“Why would a guy want to marry another guy?”
Moviegoers chuckled when Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon had that exchange in Some Like It Hot back in 1959. Forty-four years later it’s still funny, but also a matter of fact — and the center of a cultural maelstrom. Same-sex marriage was a fringe issue in the gay rights movement back in the day — something a smattering of Mattachine Society members mused about over high tea in Silver Lake.
Flash-forward to 1996 when a Hawaiian Supreme Court ruling briefly threatened to make it a reality. With couples of the same-sex living “out of the closet” lives as never before, the realization that the state doesn’t recognize them or grant them any of the authority pertaining to property that is the heart of marriage has sunk in, and marriage has taken on the aspect of a “right” that same-sex couples are denied. Inevitably, backlash arrived in the form of Congress’ pretentiously titled Defense of Marriage Act — defining the institution as an exclusively heterosexual one. But now gay marriage is in the spotlight as never before, with talk of inscribing a “heterosexuals only” codicil into the Constitution. And the reason is Lawrence vs. Texas — the Supreme Court ruling that in June of this year overturned the nation’s sodomy laws.
Why should a court case that had nothing whatsoever to do with marriage, gay or otherwise, inspire this brouhaha? Shouldn’t the eradication of sodomy laws lead first to the establishment of protections in employment and housing that the gay rights movement has struggled over for decades? Logically, yes. But when sexuality is involved, change doesn’t proceed through logic. Instead, it must hack its way through the symbol-ridden jungle the Heterosexual Dictatorship (Christopher Isherwood’s ever-useful term) has created to hold on to its fading powers. If gays and lesbians are legal, then a place must be assigned for them in the mainstream. And since marriage is the culture’s method for legitimizing sexual acts, then gays and lesbians must get married.
Ah, but there’s the rub. For if “they” are allowed access to something that “we” own the rights to, then “we” forfeit the exquisite pleasure of looking down on noses on “them.” And it’s for this reason that the hysteria over gays in the military, the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church pedophile scandals and the recent uproar over the Episcopalians appointing an openly gay bishop is just so much background noise. The real story is that over the last decade an ever-increasing number of corporations is offering benefits for the same-sex partners of their employees. It’s a clear indicator of the fact that simply by being out, gays and lesbians have won the major battle for social legitimacy. Vermont has domestic partnership. Canada has full-bore same-sex marriage. No matter how much Karl Rove and his allies complain, we’re next.
Ironically, gay marriage looms at the very moment straights have become openly disenchanted with the institution. It’s not simply that the divorce rate is 50 percent, with a large portion of the other 50 trundling on in neo-Strindbergian agony, unable or unwilling to make the break. Rather it’s the awareness that author Laura Kipness cites in her Against Love: A Polemic that “. . . the expectation that romance and sexual attraction will last a lifetime of coupled togetherness despite much hard evidence to the contrary” has begun to take its toll.
“The prevailing cultural wisdom,” Kipness declares, “is that even if sexual desire tends to be a short-lived phenomenon, ‘mature love’ will kick in to save the day when desire flags.” But this too is as much of a lie as the fundamentalist’s insistence that marital “morality” proceeds from a pair of virgins who discover sex solely through one another and repeat said act in faithful exclusively until death — thus reconfiguring an obsessive-compulsive disorder into a blessed sacrament. As anyone who has studied the history of marriage knows, Miss God and her minions didn’t get into the act until relatively late in the game for ceremonial effect.
“Marriages,” Kipness notes, “were business arrangements between families; participants had little to say on the matter.”
That these arrangements persist in many cultures marks them as primitive in the eyes of “married-for-love” Americans — no matter how little love was actually involved. But one need look no further to find the true meaning of marriage than the opening scene of Patrice Chéreau’s Queen Margot, where Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi) shoves her daughter Marguerite de Valois (Isabelle Adjani) onto the altar to marry Henri de Navarre (Daniel Auteuil). This is a marriage confected in the vain hope of staving off civil war. Yet the baroque mating ceremonies we see on reality television (The Bachelor, For Love or Money, Who Wants To Marry My Dad? and, the mother of them all, Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionaire) are, if anything, more absurd. And that’s not to mention the afternoon dating shows where hot tubs become test tubes for connubial suitability.
All of this comes in the wake of the Richard Mellon Scaife–funded anti-Clinton jihad, which was sold by the mainstream media not as a constitutional crisis but as a virtual referendum on marriage. When infidelity emerged as the sole act of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the question “Why doesn’t she divorce him?” became paramount. And for many, the fact that the Clintons have stayed together is an affront. For it suggests (oh horror!) they have a better marriage than you do. Facing the facts of human sexuality, Clinton emerges as not just the “First Black President” but the “First Gay President,” as well.
If you don’t count Buchanan.
Odd to think of a culture demanding divorce when only a generation ago Nelson Rockefeller’s remarriage was seriously regarded as the key reason for depriving him a shot at the presidency. For Catholics the prohibition was so great that the church’s Legion of Decency deemed High Society, the musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, to be “morally objectionable” because it “deals with divorce.” Ironically, this was the penultimate starring role for Grace Kelly, who, despite an offscreen reputation suggestive of a ’70s-era gay man, pulled off a fairy-tale wedding to Prince Rainer of Monaco that would be the most celebrated spectacle of its kind until Charles and Di — a coupling that would end in the squalor typical of middle-class divorces.
But while that royal marriage was in force, it served its purpose. Like all marriages, it provided a stage for the play/pretend of “fidelity” with no outside party having any right to question it or any other marital alliance, be they Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, Paul and Jane Bowles, Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman, or Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg. The serial pseudo-monogamy of Elizabeth Taylor, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani and Billy Bob Thornton has its charms. But in times like these one can’t but be impressed by the restraint of Warren Beatty.
Still, it’s a brave new world out there, what with Woody Allen marrying his daughter and David Letterman announcing on television that he’s about to father a child by a woman he hasn’t married. Small beer compared to Jodie Foster’s fatherless offspring and Michael Jackson’s white children. But we’ve come a long way from the time when Ingrid Bergman’s “infidelity” was denounced on the Senate floor.
Where do we go from here? An exchange on Salon between interviewer David Bowman and author Laura Kipness gives the game away.
Bowman: “Many gay-marriage couplings are not monogamous, and the couple maintains the emotional security to deal with peripheral sex.”
Kipness: “I think it’s hard to generalize.”
Oh, come on, Laura — go ahead and generalize! Even homophobe supreme Paul Cameron says, “Marital sex tends toward the boring end. Generally it doesn’t deliver the kind of sheer sexual pleasure that homosexual sex does.” Indeed, what sparks Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is the sneaking suspicion that, when it comes not just to food, clothes and interior decor but romance, gays do it better.
Michel Foucault said it best: “I think what most bothers most of those who are not gay about gayness is the gay ‘lifestyle,’ not the sex acts themselves . . . the common fear that gays will develop relationships that are intense and satisfying even though they do not conform to the ideas of relationships held by others. It is the prospect that gays will create as yet unforeseen kinds of relationships that many people cannot tolerate.”
“Gay marriage”? Darling, we’re just getting started!