Sunday, December 25, 2011

It Takes a Fairy Tale Wedding to Make Something Tacky

Somebody who styles himself "the gay and lesbian community of Minnesota" has written an open letter to a homophobe who claims that it was the spectre of gay marriage that caused her to engage in an "inappropriate relationship" with another heterosexual. Quoth the community:
We apologize that our selfish requests to marry those we love has cheapened and degraded traditional marriage so much that we caused you to stray from your own holy union for something more cheap and tawdry.
Even allowing for the writer's evident sarcasm, I don't get it. I keep seeing these GLB ripostes to bigots' rejections of same-sex marriage that play variations on the same theme, like this one:

Is "the institution" not supposed to be cheap? Everybody seems to want to blow a wad of cash on a wedding, though it's not mandatory; it just seems to be the ideal. I finally saw the Sex and the City movie, and it embodied this ambivalence: on the one hand, Carrie nearly lost True Love because she made the wedding all about her. On the other, if it weren't for the bling -- all the wedding gowns, jewelry, shoes, and so on -- who'd have gone to see the movie? (It's like war movies that simultaneously tell you that War Is Hell, but it's really great Hell, full of guts and glory.)

If marriage is a sacred institution (and many gay people agree that it is), then it can't be cheapened. And I can't help but detect a certain resentment in statements like the above -- the bitch could have had it, but she threw it away! -- for ruining the fantasy. If Kardashian's marriage hadn't gone south so scandalously, the same people who are savaging her now would still be drooling over her fairy-tale wedding, even if she and Kris Humphreys were quietly, privately miserable together.

Of course Amy Koch (the adulterous Minnesota State Senate Majority Leader) is full of shit: heterosexuals were having "inappropriate relationships" long before same-sex marriage was a live issue in the US. For that matter, when you consider what's regarded as "appropriate," a category that includes Solomon's 300 wives and 600 concubines (or vice versa -- who cares?), it becomes thinkable that marriage itself is the problem. Did Elizabeth Taylor "cheapen marriage" by going through eight husbands -- or does she get a pass for being gay-friendly? This polemicist pontificates:
The essential defining quality of marriage is commitment, not the indoor or outdoor plumbing of the committers. It's ALL about staying together, and that's the nature and purpose of the institution.
Of course, staying together is not the essence of marriage. There are couples who stay together for the rest of their lives without marrying, and I've already noted a few of the many married couples who fall apart. (Nor is love the essence of marriage, for the same reasons.) Nor are all long-term, even lifelong committed relationships marriage: some are family bonds, like siblings, or friendship -- and friendship is a bond that has often been valued more than marriage, because it's an individual choice, unlike marriage which has your family's decisions and concerns all over it. Staying together as an end in itself seems to me a hell of a way to live. If you have kids, staying together for their sake might be a reason, though it's an excuse often enough. We hear a lot about the harm done to children by divorce, but less about the harm done to them by parents who stay together "for the sake of the kids."

I think that if we have to have marriage, straight or gay, it should not be sacred. It's often been noticed that American evangelicals have a higher divorce rate than just about everybody else, including atheists, and the usual explanation is that their expectations of marriage are too high, so they fall apart when everything isn't perfect. I'm not sure I believe it, though, because it looks to me as though expecting too much of marriage is a cultural norm. I remember that the American divorce rate shot up as soon as divorce became easier to get, which means that before that time a lot of people stayed together because they were just plain trapped, not because of their superior moral values. (Though we tend to forget that many people who couldn't get a divorce simply separated, and in the good old days husbands might just abandon their families. According to family lore, both my grandfathers did.)

Maybe they made the best of things, but often they took it out on the children. Except for unmarried men, wives were the unhappiest, and except for unmarried women, husbands were the happiest. Despite the propaganda about lonely, unfulfilled spinsters, spinsters were the happiest subset of the population. That's what makes me most skeptical about the whole cultural obsession with marriage. Young women should be warned that they'll basically be expected to sacrifice their happiness to their husband's (yes, even in our supposedly more enlightened time); that pregnancy puts them at increased risk of assault or murder from their husbands; and so on. They probably won't listen. As Joanna Russ wrote thirty years ago (I quoted her before here):
Every women’s studies teacher, for example, knows the female student who comes into her office and announces defiantly that she’s going to get married – the world is still full of girls who think that heterosexual alliances with men represent a form of rebellion against sexless Mommy. How do these young women imagine their mothers ended up where they were? Yet the hope persists that heterosexual activity (a little wilder than stuffy Mom’s) will provide access to the men’s freer, wider world. Mother’s function as the forewoman who polices Daughter’s sexuality, in many American families, gives some color to this notion – that an alliance with men is an alliance against Mother – and yet these girls must have at least the suspicion that Mom made the same bargain. And surely they know that heterosexual alliance can’t confer membership in the men’s world but only a place (Mother’s place, in fact) on the sidelines. But they don’t. And so they end up married, leading the same life as Mother, or – if unlucky – a worse one with less bargaining power. And their daughters repeat the process.
But they should at least be told.

A straight friend of mine keeps nagging me to find a boyfriend. He told me the other day I need someone to be faithful to. "Faithful?" I said. "Like you are to your girlfriends?" That made him giggle and shut up. He'd tried to introduce me to some guy who'd just broken up with his boyfriend because one of them was cheating. How could I resist someone like that? But I did. I admit, I was well into middle age before I stopped thinking in my gut that I needed to be in a couple. Even if I found someone I liked well enough to commit to, I doubt I'd live with him. But that's another myth that needs to be discredited: being skeptical of marriage doesn't mean being opposed to forming couples. Marriage is just one way of managing couplehood, and I'm not convinced it's the best one. I'm certain it's not the best way for everybody.

I still wonder how same-sex marriage is going to fit into this picture. We won't know until enough time has passed for long-term research to produce results. True, sometimes marriage works out well; and sometimes somebody strikes it rich in the lottery. For now, marriage isn't sacred. It's something people do. It could probably be better if we paid attention to what it means, and try find better ways to do it.