the “liberal elite” hates. Indeed, that structure pushes their buttons so hard that the actual content of the “forbidden” things hardly matters. All that matter is the “liberal elite” hates them and that other Republicans—deemed cowards—speak out against him. He could be screeching incoherent nonsense and as long as it seemed hateful and the “liberal elite” hates it, the base will love him.
It occurred to me, and not for the first time, that if the "liberal elite" really wanted to frustrate Trump, let alone to counter him, the sensible thing would be not to react to him as they do.  Oh, how can you say such awful things!?  is a perfectly idiotic way for liberals, or anyone, to respond to right-wing provocations.  In the first place, it's just the reaction that Trump, Coulter, O'Reilly, and their ilk hope to inspire; why give them what they want?  If liberals are as much smarter than right-wingers as they love to believe they are, why not come up with clever retorts that will frustrate them, instead of gratifying them?  (There is, of course, a whole line of posts in the liberal blogosphere that tout someone giving some dumb Republican his comeuppance -- Person X Shreds / Destroys / Disembowels Conservative Y With One Well-Chosen Word -- but the ones I've seen don't amount to much.  But even if they were better, my point is that that's how liberals should always respond.

In the second place, I think that liberals like reacting as they do.  It lets them feel morally superior to the awful, awful, conservatives.  And then there's the satisfying, soul-cleansing rush of the ragegasm, an addiction of many all over the political spectrum.  I don't mean to rule out emotion altogether, but throwing a tantrum -- especially a tantrum that delights your opponents because it's what they hoped to produce, as proof that they're right -- is not a constructive, let alone intelligent or rational, way to deal with conflict.

In the third place, I suspect that one reason for the emotional reaction is that many liberals, deep down inside, are attracted by people like Trump and Reagan and Bush and Goldwater. It was instructive, right after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, to see how many liberals used him as a human shield, moving toward the right and saying that it was okay because they weren't as bad as Reagan, but you had to admit that some of what he said made sense. Which it didn't, of course.  There was some of the same self-congratulatory pleasure in (believing that they were) going against the grain, boldly defying the (supposedly) conventional wisdom about war, poverty, race, feminism, reproductive rights, gay people, and so on.  Which is why, when Bill Clinton became president in 1992, he could work for Reaganite policies as a Democrat.  Obama is another example of the syndrome.

About 90% of what I see about Trump from my liberal and progressive friends on Facebook is in that vein: He's so awful! He's so stupid!  His hair is stupid! Though they aren't quite sure why he's awful and stupid.  Wouldn't it be nice if there was a Democratic candidate equivalent to Trump -- and I don't mean the cautious and moderate Bernie Sanders -- who could perform the same service for liberals?  Is there a significant segment of the Democratic base that would go wild for a clown who called for stringing up capitalists and priests from every lamppost?  And would the corporate media give as much attention to such a person as they give to Donald Trump?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

In the Beginning Was the Word

Maybe I overuse the "X for me, Not-X for thee" template, but it encompasses so much bad faith that it's hard to resist.  Yesterday a queer friend of mine posted one of those "Labels are for cans, not for people" memes.  I have at least two reactions to this slogan; one is that you can't really have language without labels; the other is that the people who claim to dislike labels actually like them quite a lot: first for other people, but also for themselves.

For other people there are labels like: homophobe, transphobe, bigot, Bible-thumper, so-called Christians, redneck, and so on.  That leaves aside the more straightforwardly abusive neologisms, often constructed with the -tard suffix: theotard, Republitard, Reichtard, and so on.  These latter have their right-wing counterparts (libtard, etc.), but for the moment I'm talking about people who'd consider themselves liberal, rational, compassionate, loving, open-minded.  More labels, of course.

