Marry, Marry, Quite Contrary

Marry, Marry, Quite Contrary

To wed is to lose one’s precious distance from conformity.


Gay marriage: I regard it with a mixture of fear and rage, but my initial response as it loomed up as a national issue was astonishment. I would no more have expected to see couples lining up to marry in San Francisco or New Paltz than a fish in earlier centuries would have expected to find a submarine running through its salty home.

Surprise overtook me because I had trusted my measurements of American society. Born in 1936, raised in a small provincial city in the Pacific Northwest, I had swum in “mainstream America.” I thought I knew its religious, social and legal values; which were fluid, which fixed. Heterosexuality was stable. I had also lived cheek by jowl with religious fundamentalists, gone to high school with them, shared a locker corridor with popular and intelligent girls who would tell me that when they got married, and they surely would, they would, as the Bible mandated, be subservient to their husbands.

Even the nicest and most tolerant of the people in my hometown would have responded to gay marriage as an utterly alien event, stranger by far than Martians or Plutonians landing in the high school gym. For marriage simply was the yoking of a man and a woman–a crucial part of the apparatus through which everyone traveled from birth to death. To be sure, some female schoolteachers lived together as couples, but, like nuns, they seemed sexless. If they shared a bedroom in their modest homes, the beds were twins, often with matching crocheted bedspreads. Because they were polite and kind and taught children deftly, they had won social acceptance. Otherwise, not to be married or sadly widowed or unfortunately divorced was to dwell in a nameless limbo.

Gay sex, however, did have names and belonged, if not in hell, in criminal domains. Some of the nicest and most tolerant of people felt gay sex was literally nauseating and considered it filthy and forbidden, a peril from which their children had to be protected. It is strange and sad and dislocating to be with people who would vomit and protect their children if they knew what your sexual desires were, but I grew used to it–as a fish might to dangerous pollutants in the waters.

Despite my years of living in tolerant New York, I have refused to forget the lessons of my childhood, reinforced in the women’s college that trusted my mind and distrusted my body. I have retained traces of internalized homophobia, as if mercury had entered my system. This is one source of my fear of gay marriage. I believe that making it such an open issue is like throwing homophobic predators living, bleeding flesh that will nourish them.

But my fear of gay marriage has a second, more affirmative source as well. I have grown to treasure the difference that being a lesbian has made, the existential choice it has signified, the psychic and moral distance from conformity it has established. It has given me an edge. It has also accustomed me to a life of hurly-burly, improvisation and conflict. Behind marriage, especially one confirmed by a religious ceremony, is a dream of unending unity–of the will of God, the state, two people. When children are born, they will join this cosmic, political, legal and psychological unity.

In my spiritual life, I can read the Bible, and I do; I can pray, and I do. Because I was baptized and confirmed in a church with many liberal traditions, most of its doors are open to me. In my political life, I can be patriotic, and I am. I can believe in the rule of law, and I do. I can live with my partner, Liz Wood, for nearly thirty years and help to raise her four children. We were a lesbian couple with children long before it was fashionable and vacation spots were gay-friendly.

But to marry? To follow that well-trod path, whether I wore a white veil or polka-dot bikini at the ceremony? To do so would be to imitate most of the others with whom I grew up and went to college. Once, at a college reunion, I peeked into the open bedside- table drawer of the married classmate who was hosting our dinner. It contained two items: a Bible and a package of golf scorecards from her country club. Being a lesbian was proof that I had not succumbed to the Church and the call of the eighteenth hole.

To imagine performing the marriage vows puts me into a swivet, for this speech act entails a being-togetherness until I die or am abandoned. The tomboy in me, the Jo March before she met Professor Bhaer, the outlier, the maverick, the flirtatious devotee of the imp of satire–all this rises up and cries out, “Don’t fence me in.” Yet even though I doubt I would ever exercise the freedom to marry, far more offensive than being called names is being told I cannot do something that other people can and most people think is a boon. I am being fenced in–with barbed wire.

