On the night of June 24, 2011, just before Governor Cuomo signed New York’s marriage equality bill into law, some friends and I made our way over to the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. There, we danced in the street.
We weren’t alone. There were hundreds of us, and more by the minute. It was a riot, but an amiable riot. Television crews were there in force. The cops came, too, and half-heartedly corralled the crowd with portable gates until we became too massive, too jubilant. Tourists came by, straight couples with baby strollers, men in outrageous drag, lesbians from the outer boroughs, and each new wave begot more joy, more dancing.
The night of June 28, 1969, wasn’t far from anyone’s mind—that night when adrenaline-jacked transexuals and hustlers confronted a corrupt police force’s routine harassment of the Stonewall’s LGBT patrons. That night, an earlier generation took our struggle to the streets. They swung their purses, swore like sailors, started fires, overturned cars, resisted arrest, and met the beatings and billy clubs with kick lines and high camp. Our modern gay rights moment started there just 40 years ago, and now, somehow, the cops and the governor are on our side.
A neat bookend to history? Maybe. If equality in marriage is the final liberation promised by that outrageous rebellion, then we’ve done well. National gay organizations wielded our economic and political capital, and brought same-sex marriage into reality with sloganeering, organizing, browbeating, and financing as adept as any other interest groups’.
But a few days ago, in the lulls between cheers, as the cameras panned away from the crowd, thoughtful conversations broke out here and there among strangers, as they are wont to do around midnight in the streets of New York. Under the jubilant wave there was a subtle undertow, a force pulling against this rush to the altar. Had marriage been the right goal after all, we wondered entre nous? One Brooklynite who had badgered the senators for weeks put it succinctly: “I did it for all of you queens. Marriage ain’t for me.”
Happy supporters of same-sex marriage are all alike, but each of us that is unhappy is unhappy in his or her own way. Many eloquent perspectives have surfaced from our ranks. In The New York Times, Katherine Franke worries that the option of marriage may morph into a practical mandate and wonders whether the intrusion of the state and the church into our uniquely wrought relationships is something we ought to cheer about. Hilton Als in the New Yorker suggests that aping straight marriage signals the increasing blandness of being queer and of New York in general. Other essays from recent years outline further objections. Lisa Dettmer demonstrates how the marriage movement has drained the coffers of the biggest nonprofit players in the gay world at the expense of many other worthy causes and that marriage will have an outsized benefit for wealthy, white gays and lesbians.
The division of humanity into closed couples, when modernity has given us a chance at something much better—affiliation by manifold currents of love, interest, and likeness . . . . Marriage is lye poured upon the petri dish of the new relations of erotic sociality.
Ah, that utopian moment. While the reality it gave rise to was far from perfect, the queer era has indeed seen a vigorous, breathtakingly inventive exploration—a Cambrian explosion—of emotional and sexual combinations. Even among my apparently conventional circle of friends—comprised by day of bankers, editors, teachers, psychologists, and other average Joes—one finds a robust gamut: friends who are sometimes lovers, former lovers who are now best friends, PLPs (platonic life partners), the odd “thruple” (polyamorists that come in handy packs of three), inventively non-monogamous couples. And, of course, those rare birds forever fated to be together for whom marriage fits just fine.
What about the many other blessed varieties of human love to which we gays and lesbians gave birth?
The field in which this mishmash of romantic ties grows is worth noting: a robust found family of enduring friendships. These powerful networks are unspeakably important to us. They come into play sometimes to replace traditional nuclear families, and they in turn nurture our romantic experiments and absorb our failures. In Dancing in the Streets, a raucous history of collective joy, author Barbara Ehrenreich laments, “We have a rich language for describing the emotions drawing one person to another . . . . [but] what we lack is any way of describing the ‘love’ that may exist among dozens of people at a time.” Queer families like mine have been inventing those words for decades.
The question is this: will these extended queer families exist in the future, to continue their pioneering tightrope walks over those universally prickly fields of jealousy, intimacy, adventure, and security? Once the rosy crown of marriage is on the table, won’t there be a powerful incentive to leave our relationship experiments behind? And if marriage equality launches a widespread flight to the culturally sanctioned form of partnership, have we lost a history and a field of experience that the rest of the world might well have benefited from?
Another twist on objection—a seemingly perverse twist, in light of similar objections from the religious right—but I question whether embracing marriage is the spiritually and morally right thing for gays to do. I have intermittently made my living writing about religion and therefore witnessed a great deal of religious activity. In churches, synagogues, and mosques, something fundamentally restorative happens—mostly, I think, because the communities that meet there are so like queer families. Congregants make a simple commitment to be there for one another. By this act, if nothing else, they offer absolution for the many failings of the individual. Perhaps this is why the religious, according to research reported by political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace (2010), test as happier and more involved and invested citizens. Religion has gotten a bad rap for being exclusionary, but some of us still celebrate it as an unmatched social tonic.
