Two major claims are made among gay and lesbian critics of the idea of gay marriage. The first is that the support of gay marriage represents a kind of assimilation to straight values and ideals. The second is that the widespread acceptance of gay marriage would threaten the existence of a separate gay and lesbian community. While there is some truth in the criticisms made from these two perspectives, they fail to come to terms with the reasons why some gay people might want to get married. What is more, they narrow the lived reality of marriage, failing to recognize that the practice has been multiple and varied. In our real lives, as opposed to our sociological categories, marriage has offered a host of ways for two people to be together.
In some circles, those supporting gay marriage are dismissed as guppies (the gay equivalent of yuppies). Those who support the idea of gay marriage are said to be assimilationists ‹ opponents of gay marriage are thus seen as the real gay liberationists. Eleanor Brown, former managing editor of Toronto¹s gay and lesbian newspaper, Xtra, while claiming she is not “against gay marriage per se,” nonetheless “would prefer that gay men and lesbians not get married because it¹s a heterosexual institution.” To the extent that gays and lesbians do get married, according to Brown, they are simply reproducing an age-old gambit for acceptance from straight society, one that will fail like all the others.
The very use of terms like “assimilation” should make clear the judgement contained in such a typology. Basically, the thinking is that, if you¹re gay and if you like the idea of getting married, then what this really means is that you are cravenly conformist, seek the approval of straight society and probably dislike and are uncomfortable with your gay identity. The argument comes dangerously close to an equivalent of the “self-hating Jew” line used by Zionists against their critics.
A second approach criticizes gay marriage as an attack on gay culture. Here, gay people are alleged to have created a distinctive culture of their own, different from straight culture, and marriage threatens to dilute and possibly eviscerate it. Again, from Eleanor Brown: “We have our culture, and we need to keep it strong and healthy in this day of increasing assimilation.” Thus, getting married means accepting straight culture and, in the process, destroying a distinctive gay alternative.
The Truth in the Criticism …
To be fair, there is certainly a guppie aspect to gay marriage, just as marriage is a money pit for many straight people. There is also something to the gay-culture arguments, as there can be little doubt that gay communities have historically been established in particular geographic spaces and a visibly unique lifestyle and set of community practices can be described. And it is also true that in the battle for gay and lesbian rights there have been many happy to “pass” as straight when it served them, and they were often the first to criticize other gay people for “acting gay” or living unconventional sex lives. For them, the point was to present themselves as “normal” so that straight people wouldn¹t judge them, and drag queens, fems and bull dykes were fucking this up. For these sorts of people, gay marriage might appear to offer a veneer of respectability to their relationships in the wider community (though actually such people would probably not want to offend those straight people who want to maintain the “brand” of marriage for straight society).
… and the Falseness
The problem with the above critiques is that they tend to cast those supporting gay marriage and their motives too narrowly, offering a largely romantic and unhistorical view of a gay “community.” In practice, the gay community has been and remains riven with class distinctions that exclude as much as they include. It¹s pretty rich listening to speeches about preserving gay culture amid diversity from a fomer editor of Xtra. The gay press have been largely responsible for many of the distorted and inaccurate portrayals of the diversity of gay people, skewing the picture toward the upwardly mobile to increase ad revenues. Xtra specifically has a rather obnoxious record on diversity, using its sex-ad revenues to subsidize branch-plant papers in other locales, eventually wiping out indigenous gay papers like Vancouver¹s more left-wing Angles. Not surprisingly, just as with those who want to defend marriage as a straight “brand,” so, too, do others want to maintain control over the gay “brand” by calling it community. In fact, however, the whole idea of a sutured gay “community” is itself a construct with less and less meaning as being gay and lesbian becomes less socially problematic (I say less, not totally ‹ it still sucks to be gay and lesbian in a host of ways in terms of society¹s responses). As historical conditions change, so must the gay community, or our understanding of what such a set of relationships mean.
The queer critics of gay marriage may be right about the guppie aspirations of some of the high-profile gay lawyers in the news of late, and feminist critics are undoubtably right in bringing forward valuable critiques of marriage as an oppressive institution through which multiple forms of domination occur. The Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario (CLGRO) uses the feminist critique to argue against civil marriage entirely, for both gays and straights. But good social analysis can make for bad social history. As analysis of general trends, these critiques can certainly be backed up, but they do not exhaust the historic or future possibilities. As an institution marriage has undoubtably figured into larger relations of unequal power, producing and reproducing them. But if we examine the lived reality of marriage the practice has been multiple and varied. Human experience is always more complex than the sociological categories we configure to understand it ‹ if it wasn¹t, there would be little opening for any social change.
Marriage and the Freedom to Choose
Let me be clear: Marriage is not for everyone, gay or straight. I applaud and defend the rights of sex radicals to live and love however they want, free from the coercion of the state or the tyranny of public opinion. But the “gay culture” side should also recognize that they do not exhaust the many ways to be gay. For a lot of gay people, marriage is not about aping straights or having a bad attitude about being gay, it¹s about participating in a larger set of cultural institutions while maintaining your own uniqueness. In other words, it can be about community, bringing together all sorts of people, gay and straight, to recognize something important to them. This community approach is particularly important when we remember that the “gay community” is not an unproblematic refuge from straight life for all gay people. Just like straight civil society, gay spaces are dominated by middle-class values and assumptions. Personally, I come from a working-class background, as does my partner. It has shaped who we are, and we will be forever linked to those communities in habits of thought, experiences and a sense of solidarity. Arguments from gay activists that pit gay versus straight never really took hold with me. I don¹t feel much “solidarity” with the well-off or rich, gay or straight. Yet, while we come from the working class, my partner and I are gay, something that sets us apart from much of our family (at least, as far as we know). Can we bridge our differences? Is there a way to share our commonalities while remaining different, too? I think there is, and, for us, marriage offers a way of linking together all the varied aspects of our lives.
Dennis Pilon is a member of CD’s Editorial Collective.