One obvious compensation that marriage offers for the loss of freedom is that basket of morally approved legal goods. My brothers and sisters and cousins and friends dip into this basket. I cannot. Marriage is better than a civil union, beneficial though a civil union might be. As the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court wrote on February 4, 2004, in language at once prim and pioneering, there is a “dissimilitude between the terms ‘civil marriage’ and ‘civil union’…. It is a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status.” Liz and I have jumped through all the hoops we could find to protect each other in case of a medical or legal emergency, but a marriage certificate would have trumped all our declarations of domestic partnership.

Reading about the lesbian couple in New Jersey with two children and a dog, who are among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit seeking same-sex marriage, I was moved by one woman’s words, “We just want to go to town hall and pay $28 for a marriage license.” They were sweet, and also showed the shrewdness of the normalization strategy of the gay and lesbian movement. Not only is it effective to say, “I’m here, I’m queer, but I’m not really that different.” The words also pay tribute to “the normal” as a comfortable, honorable, potentially imaginative zone in which to live.

Indeed, some of my pride–in my freedom, my mild bohemianism, my devotion to the avant-garde and the edgy–has been a defense mechanism against having to calculate the price of my lack of legitimacy because of not being “normal.” Toting up the cost of illegitimacy and ascribed abnormality would fling me into a vortex of anger and a truly tacky self-pity. Yet, one night, the temptation was too great as Liz and I were driving on the road that circles the North Shore of Staten Island, where we were then living. I had just learned that I was not going to be short-listed for a college presidency, in part because of questions about who would live in the president’s house on campus. In response, I fantasized that I was Charles R. Stimpson, and that my résumé said I was married and the stepfather of four children. And there, in the passenger seat of a Honda, I wept a little because I would never be such a figure of respectability and loving valor.

Finally, my anger is now as swift a current as it is because I believe that the politics and society of my time are being threatened. I have been a part of an America and a world that have become happily more pluralistic and more expansive of civil rights–psychologically, culturally, socially and politically. The struggle for gay marriage is yet another test of this pluralism and expansiveness. Constantly at war with them are a variety of fundamentalisms, be they political or religious or a toxic combination, which engage in self-serving readings of sacred texts to clamp down on our flesh and spirits.

If I am a fundamentalist, it is in my devotion to the Constitution and Bill of Rights, although our interpretations of it must flow judiciously with the times and its history has vicious and stupid peccabilities. Those who have proposed the flagrantly anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment, in part out of political cynicism and in part out of real hatred and fear, would assassinate the Constitution–and justify themselves by proclaiming the sanctity of a gilded portrait of marriage that is breathtakingly calculated and ahistorical, as if all marriages in all times and all places resembled that of an idealized upright Dad and an idealized loving Mom, who bear and rear virtuous children who do well on standardized tests.

As I contemplate the struggle ahead–the grinding, state-by-state fight to allow same-sex marriage, to transfer a marriage license from one state to another, even to provide benefits for domestic partners; the equally fierce church-by-church fight for same-sex marriage or even to permit openly LGBT ministers–I feel ripples of the exhaustion that come from swimming in heavy waters, crosscurrents and riptides. The world is full of monsters to fight: armies that mow down and mutilate the innocent, governments that let children cry out in hunger, men who brutalize women, the AIDS pandemic, the homophobia that helps to sustain this pandemic. No doubt, the fight for gay marriage ultimately defuses homophobia, but I am unable to see that anyone’s being able to marry a woman is of the same order of magnitude as all of us being able to feed and clothe and educate our children. I wish this struggle were not upon us, but it is, and has been since 1993, when the Hawaii Supreme Court stated that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples might be unconstitutional, a ruling overridden by popular vote five years later.

So I hold, like an oxygen source, the image of the ebullient happiness of two old friends when they returned, married, from British Columbia, or the image of the good-humored ease of two younger lesbians who answered, “Why not?” when I asked them what they thought of gay marriage. They then gazed at each other with intimate complicity and confessed that yes, they were thinking about it, and buying some land and building a little house.

The submarines are here. Some are sinister, carrying the destructive weapons of constitutional amendments and state laws and hateful rhetoric. Others, however, are yellow submarines, their sonar detecting and determining and divining love. I am now one of their pilot fish.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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