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The marriage moment.

I was in San Francisco this past Halloween. I was curious to see how it felt to be there now, now that the epidemic hangs in animated suspension above us. And what more appropriate time, I thought, than the day of the dead, the night when the boundaries between the dead and the living are supposed to slip, merge, and blur into something more subversive than normality?

And yet it seemed so normal. The crowds in the Castro, if anything, seemed lackluster and strained. The obligatory drag queens and mock Christs (with their routine attempt at irrelevant blasphemy), the belly-bulging muscle bears, and the silver-sprayed grim reapers were swamped by a mass of stumbling, stoned straight kids blearily crashing into one another in the streets. To the casual observer, it looked like a somewhat uninspired but still lively street festival. But to me (and maybe this was a projection), there was also an air of wistfulness about the place, a barely repressed exhaustion, a going-through of the motions.

Maybe grief had something to do with it. Even the room I was crashing in was filled with the bric-a-brac of a friend's dead lover, left almost exactly as the lover remembered it, as if to win him back, his paintings on the walls, Its obituary framed carefully on the bookshelf. And every friend I saw in the few days I was there carried someone with him, some echo that refused to die away or a virus that carried in its very genes the imprint of yet another corpse, the pathogen of yet another spasm of need, met somewhere. This grief, like the virus, is "undetectable," as we have learned to say. But just because it is undetectable doesn't mean it isn't there.

The ends of plagues can be disorienting times. While plagues last they provide a kind of traumatizing predictability, a stiff, cold, unrelenting downdraft against which to bend. And when the wind subsides we stay bent, still clenched against the cold, afraid to straighten or look up or take the lull for granted. We get so used to the succession of loss that we almost forget how to recognize a gain, how to integrate it into our lives, or how to believe that we ourselves won't soon be lost -- again, like the others. Last winter, as the news of my own semideliverance sank in and the lab reports continued their grim good news, I found it oddly hard to celebrate. There were a few hours of intense, obliterating relief. But then, as if on some bizarre cue, I found myself sinking into a yawning depression, finding it hard to get up in the morning, harder still to contemplate the simple tasks of making a living or engaging a world -- gay and straight -- oblivious to what I had just seen or witnessed. Some call this survivor guilt, although it didn't feel like guilt. I was glad beyond measure to be alive, to be well, to be here; but the sadness still surrounded me like a blanket, muffling everything. The indicatives of plague were turning slowly back into subjunctives, the duties into doubts, and there was no easy out. "The plague exists," Albert Camus's doctor deadpanned. "We must fight the plague." But when the plague ceases to exist or when it holds itself in suspended abeyance, what must we fight? And how?

For those of us who have been absorbed in this experience, which is to say all of us at some level or another, this may be the hardest thing to concede. A part of us knows that a momentous shift has occurred; but a deeper part of us stir misses the miliarity of the crisis. We cling to it in a myriad little ways. Even as the obituary pages dwindle and the streets fie up, we refuse to concede explicitly that anything profound has changed and we attack those impetuous enough to admit it. We keep paintings of the dead high on our walls, their photographs on our shelves. Boxes of their possessions lie under our beds, their names and numbers whited out in address books we cannot bring ourselves to trash. We refuse to move out of apartments and neighborhoods that resonate with the memories of the catastrophe. And we reenact, like history repeated as farce, the behaviors that brought them low.

But at the same time, we know things are different. We know that the horror of the past two decades -- the roadkill of the first years, the culling of the middle, and the triage of the end -- has ceded to a new order of legitimate expectation. And we begin to live the consequences of our belief: that we can start over, that the routines of the past can be reengaged, that the old comforting inanities of sex and career and money and friends can once more be unrestrainedly part of our world. And whether we acknowledge it or not, we are relieved, relieved beyond anything we can express.

Sometimes I wonder if the newly vibrant subsubculture of the circuit isn't somehow a part of this. Yes, it is a tiny part of contemporary gay culture, dwarfed, for example, by the growth of gay churches and spirituality. But as others have pointed out, it's a revealing tiny segment. The recent argument over it has fallen too neatly perhaps into an old fight between hedonism and responsibility. But look more closely and you see something more interesting. You see people finding a way to celebrate something the g establishments refuse to concede: that the world has changed not just in degree but also in kind. So many men in the history of this epidemic dreamed of such a moment of armistice, a day when victory would be declared, when there would be a ticker-tape parade for the survivors, a memorial for the dead. BE HERE FOR THE CURE, the posters urged us. But reality gave us no such moment, merely a blur of transition, like an early dawn that refuses to tell us whether it is still right or truly day, until it is too late or we are too exhausted to know the difference. And so people find a way to vent, to sigh an ecstatic, almost arbitrary sigh of relief, to dare an optimism their betters refuse to grant them.

