Marriage is like a fortress besieged. Those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out. — French proverb
Alright, this post goes on for a bit. Don’t say I didn’t say. Or come back soon, when we’ll be movie-mulching about Inception and The Hedgehog. (The image above is Rene Magritte’s Les Amants.)
The other day a reader, “spotty,” sent in a comment on the post Is Julia Gillard homophobic? Or just whistling? She had a bit to say:
I’ve been thinking this for a while and after reading your post, and the comments, perhaps we can work through it together.
My take on this issue is that many people who oppose ss marriage are opposed to the use of the term marriage being used in that sense. I believe that everyone should be able to live their lives, and if that means ss marriage, then so be it, you have my support. But as a straight woman, I don’t understand the desire for marriage, meaning the religious institution that the word invokes, let alone why some in the gay community want it. If I were offered an alternative option, with no religious connection/history/meaning, then I’d take it because I am an atheist, in a long term hetero relationship, and defacto is so ugly a label! Perhaps there should be another category of relationship, without the religious affiliation but with equal legal rights, that was offered gay AND straight people who don’t necessarily wish to enter into “marriage” in the religious sense, but want to join with their partner in a way that is recognised in the same way. I’m not saying civil unions for straight people (or gay), but we need to come up with another term to use (state marriage?).
I suppose what I’m saying is a separation of church and state, which we know isn’t going to happen because religion is a big player in Australian politics but we could begin to work towards it by not recognising “marriage” as the be all and end all of relationships. I hope I’ve made sense, it’s difficult for me to articulate this without gauging reactions… get back to me please!
How straight people envy gay people
The other day I was lunching with a friend, an editor at a newspaper, and she remarked how curious it was that the gay marriage issue had come up again and again during the election. In other years it might have been the republic, or euthanasia, or abortion, or abortion medication; but this year’s social issue was undoubtedly same sex marriage. And she pointed out (as a happily married woman) how so many people in marriages want to get out of them. Many straight people envy gay folk this — they have no pressure on them to marry. And have kids. Gay people have been gifted with the perfect excuse of illegality.
Why, on that basis, one might wonder, would gay folk put up their hands for this handcuff? Wondering from the other angle, spotty writes above: ‘… as a straight woman, I don’t understand the desire for marriage, meaning the religious institution that the word invokes, let alone why some in the gay community want it.’
So, on the one wrist, the handcuff of social convention. On the other, the golden chains of sanctification. If you are outside of the fortress, if you are free to roam the badlands, why clamour to be within the trap? Of course, these are very loaded metaphors …
A problematic joke: dropping the N word
Here’s another way to consider the perversity of gay people wanting legalised marriage — or as spotty suggests, “state marriage” as opposed to church marriage. About (only!) four years ago now, I was on a coach with a bunch of friends returning at the end of a long, happy, sun-steeped Anzac Day excursion to a country race meeting. The tipsy conversation turned to gay marriage: a lesbian couple in front were hardy advocates of the idea and insisted on their rights — gay rights, human rights, civil rights — to be able to marry in exactly the same frame of legality and public and state recognition as everyone else in Australia. There was a very rowdy discussion with the mood among the rest of the bus being against the idea; most couldn’t see how gay life could be improved by having that state sanction.
Problematic on many levels, yes, invoking Godwin’s Law; I didn’t apologise. The point was simple — why fight to join a group full of people who oppress you? Why fight to enter a fortress where you will be disdained and beaten up? Separatism maintains the peace between the exceptional and those who take exception.
2010: the infiltration of Generation X and Gen Y
Which is why the raising of the ss marriage question during the election was such a fascinating symptom. If we had been returning on that sun-soaked bus this year I would not, could not, have made that joke. It seems clear today that the fortress is no longer run by the “Nazi party” or poofter bashers. (See the stats at the next link.) I pointed to this in the follow up to the Gillard/ss marriage post, The real meaning of same sex marriage (A theory, featuring a guest appearance by Kyle Sandilands).
I plucked out a Sandilands radio moment as being emblematic of the issue’s state of the art. Wild Kyle, who turns 40 next year, introduces Tabbott and questions — challenges — him about ss marriage:
‘… uh, I know you like, you’re big into Jesus, and that you don’t want the gays to get married. And that’s all I know. [Pause] Why don’t you let the gays get married, for God’s sake? Like I know everyone’s got their own opinion and it’s, you know, but why … like WHY?! … just let them get married, who cares?’
This reminds me of an opposite point my friend made: why don’t gays stay outside the system, why not keep the subversive element of being different. So different it’s official — so different that marrying is disallowed. That’s where Kyle’s “Why?!” comes in. His exclamatory incomprehension suggests to me that gay people not being allowed to marry is no longer an opportunity for subversion, but is a sign that the system has a widely recognised flaw that it needs to fix in itself.
