“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.
Indeed, what ignites the religious right’s wrath today is precisely the acceptability of these heartwarming scenes. As Massachusetts began issuing licenses to same-sex couples in May, some backers of a state constitutional amendment restricting marriage to a man and a woman told the press they feared that the very sight of gay weddings would make the public more tolerant of homosexuality. Some haven’t been able to resist the universal theme of love themselves. Ray McNulty, a spokesperson for the antigay Massachusetts Family Institute, advised that opponents take their complaints to lawmakers, not to queer couples. “As far as I’m concerned,” he was quoted saying on May 17, “give those people their happiness for the day.”
Some liberals, of course, are more inclined to grant the happiness indefinitely–as romantic comedies always do–by ending with the wedding and making no mention of the marriage. Likewise, contemporary pop culture loves gay weddings but holds its peace when it comes to marriage. Mass media not only permit, but celebrate, queer nuptials in which two people declare their status as a couple. But they stop far short of insisting that this event confer status on the couple in the eyes of the state.
The trope of triumphing lovers is so powerful it trumps politics, bulldozing past the inconvenient facts of the law with the sheer force of its familiar imagery and narrative drive. Even the current, campy Off Broadway show My Big Gay Italian Wedding never mentions that queer couplings are not recognized by the state. It’s parents and church that stand in the way of Anthony and Andrew’s union in this slapdash sitcom (plus Andrew’s reputation as “the biggest slut in Bensonhurst”). The fellows get their happy ending–rings, blessings, drunken guests and all–and the marriage’s lack of legal standing simply doesn’t come up. Similarly untroubled images of gay weddings abound. According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, major newspapers in all but two states in the United States now include gay and lesbian unions among their wedding announcements. The Commercial Closet, an organization that chronicles homo sightings in advertising, lists thirty-nine recent print and broadcast ads that feature gay wedding scenes. The matter of discrimination stays out of the picture, the great unmentionable that might spoil the happy day.
It seems paradoxical, then, that most Americans respond to the equal-rights claims of gay and lesbian couples by favoring civil unions for them but not marriages. It’s the schmaltzy old trope, however, that softens them up and makes queers legible within a familiar romantic realm. Thus, when the issue of inequity is brought forward–as gay wedding protests did all year by making equality under the law the centerpiece of the revels–Americans’ sense of fairness can’t help but kick in. Love is love, after all. The sentiment goes only so far, though, before bumping into homophobia in the dominion of “sacred” marriage.
Moreover, plugging unreservedly into the wedding plot can close down queer options even as it opens straight hearts. In romantic comedies, cast-out and suspect lovers always have to prove that they merit comic closure–whether by answering riddles, retrieving some symbolic object, making it through an ordeal or by simply growing up–and the protest-spectacles for gay marriage have been no exception. In order to be embraced as ordinary couples, the heroes of these nuptials must tacitly renounce such practices as promiscuity or preferences for communal rather than nuclear household arrangements. Even if domestic normality is exactly what innumerable gay and lesbian couples want, the mass public display of this desire as the primary queer demand excludes those in the movement who don’t share that dream. Worse, it accepts the meanspirited neoliberal principle that citizens must show that they are worthy of their rights. Like public assistance that is provided only to the so-called “deserving poor,” the recognition that gay marriage bestows goes only to “deserving” queers.
Some thirty-three years ago, the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) took over New York’s City Clerk’s Office and declared “Gay Day” at the marriage bureau. When heterosexuals applied for licenses, the demonstrators gleefully turned them away.
How thrilling the cheekiness of that zap seems now–as does its openness to the possibility of abolishing marriage altogether. But the GAA–having split off from the Black Panther-supporting, Vietnam War-opposing Gay Liberation Front–helped pave the way down the aisle by narrowing the movement to a single-issue gay rights agenda.
Through spectacle and mass action, this year’s protest weddings–and then, the first days of the real ones in Massachusetts–have reasserted the heady possibilities of a queer public sphere even as they have pressed for access to a privatized set of rights. Once married–secure in their protections and recognized as full citizens–will gay and lesbian couples step out into that public space and participate in the contentious work of democracy? Might their contentment renew their sense of solidarity and visions of liberation? Everyone is a sucker for a love story that ends with a wedding. What happens after that joyful finale is ours to invent.