The Trouble with Gay Marriage

Jim Rinnert

Recently someone asked me what I thought about gay marriage. “I’m against it,” I answered. The goal of gay activists on this issue, I said, should be a recognized civil contract that would give gay and lesbian partnerships rights equal to those enjoyed by married couples.

But my quick and easy answer didn’t quite get to the complex set of feelings and thoughts that the subject has stirred in me. And it certainly didn’t articulate a position that addresses the longings and needs of a great many of my brothers and sisters in queerdom.

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

I’m fully in favor of us having all those rights. But it’s in those rites that we run into trouble. The push for gay marriage bothers me in a couple of ways.

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, drag queens and bare-chested dykes 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 often were all too willing to squelch the exuberance and freedom exhibited by the former.

This divide angered me then and it still does. The push for gay marriage is clothed in the uniform of a fight for equality. And, of course, it is that. But gay marriage strikes me as, first and foremost, just another way to show the straights that we’re the same as them, that we’re as “normal” as the heterosexuals with whom we share the planet and thereby are worthy of acceptance into their clubs. Well, without getting into a discourse on the social function of homosexuality in cultures ancient and modern, let me just assert that, 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 goal of the gay rights movement should not be to erase the perception of difference in the minds and hearts of our fellow citizens but to eliminate the use of that difference to deny us rights enjoyed by others.

Which brings me to 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 Bible-thumping 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 you want to have a clergy-blessed ceremony around the signing of that contract, have one. If you want to register at Target and get lots of stuff when you “wed,” do it. Let heterosexual men and women have their institution and their name for it; we need to find the imagination and the guts to visualize and build our own.

As Joel Bleifuss pointed out in his “First Stone” column (“Do You, Bob, Take This Man…,” December 22), the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage [for the moment] in that state has pulled together the Christian right to fight what Focus on the Family’s founder calls the “tidal wave of homosexual activisim that is sweeping around the globe.” In other words, the backlash 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 debate, herding it into a cul-de-sac inhabited by screaming right-wing fundamentalists who will use it to galvanize opposition to gay rights in any form, on every level. It reduces the cause of gay rights to a single issue, one that will strike fear into the hearts of a population that has difficulty seeing past easy labels and sound bites. With the country swept up in the culture of fear and violence encouraged by the “bring-’em-on” belligerence of the insufferably self-righteous George W. Bush, it can lead to an unprecedented wave of gay-bashing that could 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. However, this world is not a perfect democracy, and the fight for gay marriage is the wrong fight at the wrong time. If we have to fight, let’s take a close look at what we’re struggling for. Let’s get beyond semantics and fight for equal rights for all.

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Jim Rinnert is the art director at In These Times.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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