The Wedding March
"Get down, get down!" a voice yelled from the back of the crowd at a mid-March wedding in New York City, and a chorus of others soon took up the call. These were not the cries of partyers going wild on the dance floor, but the irritated admonitions of some fifty newspaper photographers and TV camera folk trying to get celebrants to duck under the frame of their shots. One cable guy elbowed his way forward so aggressively that he almost pushed a few wedding guests into Ruth Finkelstein and B.C. Craig's chuppah. Gazing intently into each other's eyes, the two brides didn't seem to notice.
That misty morning, they were one of three same-sex pairs solemnizing their commitments on the steps of City Hall to protest the state's refusal to grant them marriage licenses and express support for the mayor of New Paltz, Jason West, and two Unitarian ministers, who had been charged with misdemeanors in the Hudson Valley town for pronouncing dozens of couples wife-and-wife or husband-and-husband. Reached for comment, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the press that the demonstrators should have taken their rites to Albany, since state laws were their target. "I think this is more theater than anything else," he said.
Effective mass protest has always employed histrionics, of course, but there are other important--and even radical--ways in which Bloomberg was essentially right. Like other public demonstrations, the astonishing nuptial insurgency that spread across the country this year offered an effective mix of sympathetic characters, engaging narrative, fabulous spectacle and sassy rebuke. No matter what you think about marriage as a political goal, there is no denying that these "wedding marches" produced a stirring display of queer desire and anti-Bush defiance. What's more, pointing at the gap between the symbolic ritual of a wedding and the legal, contractual fact of marriage, the protests exposed the tenuousness of the tie between rites and rights--and the vigorous social and cultural forces called out to defend it.
The festive two-by-two queues for licenses in San Francisco, the busloads of betrothed in Phoenix, the exuberant exchanges of vows in Portland, all these proliferating images of the love that once dared not speak its name refusing to shut up shifted the ground of the gay-marriage debate. Favorable rulings from judges have been won by particular couples bringing lawsuits, but the crowds of wedded wannabes, from long-term lovers to the newly smitten, have taken the issue out of the courthouses and into the streets. Like the first gay pride parades, which made the personal step of coming out political by multiplying and flaunting it, the mass rush to the altar over the past six months has turned the relatively private and intimate act of matrimony into a collective action staged for a mass public. (In contrast to the parades, though, which polymorphously present myriad versions of queerness, the marriage demos constrict gay visibility, excluding those who reject nuclear couplehood.)
Meanwhile, the city officials who rebelled against laws and practices they regard as discriminatory revived a dramatic form of direct-action civil disobedience: Like racially integrated lunch-counter sit-ins, the issuing of the licenses accomplishes the very deed whose outlawing the protests seek to undo. Such stagings of possibility are always compelling. In today's parched political landscape they came like a quenching rain. Even people not particularly invested in gay marriage couldn't help getting caught up when renegade mayors and town clerks boldly asserted local authority and brazenly resisted the crushing narrowness of Right-Wing America. Hundreds of straight folks poured into San Francisco's City Hall to volunteer as witnesses or help hasten the paperwork. Others passed trays of steaming coffee along the line of couples waiting hours in the February rain. Cars driving by honked their congrats. Taxis offered "free rides for newlyweds." All were getting in on the giddying opportunity to stand outside the Republican frame. In this context, even among leftists and feminists suspicious of the marital enterprise, whether one actually wanted a queer marriage license became almost beside the point--about as relevant as whether those lunch-counter protesters really wanted to eat the food at Woolworth's.
The pageantry played in Peoria--and drew all those photographers to New York's City Hall--for another irresistible reason: The story follows an enduring, endearing narrative. For centuries, from ancient Roman comedy to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, lovers have been overcoming recalcitrant parents and progressing toward the triumph of a marital finale. Gay men and lesbians seeking to tie the knot in one stubborn county after another re-enact this familiar wedding plot again and again. In turn, the state, blustering about the end of civilization like the swaggering capitano of the commedia dell'arte, plays the villainous authority who thwarts the inamorati. The public is well practiced in whom to root for. At a time when tabloid headlines and reality TV shows make a nightly travesty of eternal devotion and connubial bliss, queer sweethearts have provided the season's most sincere and sentimental romantic comedy. This trope is tricky, though, as it has both radical and depoliticizing potential.
Far from the sex-affirming, multiple-partner kiss-ins ACT UP organized in the early years of the AIDS crisis, today's affinity groups of the affianced place themselves within this recognizable story of amorous fulfillment. Like Shakespearean lovers who have fled to the forest to evade the constraints of the court, where they were not allowed to marry the person of their choosing, they return to city halls all over the country to affirm both their love and their rightful place in the larger community. If the authorities don't give in--as in Romeo and Juliet--tragedy results (possibly forcing the rigid parental figures to reassess the rules that denied the lovers in the first place). But in comedy, as Puck might say, "Jill shall have Jill/Nought shall go ill": The dukes and kings reliably relent and all are recuperated within the slightly adjusted yet restored social order.
Laying claim to this narrative, queer spousal supplicants have displaced the once-dominant images of their community as perverts and predators. The dildo-wagging drag queens and leather-clad revelers featured in the 1990s antigay propaganda film The Gay Agenda inflamed groups like the Traditional Families Coalition, who warned in their fundraising letters, "They want your children." But the imagery glowing into living rooms today cannot whip up that particular anxiety. The marriage demonstrators make no demands, for example, that school curriculums include queer material or that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teachers be protected from job discrimination. Rather, they seek public equality in the traditionally private realm of family.