All of this talk about same-sex marriage reminds me that we, as a queer community, don’t seem to be discussing this fight nearly as much as hetero folk. It’s important, though, to rethink our assumptions before we get carried away by the dominant discussion over marriage.
I will offer truth in advertising: Long time readers know that I was married (without state-sanction) for eight years and that marriage ended badly. In the last year together, my liar-ex (who told many lies) pulled off a neat trick by demanding my unconditional trust at the same moments that he betrayed that trust with his many lies. The awful truth being, of course, that somebody who could be so heartless to another person’s pain was not worth my tears. Clearly I might have an ax to grind about the concept of marriage. Please take my crushing bitterness into account.
Still, I am not actually hostile to the notion of same-sex couples seeking marriage. Nor do I see it as a betrayal of the historical queer rights movement.
What concerns me is that the discussion of same-sex marriage is largely being shaped without our input. Moreover, it ignores a larger discussion about sexual freedom. For me, I imagine an ideal where individuals can negotiate the types of sexual relationships that are best for them without external pressure or risk of their basic rights. For some queer folk, serial monogamy proves the best and most ideal option. Others feel constricted by such notions and desire a different range of sexual and emotional experiences. Neither side should be expected to pay a price for their preferences.
We queer folk have forgotten some of the “liberation” bit in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) from the sixties and seventies. In the quest to obtain gay marriage (a fight largely created for us by heteros), we have not stopped to question the value of institutional marriage. Given the divorce rate among heterosexuals, clearly “traditional marriage” has some serious problems.
Thirty years ago, many of the GLF leaders imagined their fight for gay rights as an opportunity to benefit all people, regardless of their sexuality. They saw their actions as a means to break apart the institution of marriage that had kept both queer and hetero folk imprisoned in unhappy relationships. Even in 1970-Lawrence, Kansas, the GLF issued a statement:
The new sexuality [sic] is helping to free men and women from the restrictive roles and repressive institutions of Amerika. We are letting go of these securities in an effort to grab ahold of our lives and know who we are. Gay men and women are coming out into the open to help shape this new sexuality. We being confronted by an uptight, authoritarian, racist, sexist Amerika. So the Gay Liberation Front joins other oppressed brothers and sisters of Amerika and the Third World to struggle against the nightmare and create one world of people living together.
For many of these activists, traditional heterosexual marriage represented one of the most repressive institutions that bound individuals into unequal gender roles. They explicitly rejected marriage because they believed that it connoted ownership and limited one’s love.
In many ways, queer relationships start off with some advantages over hetero relationships. Same-sex couples occupy the same gender status in society, thus they have the potential to bypass some (not all) established notions of power that permeate opposite-sex relationships. For seventies radicals, ending traditional marriage was a key part of remaking society in terms of race, gender, and economic class.
With the rise of HIV and AIDS, though, much of this language became obscured. Notions of free love seemed dangerous, if not outright deadly. Many queer folk, it turns out, also wanted the security of long-term relationships. The revolutionary rhetoric of the sixties and seventies slowly disappeared or found labels of “unrealistic” and "dated."
Now it seems the queer community has become divided over a false dichotomy. On one extreme side are those who articulate the impossibility of monogamous LTR’s as naïve. For this group, being queer requires a repudiation of sexual monogamy as dishonest. On the other side, proponents of gay marriage imagine that equality will only result if queer folk conform to already established notions of heterosexual marriage. Under this thinking, the more recognition that two-person-same-sex relationships achieve, the more stability all queer folk will have. They ignore the possibilities and value of other types of relationships (non-monogamous ltr’s, triads, solitary).
We are left with an almost schizophrenic vision of what our queer relationships should look like. Both the mass media and queer media give us a bundle of contradictions about how to ideally attain love and sexual gratification.
Queer folk still have a unique place to critique and undermine the more unhealthy elements of traditional marriage. Our basic desires for sex with a person (or persons) of the same sex is a revolt against society. What bonds us all together is a desire to have love. How we manifest that love, though, depends on what we want from other people.
Now that the mainstream media and the right-wing thrust the fight for gay marriage upon us, we can’t ignore it or let it go. Still, we need to be careful that we don’t trade orthodoxy and conformity for our dreams of sexual liberation for all people. Fighting for gay marriage is important because some of us want to be able to oragnize our lives in that way. We should not, though, make it the standard by which we all live our lives or assume it to be an end victory by itself. The measure of our relationships should not be their durability or compliance with existing heterosexual standards. Rather, we should measure how well we treat each other in whatever type of relationship we form.
Creating gay marriages is not revolutionary by itself. Nor is having as much sex with as many partners as possible revolutionary. What can be revolutionary, though, is guaranteeing each other the rights to do what we want with our romantic and sexual lives. We should consider how well we work to honor, love, and respect each other as queer folk and our spectrum of sexual desires.
Our relationships can still live up to the revolutionary rhetoric of the sixties and seventies. It does none of us harm to have two queer folk form a monogamous, long term relationship if that is what they want. Likewise, we are not hurt by individuals who find those types of relationships imprisoning and prefer multiple sex partners (as long as all are willing, honest, and safe).
What we can do is promise to treat each other with esteem and always work to defend the multiple ways that queer folk form relationships. We also need to do our best to honor how our queer brothers and sisters arrange their lives and acknowledge their feelings. If we show the world what respecting each other’s sexuality really means, we will win a major victory for sexual freedom.