The Berlin Wall of marriage started crumbling on the weekend of Valentine’s Day in San Francisco, and three weeks later happy couples are still pouring through it, queuing up to be pronounced “partners for life.” Now the small town of New Paltz, NY has followed suit. This is not much I-do about nothing, it’s a velvet revolution, a dignified and joyful antithesis to Britney Spears’ drunken kiss-and-run travesty. And it’s lovely.
Feel moved to join in, but unable to hop on a plane? You can send flowers if you like – just a click away. Or just look upon the dozens of photos of happy couples and read their stories and try not to shed a mother-of-the-bride tear or two.
Here’s how Joan Walsh described it in Salon:
You can't imagine what it's like from a distance. Straight or gay, visitors get teary when they walk inside City Hall, where the meaning of what [Mayor Gavin] Newsom did is huge and palpable. It's always struck me as vaguely homophobic, the insistence on how "normal" these couples are, but that really is what hits you in person. Sure, there are drag queens in the line waiting for marriage licenses, and plenty of old-fashioned flannel-shirted lesbians. But there are also 50-something men in bad suits and women in Prada; there are women in wheelchairs and interracial couples; and there are children everywhere, kids doing homework sitting on the floor as they wait for their parents' turn to get married. These are families already, and once you see them you know: There's really no going back.
Meanwhile, George W. Bush plans to amend the Constitution – the document that undertakes, among other things, “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” – with a Pythonesque rider: “Rule Number One? No Poofters.”
Even though there’s little chance it will get through before the election, and there are suggestions that Bush is merely paying lip-service to his most radically Biblical supporters, this is a huge deal. You don’t tinker with the Constitution lightly. Constitutional amendments generally limit the power of government – term limits for presidents, the right to due process, freedom from unlawful search and seizure, that sort of thing. Or, they extend freedom to the people – speech and religion for starters, and then try Amendment 13, the abolition of slavery, or 19, women’s suffrage, not to mention the good old second amendment freedom to carry guns, lots of guns. Limiting personal freedom in the Constitution is not generally a winner: Prohibition, added to the Constitution in 1919, was sheepishly repealed 24 years later.
The last time a marriage-related Constitutional amendment was attempted was in 1912, by a fellow with the ripely Dickensian name of Seaborn Roddenberry. Interracial marriage was his target, and although his language was ghastly and inflammatory, Roddenberry was simply reflecting common opinion. As Nicholas Kristof pointed out in the NY Times, history has (mostly) made a mockery of Roddenberry's fears:
In the last half-century, there has been a stunning change in racial attitudes. All but nine states banned interracial marriages at one time, and in 1958, a poll found that 96 percent of whites disapproved of marriages between blacks and whites. Yet in 1997, 77 percent approved.
Thankfully, despite being in line with the spirit of its time, Roddenberry’s amendment - which would have criminalized one of the greatest things about this country, and, incidentally, a number of Busytot’s playmates – didn’t get through. And Bush’s one probably won’t make it into law either, which is also good news for the play-group.
Lurking behind the opposition to life-partners of the same sex legally solemnizing their relationships is a huge anxiety about what counts as a family. For a moment there, even the war against terror seemed to wilt in the shadow of this massive new alleged threat to what Bush weirdly calls “the oldest human institution” (what, as opposed to the oldest profession?).
Well, yes. So old an instutition is it, that even in the short history of this country it has had many different forms - from the limited and ad hoc versions available to slaves, to the sapphically respectable de facto Boston marriages of the nineteenth century, to the Clintons' apparent "don't ask, don't tell" arrangement, to a government-prescribed band-aid for poverty, to the 50/50 gamble that it generally constitutes for Americans today.
Anyone who believes that it has always and everywhere been the full Biblical monty should check this handy list. And anyone who insists that marriage be reserved wholly for procreation and vice-versa should start performing citizens’ arrests on their happily married childless neighbours, or perhaps go tell it to the late Strom Thurmond's long-denied out-of-wedlock daughter, or the various descendants of "founding father" Thomas Jefferson. Ya know?
The move to elevate homophobia to the status of national writ is shaping up to be a big election issue, but it’s producing strange bedfellows and some very twisty-turny politics. Let’s not forget that it was that paragon of marital virtue Bill Clinton who signed into law the offensively named Defense of Marriage Act. Still, Bush’s constitutional follow-up has Log Cabin Republicans and long-time right voters like Andrew Sullivan hopping mad (although oddly enough, Dick Cheney’s lesbian activist daughter, Mary, is missing in action - perhaps she’s joined the National Guard?).