There is both a milder and more positive mood now: instead of the strident-sounding “gay rights,” or the finger-shaking “human rights,” the issue might be characterised as a more generalised “civil right.” Everyone’s got something to gain from the inclusiveness — that is to say, people now know they have gay friends — because those friends are now willing to come out and announce themselves — and straight people being people, they want their friends, their gay friends, to be part of the picture, and be happy too. If gay “marriages” or whatever, were fully recognised by the state, that legality would immediately lift a great deal of the hovering prejudice against gays — because being gay would then become fully legal in every area, even holding-hands street legal (poofter bashing notwithstanding). It would deny in one stroke the potential of people subconsciously supporting their prejudice as state-sanctioned homophobia.
The importance of being normal
To answer spotty’s question: Why gay people want to be able to “marry” is because they are like everyone else.
Or more elaborately: Why gay people want to have the same ability to be legally married as anyone else in the country is to gain the final mark of acceptance — to be recognised as normal. A little bit different, just like everyone’s a little bit different, AND normal. That’s it. It’s the predictable, tiresome human need to be accepted as part of the tribe. Anyone who remembers adolescence as a period of feeling slightly or very odd — not normal — can understand it. To quote writer Colm Toibin: ‘Gay people have known that our sexuality was actually, despite what we read or were told, quite normal, quite natural; it was only the world that thought otherwise.’
It’s got next to nothing, but everything, to do with religion* — religion is the final bulwark against this momentum, the source of the current tradition-based, irrational prejudice. If civil union carried the exact same weight of public and legal recognition as “marriage” then “gay rights” might well be satisfied — but if it did have the same recognition that would be the exact point at which fundamentalists would object to it. (*Of course, some gay folk wish their lives and their unions to be blessed by their church, which, pardon me, only makes me think of Godwin’s law type jokes.)
If we need an illustration of how a sense of abnormality can distort or deform a character, or in older parlance, the spirit, let’s go back to Toibin. In a wonderful review essay in the current LRB about the Pope, the church and homosexuality — and, in this extract, about how the source of trouble can be its own ironic solution — Toibin writes (imagine hearing his rolling Irish voice):
That you were gay was something you managed to know about yourself and not know at the same time … This is almost an aspect of the Catholic religion itself, this business of knowing and not knowing something all at the same time, keeping an illusion separate from the truth.
… The shame an adolescent felt about being gay in those years should not be underestimated; the feeling that you were less than worthy, that if people found out the truth about you they would despise you, went deep into your soul. This was another reason to become a priest. You could change your own powerlessness into power. As a priest, you would be admired and looked up to, you would spend your life – as so many Catholic priests have indeed spent their lives – doing good and being good … Becoming a priest solved not only the outward problem of forbidden and unmentionable sexual urges, but, perhaps more important, offered a solution to the problem of having a shameful identity that lurked in the deepest recesses of the self.
‘The feeling that you were less than worthy, that if people found out the truth about you they would despise you.’ Toibin was born in Catholic Ireland in 1955, towards the end of the baby boomers. He recalls:
‘In 1971, aged 16, I gave up my Easter break so I could attend a [church] workshop for boys who believed they had a vocation.’
Forty years later, Ireland has enacted the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010. According to the Act there is no difference between the rights and obligations accorded to “opposite sex cohabiting couples” or to those who are same sex. If Toibin was 16 today! The Gens X and Y have arrived, and things will never be the same.
The future problems of gay marriage
Naturally enough we must eventually advise young readers that “They lived happily ever after” is a publishing convention. That the awful truth comes with an R rating. That those tales are to be found in other libraries, in the fortress of adulthood, cordoned from the dreamy illusions of extreme youth.
Can same sex marriages stay gay? Is a can of electric worms shocking? Is a bag of spitting cats quiet? Is the Pope, mmm? All these events will take place: Married gay people will divorce. They will have property and children issues. As in straight marriages, there will be same sex — but perhaps not gay — marriages of convenience (the cake knife cuts both ways). There will be domestic violence in gay marriages. Gay spouses will take out restraining orders. There will be infidelity. There will be court battles over wills. In fact, the price gay people will pay for marriage rights is the same price that straight people pay now: reality. The problems of gay marriage will, duh, include the problems of marriage.
But. Oh yes, but. This is why people buy lottery tickets. On the other, other hand, the one with the ring, just like some few of their lucky straight friends, some proportionately few married gay people will … live happily ever after. And do it in public, accepted and unashamed. The end.