For themselves, the labels proliferate.  I was recently invited to give a presentation on LGBT history in the area, and while putting it together I was struck by how many labels were coined in the late nineteenth century -- invert, Urning, Uranian, homosexual, androgyne, third sex, etc.  These were words that sex/gender nonconformists invented for ourselves, or adopted for our use.  When I was newly out forty-some years ago, gay men were fond of labeling sexual acts and roles: French active/passive, Greek active/passive, and an older man laid out for me a full list of nationalities linked to sexual practices.  We were also fond of constructions based on "queen": chicken queen, closet queen, opera queen, and (my favorite) fish queen.  (I liked "fish queen" not because of its misogyny but because it incorporated straight men into its taxonomy, classifying them as homosexuals so twisted that they were queer for women.)  Lesbians of the period had their own system: butch, femme, butchy-femme, soft butch, and so on.  I don't know how much of this is still current, but similar self-labeling is certainly going on today: pansexual, asexual, demisexual, genderqueer, transman, transwoman, and so on.

Just a few weeks ago, Caitlyn Jenner's "I am a woman" pull quote was all over the media, and none of the anti-label people got on her case for labeling herself: indeed, they celebrated and defended her.  In this case too, the label is a moving target: "man" and "woman" are meaningless social constructions on one hand, and pre-existent, pre-social benchmarks that define who one is.

I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing.  It's the hypocrisy, the doublethink, of those who claim to reject labels but use them anyway that I'm criticizing here.

I'm presently working my way through a collection of stories by Vincent Czyz, Adrift in a Vanishing City (Vanishing Mountain Press, 2015).  In one story, the French narrator reflects on another character who's labeled a pédé (location 2061 of the Kindle edition):
We French also say pedale, homosexual, tante, de la jacquette flottante – he whose jacket blows lightly behind him – not much else.  It is not the big deal of snow to the Eskimos who have 50 or 60 words for it to distinguish between wet, powdery, crusted, high drifts and so on.  Americans must hold most sacred of all the homosexual since they have any number of words for it – fairy, fag, tinkerbell, queer, three-dollar bill, limp-wrist, homo, fruit, pansy, queen, flit – imagine if my English were up to date.
(I wonder how true it is that French has relatively few words for men who take it up the butt; I doubt it, but my French isn't good enough for me to say. I do know that Spanish has a rich supply of such labels, rivaling what we have in English.)  Even if it were true that Eskimos "have 50 or 60 words" for snow, the variety of American terms for queer men wouldn't be the same kind of thing.  They aren't a taxonomy to enable fine-grained distinctions between varieties of homosexual, they're a ragbag of epithets for the same supposed species.  Some are abusive epithets used by ostensibly heterosexual culture cops, others are self-classifications invented and used by queers ourselves, some moved from one side to the other and back again.  As I mentioned above, though, queers are fond of proliferating labels for ourselves, which sometimes distinguish and sometimes lump us all together.  Unless you're still an adherent of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis -- and I think a lot of laypeople are, especially in its more deterministic forms -- I don't think there's much to be learned from the existence of all those terms.

On the other hand, I think the linguist Tim Machan's reflections on language change are interesting.  From Language Anxiety: Conflict and Change in the History of English (Oxford, 2009, digital edition):
Indeed, as Labov has noted, language actually points to conclusions that oppose natural selection: ‘the major agent of linguistic change – sound change – is actually maladaptive, in that it leads to the loss of the information that the original forms were designed to carry’.  More generally, change and variation are responsible for a great many socially debilitating situations.  They produce mutually unintelligible languages and their attendant barriers to communication, the communication, the communicative obstacles that even regional variation can present, and the sociolinguistic drive to instruct generation after generation of students in the details of spelling, punctuation, and usage, which are never internalized and transmitted to subsequent generations in some Lamarckian fashion.  In view of the tumult of history and the blame placed on inadequate communication, I would venture that if there truly is a general drive to optimal communication, it has failed miserably.
Back to the desirability of labels, then.  It could be argued that labeling impedes communication, but it seems to me that the people who refuse certain labels (while, remember, embracing others) aren't really worried about that.  Inventing new labels in the name of rejecting labels is hardly an improvement in the communication department.

