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Monday, Dec 1, 2003, 9:51 am

Gay Marriage, and what I really think about it

By Jim Rinnert
Sitting around the fireplace with some of my partner's relatives after a slendid Thanksgiving meal, I was basking in the warm welcome and acceptance I always get from this lovely and loving family, when someone asked me what I thought about gay marriage and the recent Massachusetts supreme court ruling that legalizes it (for the moment) in that state.

"Well, I'm against it," I declared, and then, noticing the shocked faces around me, realized I had to defend a position I had hardly articulated, or even rationalized, for myself. (These are intelligent, warm, enlightened, open people--In These Times readers and subscribers, even a couple of Sustainers.) I rambled on with some half-baked phrases about having early in life made the"decision" to live a gay lifestyle in part as a way of positioning myself outside a mainstream culture that not only rejects me and my kind but also frequently fills me with horror and revulsion, so why would I want to buy into a convention that puts a mainstream stamp of approval on my relationship? Like, why do we need it? My partner--their brother and uncle--and I certainly don't need a marriage ceremony to validate our relationship of 23 years. Marriage is a heterosexual institution; instead, the goal of gay activists on this issue should, I said, be a recognized civil contract that would give gay and lesbian partnerships rights equal to those enjoyed by married couples.

Yeah, that's what I think. Sort of. But I knew I hadn't nailed it.

My partner's sister, after questioning whether "making a decision" really figures in the process of becoming gay, said she thought that the problem was that the civil-union contract, as now recognized in Vermont, anyway, fell short of the range of rights covered on the federal and state level by marriage.

Since none of us could provide any particulars on the Vermont civil contract, the conversation shifted to other things, leaving me with the knowledge that I had expressed (badly) only part of my opinion--the part that relates specifically and only to myself. I hadn't come near expressing the complex set of feelings and thoughts that the subject has stirred in me. And I certainly hadn't articulated a position that does anything to address the longings and needs of a great many of my brothers and sisters in queerdom.

OK, so what is it we queer folk want when we seek the rites and rights of marriage? Do we long for the blessing of the church or deity? the sanctification of our love for one another? Some do. Do we want inheritance rights and the right of inclusion in decisionmaking on family matters such as child-rearing and health care, including, ultimately, possibly, questions of life and death? Yes, many of us do. Do we want public and legal validation that our relationships are as important and meaningful and tightly bound--as legal--as those of heterosexuals? Again, some do.

And I'm fully in favor of us having all those rights. But it's in those rites that we run into trouble--the term "marriage." It bothers me on a couple of levels. On one level, it's the problem of the conflict between the two fronts of gay activism: gay liberation and gay rights. These two tendencies were pretty much intertwined from the early days of the sexual revolution through most of the '70s, but by the end of that decade the movement had split. The leather boys and drag queens were at one end of the parade; the political seekers and Dignity members (those craving acceptance by church and state) were at the other. And to gain acceptance, the latter were often all too willing to squelch the exuberance and freedom exhibited by the former. (The Log-Cabin Republicans come to mind here. [I still consider the term gay Republican to be oxymoronic, as well as clearly moronic.])

This divide pissed me off then and it still pisses me off. "Gay marriage" is clothed in the uniform of the fight for equality. And, of course, it is that. But first and foremost, gay marriage is just another way to show the straights that we're virtually the same as they are. We're as "normal" as the heterosexuals with whom we share the planet and thereby worthy of acceptance into their clubs. Well, without getting into a discourse on the social function of homo-sexuality in cultures ancient and modern, let me just assert that, hey, guess what--we're not the same. We're different. Rather than try to paint heterosexual stripes on our pelts, let's examine, explore and celebrate our different coloration. The movement for gay rights must not be an effort to erase the perception of difference but an insistance that that difference not be used to deny us the rights enjoyed by others.

Which brings me into the other level of my problem with the push for gay marriage: The timing couldn't be worse. It's a dangerously misguided political move during the Bush presidency with a Republican Congress full of born-again right-wing nuts. Marriage, as will be loudly declared by every preacher and politician pushing for a Constitutional amendment, is a heterosexual institution. "Marriage" is a term with a specific meaning and history.

And they're right. Let them have it--the term and the institution. To engage in that argument is to be sidetracked by semantics. We should demand equal rights under the law until we receive them. Demand a civil contract recognized by state and federal governments that gives gay and lesbian unions the same rights, advantages and protections that marriage gives to heterosexual couples. If we want to have a ceremony around the signing of that contract, have one. If we want to register at Target and gets lots of stuff when we "wed," have at it. Let heterosexual men and women have their institution and their name for it; we need to find the imagination and guts to visualize and build our own.

As Joel Bleifuss pointed out in his "First Stone" column this issue, the Massachusetts decision has pulled together the Christian right to fight the "tidal wave of homosexual activisim that is sweeping around the globe," as Focus on the Family's founder put it. In other words, the back-lash has begun. "Gay marriage" is likely to do for gay rights what the rallying cry of "abortion on demand" did for the Equal Rights Amendment and the women's movement: It diverts the real argument, herding it into a coral controlled by screaming right-wing fundamentalists who will use it galvanize opposition to gay rights in any form, on every level; it reduces the cause of gay rights to a single issue that will strike fear into the hearts of a population that has difficulty seeing past labels, sound bites and tag lines; with the country swept up in the culture of violence encouraged by the "bring-'em-on" belligerence of the insufferably self-righteous George W. Bush, this misbegotten battle has the potential of generating an unprecedented wave of homophobia and gay-bashing that may, indeed, literally, take the fight to the streets.

Gay marriage is not for me; but in a perfect democratic world, it would be an option for those who want it. But this world is not a perfect democracy, and the fight for gay marriage is the wrong fight at the wrong time. If we're going to fight, let's be sure we know exactly what the prize is. Let's get beyond the semantics and fight for equal rights for all.

Jim Rinnert is the art director at In These Times.

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