I have been wanting to write something about Washington’s passage of Referendum 74 since election day earlier this month; and then, I thought I’d better not count my chickens before their eggs were broken, and decided to wait until later in the week when all of the votes were counted…which they were, and the result was still the same (i.e. it passed with a somewhat slim majority). Then I thought, perhaps I’d wait a bit longer, possibly until the actual law begins to take effect on December 6th. In any case, I’m glad I waited until now, because something just happened last night in my own personal experience that makes this topic all the more relevant.
No, unfortunately, that “something” isn’t that I met someone and now we’re getting married. (And, given I’m not on the legally recognized gender spectrum in this country, I generally won’t participate in a voluntary institution that is based upon gender determinations…but, I digress!)
Lots of same-sex couples I know are considering getting married now in Washington, and I’ve asked a few of them who have considered themselves married already whether or not they’ll be doing it–which, for many, will probably just amount to filing some paperwork, since they may have already had a meaningful and fulfilling ceremony for that purpose at some stage in the past, and may have been celebrating an anniversary related to it (or to their original getting together, etc.) for two or more decades at this stage. While it is most certainly an excellent thing that this greater equality now exists and is available for people who wish to avail themselves of it (just like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”–even if one has no interest in serving in the military, nonetheless the right of others who wish to do so and are able to do so shouldn’t be restricted based on their sexual orientation), it may not be something that does nor should appeal to everyone for a variety of reasons. No matter how much we joke about Hadrian and Antinous having had such a marriage since 123 CE, or how the Ekklesía Antínoou has been doing such marriages since that time, I’m somewhat ambivalent about it myself; my much higher priority for legal measures in this country in relation to queer people is comprehensive employment nondiscrimination legislation on a national level, rather than just on local levels, which would cover trans people as much as it covers gay or lesbian people (which some of these other advances in legislative equality have not done in recent years).
The thing that happened last night demonstrated one reason why this ambivalence exists, which I had not realized would ever be an issue, but I saw it in full view last night.
I was over at a dinner party at my neighbors’ house; they are a gay couple who have been together for over twenty-one years at this point. After dinner small talk got a bit factional, with one end of the table pretty much dominating the conversation for most of the night (not the end I was on), which had two straight couples in addition to the gay couple who are my neighbors. There was then some talk about doing various housework matters there, and that one part of the deal was that one of the gentlemen would clean up his office in the house once some bling was presented for the purposes of their future official marriage ceremony. The issue of them holding out on getting officially married came up, and one of them explained that because same-sex marriage is only legal on the state level at this point, it means that certain tax and other national benefits are not extended to same-sex couples in the way they are to heterosexuals at this point: one’s same-sex partner cannot get social security from their partner, for example. This is rather upsetting, and is a matter that is lost on a number of people, I suspect. While DOMA may be repealed soon, and there are cases at the Supreme Court at the moment which could have the effect of making same-sex marriage legal across the U.S. independent of the various state constitutions which currently have language preventing it, nonetheless complete equality in this regard has not yet been achieved.
As all of this was being discussed, one of the wives in one of the heterosexual couples commented that she thought one of the gay men was commitment-phobic because he keeps extending these milestones and benchmarks as far as “we’ll get married when…” are concerned. I said, “They’ve been together twenty-one years–I’d call that commitment!” She then replied to me, in the most patronizing and snotty way possible, “No, this is different, you just don’t understand.”
Independent of the snottiness of this particular woman, something occurred in that moment that I had not realized would even be a possibility until that very moment. I’ve long heard, and to some extent agreed with, the radical queer political position that marriage is a game of assimilationism, and that it may not be as useful nor applicable for queer people as for straight people, nor might it be a good institution to be a part of more generally speaking. I’ve always understood those points in general, but I was missing something in very particular that I had not heard articulated previously, nor had I ever thought, before that moment last night.
Now that gay marriage is possible in some places, straight people will no longer consider queer relationships real or valid unless marriage occurs or will eventually occur in them.
Sit with that for a moment.
There are many gay or lesbian relationships that I know of that have lasted for ten, twenty, thirty, or more years; there was a pair of very old lesbians who were probably in their 80s when I saw them, who were sitting on the side of the street at the Pride Parade I was in during June of 1999 who were wearing matching shirts that said “65+ Years Together,” and I pointed at them and applauded from the open-top convertible I was riding in on that occasion (because I’d won a Pride Foundation Scholarship…which was more involved in its application and interview process than either my M.A. or my Ph.D.!). Considering the divorce rate amongst straight couples is more than 50%, and I have a sibling who is in the middle of his second bitter divorce, and a number of other friends who have been married two or more times who are the same age as myself, queer relationships lasting more than a decade without the possible legal and social benefits of marriage are something that have been a point of pride and accomplishment in terms of the triumph of love and companionship in the face of overwhelming societal pressure and discrimination. The existence of such relationships was a common argument for why same-sex marriage should be legalized in the first place.
But now, with legalized same-sex marriage in Washington State, and other states around the U.S. (and some other countries in the world), now “there’s no excuse,” and all of those years of love and devotion amount to nothing unless “you put a ring on it,” and file the legal papers to make it “official.” The standards of heterosexual relationships and their expected norms now apply, practically overnight, to same-sex relationships as well, and people who have spent multiple decades together in committed relationships can be labeled as “commitment-phobic” for not filing the papers and having the legal ceremony of marriage.
I’m not entirely happy nor comfortable with this being the case, I have to say. Again, I do think it’s better to have this legal equality on a state level than not at all, but I also wonder what the social effects of it beyond this particular one will be, or what the further assumptions of this particular effect might look like in the future.