Take the rejection of the label "gay," which I've written about before.  I'm fascinated by the reasons people give for rejecting it.  They may see it as a pejorative, which is understandable but not so much when they want to replace it with something like "queer."  Again, from the way such people talk, they seem to believe that the word "gay" is inherently and essentially negative, which it wasn't always; sometimes they claim to prefer "queer" because it's somehow indeterminate, though given the negative baggage that attaches to it historically, this explanation makes no sense.  It sometimes is expressed precisely as a refusal to communicate, because of the supposed indeterminacy of "queer": I have my own personal special-snowflake definition of what it means, which I might or might not share with you.  Well, to each his or her own.  Take the African-American graduate student I mentioned in another post, who rejected "gay" because in his mind it referred to two "cis" men together; presumably he thought "queer" doesn't have this denotation.  But "gay" doesn't mean that: its use during most of the twentieth century involved a lot of gender nonconformity and gendered division of sexual labor.  The same goes for "homosexual," which (conflated with "gay") supposedly involves "two individuals who are of the same sex and the same gender," though in fact gender nonconformity is associated with homosexuality both at the popular and at the academic level.  (There's also the notion of "a (postmodern) gay ideology, in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation."  This, as I've argued before, involves a basic confusion about the "ideology.")

Another common factor in the rejection of "gay" or any other label is stigma: people will look down on me if I say I'm gay.  Another student who preferred not to label himself on a recent classroom panel explained that he called himself "gay," or even "bisexual," people would misunderstand and think things about him that weren't true.  He didn't specify what those untrue things were.  Of course if he didn't label himself, people would also think things about him that weren't true.  They might believe him to be exclusively heterosexual, for example, or they might label him "faggot" or "punk," no matter how many women he also dates.  And often the trouble with those "misunderstandings" that people worry about is that they aren't misunderstandings at all.  I sympathize completely with the ambivalence other people feel about adopting a stigmatized identity; though they often refuse to believe it, I felt exactly the same way before I came out.  But the only way I know of to counter these misunderstandings is to face them and counteract them, as best we can.  If someone has stereotypes about gay people (and let me remind you, gay people also have stereotypes about gay people!), you won't get them to give their stereotypes up by pretending to be straight.  To add to the fun, many of the people who fear "misunderstandings" involving stereotypes do their best to embody the stereotypes when they do come out.  I can understand and sympathize with that too, but it's a consequence of the prior denial.

Labels can be misused, and I argue that this historical ignorance and self-serving, inconsistent rejection of labels constitutes misuse, because of the confusion that it engenders, probably by design.  There's no foolproof way to avoid confusion, stereotyping, historical baggage, or the limitations of labels; you just have to try to deal with these matters as best you can, in conversation with others, educating yourself and them as you go.  You won't get anywhere by refusing to use labels, because people will go on using them around you, like it or not.  So you must engage with others -- and don't assume that you already know everything and they know nothing.  As human beings using labels, we can't avoid using them altogether; we must learn to use them as well as we can.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Comes a Watchman; or, Mockingbird Rations Have Been Raised Again

How intriguing.  Now that Go Set a Watchman has actually been published, all I'm seeing is a bunch of posts and articles explaining why it should never have been published, that it's unfinished, that Lee never wanted to publish it, that the poor old lady was pressured or coerced into publishing it, and so on and on.  Which may well be true.  But just a few days ago -- right up until publication day -- I was seeing nothing but how exciting it was, how it was going to shed a whole new light on Scout and Atticus, it was going to give us whiter whites and brighter teeth and OMG isn't it wonderful that we're finally going to get a new novel from the mysterious and selfish Harper Lee?  Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia!

(Am I going to read it?  Probably not anytime soon.  I have stacks of books around the apartment that need my attention first.)

Friday, July 10, 2015

As Easy as Stepping on a Rake

I'm a firm believer in the usefulness of debate.  One of its uses is to help figure out what the issues are.  It's easy to become so obsessed with the formulation of a question that you develop tunnel vision and forget that the question can be asked in different ways, and that there are more than two sides in an important disagreement.  This is why the audience of a debate is at least as important as the debaters themselves.  As I've often said, the purpose of a debate is not for one of the debaters to persuade the other that his or her position is wrong, but to inform the spectators, so that they can better evaluate the controversy.