To be fair, society crosses these lines often. Women have spoken in church, despite Paul’s strictures. Slavery eventually passed away, though slaves in the New Testament are advised to be obedient. But the homosexuality debate is, to my mind, of an entirely different degree. On other social issues of our day, early Christians were a liberal vanguard. They promoted the radical message that, in spiritual life, “there is neither . . . slave nor free, male nor female.” Not so with homosexuality. Same-sex carnality falls unequivocally afoul of early Christian morality, just as it does with that of nearly every venerated holy text worldwide.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James points out that, time and again, societies take drastic steps when the will of the people conflicts with religious values. Deities get discarded when they fall out of step with popular morality.
So soon as [the fruits of the deity] conflicted with indispensible human ideals, or thwarted too extensively other values; so soon as they appeared childish, contemptible, or immoral when reflected on, the deity grew discredited, and was erelong neglected and forgotten.
From the decadence and blood sacrifice of the pagan god-emperors that inspired the founding of Christianity to the excesses of the sixteenth-century church that led to the Reformation, new morals mean trouble for the spiritual status quo.
Fine, for those who can do without faith. But others, like myself, who value our shared architectures of morality and meaning may wonder what lies ahead. Will the LGBT world assimilate with our marriages and our normalized families to the Christian moral tradition—or might we represent some kind of Jamesian next chapter?
Our acceptance, let’s remember, was contingent on society deciding that consenting adults may choose their own kind of love. Is this the nature of the gift that we are meant to bring the future? If so, is fighting for marriage, and only marriage, in some sense a moral failure? What about the many other blessed varieties of human love to which, during our forty years in the wilderness, we gays and lesbians gave birth?
Is having a boyfriend suddenly not good enough? Is sharing an apartment, a dog, and utilities suddenly second-class?
Some argue that marriage is simply a matter of paperwork between consenting adults. If LGBT couples want to receive the considerations in taxation, hospital visitation, etc. enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts, they should be able to. And no supporter of same-sex marriage disagrees there. But in your experience, how many marriages, even among die-hard secularists, are nothing more than a signature in city hall during a lunch break?
Marriages are high moments of meaning, where we come together to measure ourselves against the best of our love and loyalty. They happen in places that we set apart. In them, we define how we think, relate, and value as a society.
And perhaps by making our rallying call a traditional, one-size-fits all model for love, we have failed to bring back from our exile the moral lessons that the world was meant to learn.
These and more thoughts ran through my head after I biked home from our friendly riot. I couldn’t help but feel a little blue. On a less abstract level, what did this end-of-an-era mean for me?
I also couldn’t help but worry about younger gays. Well, worry and feel incredibly jealous. In the unabashed strut of each new gay generation, I see something gained and something lost. Sure, they’re so comfortable in their skin, taking same-sex dates to prom, seeing queers on every cable station, and, now, dreaming about white weddings.
Who could wish any exclusion on them? But isn’t it exclusion that has made me the man I am? My friends and I fought for a voice during Reagan’s silence about AIDS. We supported our military brothers and sisters through the humiliations of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Do the young ones even belong to the same species as we who Acted Up; who walked, outnumbered by protestors, in small-town marches; and who built our own queer homes and networks when we went years or decades or a lifetime without acceptance from our biological families?
And what will these younger gays miss out on? Being gay defined my choices. It was why I took a trek across America, living out of my car, determined to meet my country in a brand new skin. It was why I worked in an abortion clinic. It was why, today, I volunteer in a homeless shelter. Exclusion radicalized my politics, taught me humility, helped me to question authority and stand up for others. Without those lessons, what happens to us? Will the ghettos turn into shopping malls? Will the twinks go young Republican?
What’s done is done. No one—on this side, anyway—is actually angry about same-sex marriage. It’s complicated, but it’s the future. I’ll happily try to catch the bouquet at my pals’ weddings. Maybe someday I’ll even tie the knot myself and regain some of that ransom of flatware I’ve been bullied into parceling out to my straight friends through the years.
This equation is less brutal than it sounds. Marriage is never a happy ending in and of itself. It’s the beginning of a new road, with fresh strains of heartbreak, a little absurdity, and its own surprising beauty. On the morning after this legislative victory, it probably pays to be neither too pessimistic nor too misty about what a handful of rice can do. Marriage itself is an experiment, no matter who takes it on. And the LGBT wedding dance is far from over.