The Freedom to Choose: Gay Marriage and Its Radical Others

Article excerpt

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 Toronto's 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 it's 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 you're 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 wouldn't judge them, and drag queens, ferns 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. It's pretty rich listening to speeches about preserving gay culture amid diversity from a fomer editor of Xtra. …