I had it in mind to apply this point to the current controversy over the Confederate battle flag, but then I read a post on same-sex marriage -- or rather, on marriage in general -- by Amanda Marcotte at Rawstory.  Marcotte tries to administer a dope-slap to reactionary opponents of same-sex marriage:
Basically, their real concern is that people are going to stop seeing marriage as a miserable duty to be endured and instead start thinking that love, happiness, and companionship should be what marriage is about. The marriage-for-love mentality is no doubt especially threatening to some of your more sexist men. There’s already a lot of fear that women prefer singleness to being with a man who isn’t loving and supportive. That’s what all that hand-wringing about single motherhood and singleness generally is about—anger that women might actually have standards and not just marry the first guy who will take them.
She then quotes Mike Huckabee speaking on CNN:
“Regardless, heterosexual marriage is largely in trouble today because people see it as a selfish means of pleasing self, rather than a committed relationship in which the focus is on meeting the needs of the partner,” he said. “That sense of selfishness and the redefinition of love as to something that is purely sentimental and emotional, has been destructive.”
Marcotte then denounces
this bleak view where marriage is about cosmic duty, not about being happy. In fact, there’s a suspicion of happiness underlying this, a belief that if you’re enjoying your relationship, you must be doing something wrong.
Jeez, where did Marcotte ever get the idea that marriage is about love and happiness?  She really should check out the century or more of feminist analysis and critique of marriage, and then all the research that found that the only people less unhappy than married women are unmarried men.  This research was cited by mostly male reactionaries to attack feminism (women totally owe it to men to sacrifice their happiness to propping up the male ego!), but that doesn't discredit the evidence.  This article sums up First Wave feminism's take on marriage, though it probably stereotypes Second-Wave feminism unfairly.  The best-known Second Wave critics of marriage are probably Shulamith Firestone and Ellen Willis.  The situation has changed slightly as married women gained more autonomy and have had their own outside-the-home jobs, and could control their own money -- which, perhaps oddly to this mindset, means that having a job makes you happier.

And then there's the "marriage equality" movement itself, which has made a big deal about all the zillions of "rights" that married people get.  Special rights, of course.  Right after the latest Supreme Court ruling I had an educational exchange on Facebook with a marriage-equality devotee who flatly angrily denied that the movement was about anything but Love!  Like, what part of "Love Wins" didn't I understand?

Marriage is not about equality: it's about inequality.  It privileges certain couples -- those who are registered with the State -- over other, unregistered couples, to say nothing of single people.  Marriage is, and always has been, about property, not about love, and certainly not happiness.  From what I see, most of my younger acquaintances, especially the gay ones, are really interested in having a wedding.  Preferably a big expensive spectacle of a wedding, like in the movies.  Preferably in a church, which is going to frustrate them when they learn that they can't force a church to be the soundstage for their spectacle.  How are they supposed to get a viral Youtube video and website out of their wedding if they can't have it in a church?
"We loved the T-Mobile advert spoof of Wills and Kate's wedding," [NIna, 28, the bride] said.

"Ever since I saw that I've always fancied giving it a go."
Back in the Seventies when I first began to realize that I preferred being single, I was bemused when to find that my coupled friends (mostly lesbians at the time) were saying that they needed to find me a nice boyfriend, so I'd be happy like they were.  When I replied that being in a couple hadn't made me happy, they would change their tune: Well, you're not supposed to be happy!  Being in a relationship is hard work!  You'll be miserable, but it's good for you! You're just selfish! ... and so on.  Bear in mind, they weren't talking about legal marriage (not available then to same-sex couples anywhere) or civil union or domestic partnership, but just about having a boyfriend.  Ironically, they succeeded in confirming my sense that being coupled was not for me.  For them, maybe, but not for me.  (A few years later, all those would-be matchmakers had broken up with their partners.  They found new ones, of course.)

