“Marry” Me? (Opinion, 2007)

by Robert McRuer

You would think, by now, that gay marriage would be old news.
It’s been almost a decade since the cast of Northern Exposure
gathered for one of the first prime time gay weddings (several
other same-sex dyads-on Queer as Folk, Will and Grace,
and other shows-have walked the aisle since then) and more than a
decade since dozens of couples participated in a mass wedding
outside the Internal Revenue Service as part of the 1993 March on
Washington for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights (the
IRS action was meant to bring attention to the dozens of
state-sponsored benefits granted to married couples but denied to
same-sex couples). It’s been almost as long, moreover, since
President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act
(DOMA), which gave states the right to define marriage as the
union of one man and one woman and ensured that marriages
performed in one location would not need to be recognized in
another. At the time, the fear was that we homos, getting hitched
in Honolulu, would demand recognition of our so-called marriages
in Houston or Hoboken. Hawaii voters, however, ended up putting
into effect a DOMA of their very own, and-as the 1990s moved
on-the feared locations shifted, to Copenhagen, Amsterdam,
Toronto, and Burlington, Vermont.

And, now, Boston. Indeed, developments in the Bay State have
made certain that, far from being old news, gay marriage will
continue to be front page fodder again this election year. As I
biked to work last week, I noted competing headlines on the Washington
Post
and the Washington Times. The Post declared
“Mass. Court Backs Gay Marriage,” while the Reagan-era Times
insisted “Court Approves Homosexual ‘Marriage’.” As
always when reporting on the issue, the Washington Times on
that day employed scare quotes; even when a given paragraph calls
for ten references or more, in fact, the Washington Times
predictably protects the word in quotation marks, each and every
time. Courts in Massachusetts may be, as the Post would
have it, backing gay marriage, but the staid judicial institution,
for the Times, is merely “approving” “homosexual” “marriage.”

I was on my way to teach an undergraduate course in lesbian,
gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) studies, and I knew I had to
somehow address what was going on with my students. And although I
wanted to tackle head-on what it means to live in a world where a
daily newspaper looks at a gay wedding and sees
“marriage,” not marriage, I also wanted to somehow be
true to the specters that continue to haunt these conversations,
no matter how many times those specters have been conjured away:
1970s feminist and gay liberation specters, declaring that
marriage was a patriarchal institution about property and
ownership and insisting that “in a free society, everyone
will be gay”; 1980s AIDS activist specters staging die-ins in
the street and screaming “health care is a right.” Those
specters from the 1970s did not mean that everyone would turn to
same-sex partnership; they meant that in their imagined future,
everyone would be free to shape creative and pleasurable relations
with other human beings (relations that would be founded on
reciprocity and respect) and that we would not be able to predict
in advance the inventive forms those relations would take.
“We,” homo and hetero alike, would certainly not see the
options reduced to two: married or unmarried. Those specters from
the 1980s, in turn, wanted to vouchsafe access: access to
information, education, financial resources, environmental
resources (clean water, clean air), health care. Medical,
immigration, or any other benefits tied solely to marriage would
not suffice for those 1980s activists; they, like anti-corporate
or anti-globalization protesters after them, did not want these
(and other) basic human rights tied to membership in an exclusive
club.

And yet, as I biked to work, I knew the conversation would be a
challenging one, and it was, though it was stimulating and
generative, too. It would be challenging, I knew, because these
terrible times seem to present us with such limited choices; as I
said to my students, “what’s a queer to do?” We have a
vibrant history of refusing marriage and insisting instead-in
coalition with other oppressed groups-on a more capacious
understanding of social and economic justice. At the same time,
the history we’re living through calls for new refusals, refusals
that can at times have the appearance of defending marriage. If
the current mainstream options, in other words, are George W.
Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage in
the United States as the union of one man and one woman or Senator
John Kerry’s opposition to gay marriage but support for
“civil unions,” how can we not refuse these options and,
in the name of justice, throw our lot behind those supporting gay
marriage?

Fortunately, queer politics has long been comfortable with what
are seeming contradictions, and thus it seems imperative to me,
even in these times, to call back and extend the critiques of
marriage from our past, while we simultaneously articulate clearly
our opposition to each and every one of the dehumanizing options
currently proferred us by the political and cultural mainstream in
the United States, whether it’s Bush’s marriage amendment, the
scare quotes in the Washington Times, or the Democrats’
gutless distinctions between civil unions and the
“sacred” institution of marriage. Everyone, LGBT and
straight, needs to come out against these impoverished positions.
I’ll say it again, for straight readers, since coming out in these
ways is old hat for gay readers: you need to be out and proud,
loudly and consistently, in opposition to the positions on
same-sex marriage swirling around you this year.

But we can also work to make sure that no one reads our defense
of same-sex “marriage” as a defense of same-sex
marriage-we still want health care, immigration, visitation,
bereavement and other benefits defined as human-not
marriage-rights. We still want to register suspicion of cultural
forms that shore up patriarchy. We still want to resist relational
forms that potentially insulate us from others, that make
unthinkable certain ways of being in households or communities. We
want to honor our feminist, liberationist, and AIDS activist
history, and remember always our coalition with non-LGBT people
who share, in multiple ways, those histories.

I didn’t participate in the wedding ceremony, but I was there
at the IRS building in 1993. Like others that gathered there, my
lover Tom and I picked up the chalk that was lying on the ground
and drew our names in a heart on the cement. Our heart with
“four years” was surrounded by dozens and dozens of
other hearts, some drawn by couples, some drawn by friendship
groups, some by individuals. Some honored those who were living,
and some remembered those who had died. Some hearts marked years
or even decades, while some playfully marked days or even hours.
It was a queer performance, and like so many other queer
performances (like all performances, really), it was momentary,
fleeting. The chalk drawings were undoubtedly washed away in a
matter of hours or days. Yet the memory of that performance can
still mark the creative and democratic human desire for other ways
of relating, other ways of being. To summarize all that I’m
getting at: yes, we oppose attempts to prohibit gay
“marriage,” but yes, we also remember that, at certain
times, we wanted much more.

Not long ago, Tom and I celebrated the holidays with his mother
in Little Rock. Tom’s boyfriend was there, and so was mine. Tom’s
nephew was there, as was his brother, his wife, and her children.
It struck me then that over the years, our family had in many ways
assimilated queer cultural forms-sure, some of the folks at the
holiday gathering were married or had been married, but most were
not, and the important thing was not marriage, but the
far-reaching respect and recognition given to the range and the
complexity of the relationships we had shaped. It’s ironic that
the culture has increasingly and quietly assimilated queer
cultural and relational forms even as we have been surrounded by
loud cultural conversations about the need to protect the sanctity
of heterosexual “marriage.”

In the face of this irony, LGBT folks could, perhaps, push for
a constitutional amendment to keep straight people away from our
sacred institutions-you can have friends, in other words, but
“families we choose” will remain ours, hands off! True
to our history, however, I hope we’ll do the opposite: invite
everyone to not only join with us against dehumanization and
oppression (our own and others’) but also experience and invent
with us many other ways of relating to and caring for each other.

Robert McRuer is assistant professor of English at The
George Washington University. He is the author of
The Queer
Renaissance: Contemporary American Literature and the Reinvention
of Lesbian and Gay Identities (NYU, 1997) and co-editor, with
Abby L. Wilkerson, of
Desiring Disability: Queer Theory Meets
Disability Studies (Duke UP, 2003).

Opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Unmarried Equality.