And, yes, they abuse drugs, and abuse them in a way that ultimately can only weaken and destroy the future. But look at the kinds of drugs -- a substance that instantly simulates an intimacy that so many gay men find almost impossible to achieve and an exhilaration they cannot otherwise allow themselves to feel; a powder that tips them into an oblivion a part of them inwardly craves; and a crystal that gives them an endurance and power they haven't yet been able to attain for real. These drugs are illusions: pathetic, debilitating, but also telling illusions. They have been described as the antithesis of the new era of responsibility and maturity we are trying to achieve. But they are also, perhaps, merely the cheapest version of such an era, lasting hours, not decades, and bought with money, not life.

The same, I suppose, could be said of sex. In one sense you can look at the gay male fondness for anonymous promiscuity as a rejection of all that our society values and offers. And you will find no end of "queer" theorists who will rush in to politicize such pathologies. "There is no orgasm without ideology," as one of them once (hilariously) put it. And you will also find no end of post-stonewall gay novelists and playwrights who persist in seeing these one-night stands as some kind of cultural innovation or political statement. But for the rest of us, it isn't hard to see this proclivity for quick and easy sex as in fact a desperate and failed search for some kind of intimacy, a pale intimation of a deeper longing that most of us inwardly aspire to and deserve. Maybe this too is projection, but I think I detect around me among many gay men both an intense need and longing for intimacy and an equally intense reluctance to achieve it -- a reluctance bred by both our wounded self-esteem as homosexuals and our general inculturation as men.

But the answer to this reluctance is surely not a facile celebration of our woundedness -- or, on the other hand, a harsh condemnation of those who exhibit it -- but an honest attempt to help one another find the stability and love we really need and deserve. We have to believe that we are capable of such a noble and ennobling love, and we have to do much more to affirm and celebrate the many couples who have achieved it and the many others who are manfully struggling to find it. It is easier, of course, to remain wounded and to blame others -- often plausibly -- for our condition. And easier still to hold conferences and write articles to provide reasons for why struggle is unnecessary or why fidelity is the goal of "neopuritans" or why our promiscuity is "a collective way of life." How much less troubling, after all, to respond to the taunt of "queer" by simply embracing it or by denying that there is any hierarchy of human goods or any way of life better or deeper than any other.

So there are plenty of people -- especially among a few activist elites -- who prefer to chant mantras of decades gone by and pretend that somehow this is 1957 and straight America is initiating a Kulturkampf against sex in parks and that somehow this is the defining issue of our times. But this is nostalgia masquerading as politics. It is not a "sex panic," as they call it. It is a victim panic, a terror that with the abatement of AIDS we might have to face the future and that the future may contain opportunities that gay men and women have never previously envisaged, let alone grasped. It is a panic that the easy identity of victimhood might be slipping from our grasp and that maturity may be causing us to more difficult and challenging terrain.

It is not hard to see what that terrain is. It is marriage. I make no apologies for the baldness of this statement, because it seems to me to be blindingly obvious. The way in which the gay leadership first ducked and bobbed and weaved on this issue is proof enough of its potency and significance; and the ambivalence with which certain segments of the gay world have greeted this breakthrough is also a sign of the depth of its potential. Marriage is not, whatever its enemies say, a means to tame or repress or coerce gay men and women. On the contrary. It is, in fact, the only political and cultural and spiritual institution that can truly liberate us from the shackles of marginalization and pathology. It is the critical institution in our culture related to the emotional and sexual attraction of one human being to another -- guaranteed under the Constitution to anyone who loves another person, guaranteed to prisoners and rapists, to deadbeat dads and the mentally incompetent, to murderers and even aliens. And yet it is denied to gay men and lesbians. It is the institution more than any other that links the equality of politics with the intimacy of the hear-t. Which is why it is so strange -- but so telling -- that we have avoided it as an issue for so long.

We should be clearheaded about one thing: The right to marry is denied us for one simple reason. It is denied because we as gay men and women are deemed incapable of real love, unworthy of real commitment, incompetent to achieve what every heterosexual in this country and indeed the world regards as the most important and satisfying and significant thing in their lives. And by acquiescing in such a judgment, by greeting its denial with ambivalence, by asserting with greater and greater vehemence that other issues are somehow more pressing or more relevant, we assert more eloquently than anyone in the religious right that their calumnies are true, that we are indeed incapable, wounded so deeply that such commitments and responsibilities are beyond our reach and even beyond our desire.