Since then I've often observed that people to tend to stay in relationships long after after those relationships are making them miserable -- for fear of being thought a quitter, or immature, or selfish, or a failure -- or for fear of being alone.  Again, the propaganda that pervades the Culture of Therapy encourages those fears.  It isn't only old fundamentalist males who say this stuff.  And civil marriage makes getting out of a bad relationship even harder, as it's meant to.

Not only does marriage not equal love, love doesn't equal marriage.  I love many people; I'm not even theoretically interested in marrying most of them.  (My niece, my friends, my grandnephews, etc. -- but not my sex partners either.)  "Love" is a multivalent and confusing concept in many cultures, not just ours; often it's an outright euphemism for erotic desire or for copulation.  Equating love with marriage is propaganda, as is linking it to happiness.  One reason so many marriages fail is that people have unrealistic expectations about the institution -- again, it's not just old religious people who say this, it's a staple of the Culture of Therapy.   But what are realistic expectations?  Inflating the importance of marriage or even just of couplehood, making romantic love a prerequisite for happiness, is patriarchal propaganda.

But all this is the easy part, I think.  It's easy to mistake Amanda Marcotte for a radical: she's brassy, confrontational, and she talks dirty.  But confusing tone with content is usually a mistake. Her stated position here makes it explicit that she stands in the liberal tradition of the atomized individual.  "There is no such thing as society," Margaret Thatcher infamously said, "there are individual men and women and there are families."  Obviously Thatcher drew different conclusions from that premise than Marcotte and many other liberals do: that doctrine can be used to rationalize a wide variety of positions.  Mike Huckabee would probably be shocked to learn that Christianity as represented in the New Testament is an individualistic (though not liberal) cult, as religions of salvation usually are.  Jesus' teaching focused on the safety of the individual, who must be prepared to break and defy with all the institutions of his society -- family, marriage, religion, state -- in order to get into the Kingdom of Heaven.  As the Confederates found with their doctrine of states' rights, the early Christians had to contain this doctrine immediately if they were to survive as an institution themselves: the apostle Paul's letters show him balancing the freedom of the individual against the rest of the community (conceptualized as the Body of Christ), under his authority as Christ's deputy.  But the early Christian communities could only be built by taking individuals away from already-existing communities.  It's worth remembering that although most early Christians probably married, Jesus' and Paul's exaltation of sexual abstinence encouraged and empowered many people to reject marriage -- especially women.

You can't have individuals without community, or a community without individuals, and social history can usefully be read as an account of the tension between those poles.  Propaganda for same-sex marriage has cited the importance of social recognition and acceptance of Our Relationships.  Which, ironically, confirms the complaint of many opponents of SSM that ratifying same-sex civil marriage forces not just them but everyone to endorse those relationships against their religious principles.  You can make an argument that this isn't so, but the proponents of SSM tend to flipflop after having done so, and demand social acceptance and support from everybody for their marriages.  Civil marriage isn't about individual happiness, it's a social and political construct social order, and it can enable or obstruct individual happiness.

Individual choices are not (necessarily) determined by social or cultural forces, but they are pressured and limited by them.  The choices we make are limited by the options available, the rewards for compliance and the penalties for noncompliance.  So the question still has be asked, quoting Ellen Willis quoting Rosalind Petchesky: Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice?  I agree with Marcotte's insistence that women have a right to choose their partners and relationships, to draw lines within their relationships to preserve their autonomy, and that men have no right to demand that women make all the concessions and provide all the service.  But she should consider the question whether (especially civil) marriage civil marriage, despite the reforms that have been enacted in parts of the West, is a gateway or an obstacle to personal happiness.

But, you know, if Firestone and Willis are too radical for you, there's always Nancy Polikoff's excellent and moderate Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage.  Simply negating the demands of the religious patriarchs isn't the only way to refute them, and such negation has a tendency to snap back and hit you in the face.