This is so much deeper an issue than whether marriage is somehow a good thing or whether everyone should be encouraged to enter into it. The truth is, when gay men and women say they are "rejecting" marriage, they are simply in denial. Gay people are not rejecting marriage, because we cannot reject marriage, because marriage has never been offered to us. We are deemed below even being given the choice to marry, below even the most elementary political and emotional right every heterosexual takes unthinkingly for granted.

And this is so much more fundamental a matter than workplace discrimination, which remains our leadership's issue du jour. Constitutionally, the right to marry is vested prior even to the Bill of Rights, prior even to the right to vote, let alone prior to the issue of workplace discrimination. It is, according to the Supreme Court, "one of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival," vested in the Declaration of Independence itself. It cannot be taken away, the court has reasoned, by any civil authority without violating human rights at their most basic level. If you do not believe this, ask yourself this question: Has any heterosexual in America ever contemplated for one second that he had a right to the pursuit of happiness if he didn't have the right to marry the person he loved? Of course not -- no more than he would think himself a full citizen if he were denied the right to vote. But constitutionally the right to marry has been granted more weight and significance than the right to vote! Do you think that if gay men and women were turned back from the ballot box, our leadership would not be up in arms?

And yet so many of us remain ambivalent. Such ambivalence might be forgivable in ordinary ti-mes. But these are not ordinary times. We are, after all, winning the right to marry. In Hawaii, in all likelihood, for the first time ever, two men and two women will soon be able to marry legally in America. The religious right appreciates the significance of this event, even if Washington's gay elite often hasn't. The forces of fundamentalism well know that if they lose in Hawaii, then their entire project of pathologizing and marginalizing gay people will falter. In the islands themselves an epic struggle has already been launched by the fundamentalists to sabotage the court's ruling in a referendum in the fall, easily the most significant electoral test of strength in the history of the gay rights movement. We cannot let Hawaii fail, as the Human Rights Campaign has now understood. But regardless of the outcome in Hawaii, the battle is not over. The struggle will merely pass to Vermont, where another suit is making its way through the cour-ts and may well have a better chance of success. If not Vermont, then elsewhere. The battle over marriage, in other words, is not coming. It is already here.

And it will likely determine all of our futures. Of course, this issue is hard for us. It is hard because it asks us directly at a time when we are exhausted and confused whether we truly believe in our own equality, whether we truly believe in ourselves and the integrity of our loves. It asks us whether we want to be defined by the pathologies of the past or by a sexuality that embraces the whole person in a relationship of love and fidelity. Of course, many of us want desperately to get to that point but find ourselves unable to achieve it. The ways we have used to medicate and alleviate the stresses of our lives -- the double-edged freedom of the closet, the fleeting liberation of anonymous sex, the quick fix of substance abuse -- are things we are reluctant to leave behind, at least until we have somewhere else to go. But we do, at last, have somewhere else to go. And that somewhere is integration into the human race. At the very moment that we are emerging from the experience of mass death, we are being presented with the possibility of a more fully integrated life. We would, I think, be betraying all those who are no longer here -- all those who died in the hope that we might see this day -- if we didn't recognize the potential of this moment. And if we failed to seize it.

For better or for worse

While securing marriage rights has been issue number one for many gay men and lesbians for more than two years, the big question facing couples at the dawn of 1998 is no longer how to get married but what happens after "I do. "

Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the granting of marriage rights will reverberate for years in unanticipated ways. "I think there will be a lot of joy in the world," says Mary Bonauto, an attorney at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a legal group based in Boston. "People can enter into a union with the person they love." Bonauto is cocounsel in a lawsuit brought by three same-sex couples challenging Vermont's marriage laws.

Undoubtedly, many gay couples who do not live in Hawaii will hop on planes to the islands to get married. Difficult questions will arise, however, when people return home with the expectation that their marriages will be recognized same way heterosexual unions are. At that point, many will discover, the honeymoon will be over. The fact that many governments and employers will not recognize gay marriages will unleash what promises to be an unprecedented wave of litigation. Battles over custody, spousal support, taxes, and other financial matters will be affected by the new marriage right. While gay legal groups are already working to prepare for the onslaught, they are also stressing that litigation is not necessarily the best recourse. The right to many will likely face years -- if not decades -- of legal war before it is entirely settled.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related information on gay couples; same-sex marriage
Author:Gallagher, John
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 20, 1998
Words:3054
Previous Article:Portraits: gay sex in the face of AIDS.
Next Article:Adopting a family: court decisions and perseverance opened the doors more than ever in 1997 for gays looking to be parents.
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