On the other side, Democratic nominee-presumptive John Kerry famously voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, and happens to be senator for the state whose Supreme Court last month saw no good reason to deny marriage to same sex couples, and ruled out the notion of separate civil unions using the language of racial desegregation: "the history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal." (Mind you, Kerry also said he was not necessarily opposed to a marriage amendment to the Massachusetts state constitution -- trying to have it both ways, perhaps?). Rest assured that, regardless, the Bush re-election machine is working hastily to tag Kerry as hopelessly gay-friendly (in their book, a bad thing).
And there’s nowhere near unanimity in what you might call the liberal electorate at large, either. There’s a solid and longstanding body of critique about why gay people would want to buy into what activist Michael Warner calls the “selective legitimacy” of marriage, which sanctifies those inside the tent and stigmatizes those on the outside. On a somewhat similar note, as a letter-writer to the NY Times pointed out, the wishy-washy compromise solution of allowing states to create a separate but not quite equal category of civil union will provide a very useful alternative for all the straight couples who don’t buy the whole horse and carriage deal, thus arguably "weakening" the institution of marriage further. And Lisa Duggan, in The Nation, argues perceptively that gay marriage may indeed be the first step on a slippery slope -- towards detaching all adult legal and social privileges from marital status altogether, which is in some senses an ideal proposition.
And meanwhile, the weddings go on. Two women who have lived together happily for fifty years were the first through the gates, and this week Rosie O’Donnell married the other mother of her four kids. Although there is powerful symbolism here, it’s not just about the piece of paper: it’s the 1049 individual legal benefits and protections that go with it. Benefits that are utterly taken for granted by those who’ve never been denied them. Like being able to visit your partner in the hospital, no questions asked. Like not having to fork out an extra couple of hundred dollars a month for health insurance because you don’t count as a spouse. Like being recognized as your child’s parent, or your deceased partner’s heir. Like being able to immigrate as a family.
It’s that last one that I was after when my partner and I entered into a marriage of (in)convenience about eight years ago. We’d always intended to be informally shacked up, forever, in that relaxed, companionable, write your own contract, New Zealandy quasi-Scandinavian kind of way. There we were, sitting cross-legged on the moral high ground, insisting we wouldn’t wed until the institution was open to anyone who wanted the legal protection of marriage, and even then, maybe not.
But things look different when you’re contemplating the dismal prospect of living on different continents for the foreseeable future, with the occasional conjugal visit at the discretion of the border police. We fought the law, and the law won. We flashed our heterosexual privilege cards and gained the right to continue our intentions towards each other in person, not intermittently or telephonically.
If you’re a straight couple, it’s shockingly easy to get married in this country. You really don’t need much, just a couple of days, a couple of friends, and some cash. And the requisite penis and vagina, one of each. Strangely, nobody asked for evidence of this unspoken qualification -- I guess they trusted our witnesses -- and I’m still waiting for the instructions on what we were meant to do with them once we were fully licensed. It certainly didn’t say on the wedding certificate (issued by the New York State Department of Health) that we had to go forth and multiply. Although once we did, I have to say our tax returns started looking a lot healthier.
So, yes, shockingly easy. We located City Hall, presented ourselves at the counter handily labeled “Licenses: Marriage, Dogs, Guns, Etc,” showed some photo ID, and the clerk filled in the form (interestingly, one keystroke fills in the same residential address for both participants, which struck me as a very modern feature). The license costs you around twenty-five bucks, and there’s a twenty-four hour waiting period, just so you can cool off a bit. Then all you have to do is round up a celebrant – we picked the first one on the list – and a pair of witnesses.
The witnesses can be anybody as long as they’re adults and can sign their name on the form. It doesn’t even matter if they’re godless foreigners. So we asked our bestest friends, another New Zealand couple who’d been living in sin about as long as we had, if they’d vouch for us. They did us proud. They scrubbed up nicely, stood up to be counted, only joshed us a little bit about caving in to respectability, and then produced an impromptu wedding cake in the form of a one-egg chocolate sponge from the Edmonds book, with cream and strawberries. That’s friendship.
Actually, it was our wedding witnesses who were the first to get themselves knocked up. Now they’re one child ahead of us, and we still owe many of our good child-rearing techniques and a fair amount of baby gear to them. They got jobs and moved to Canada, and although we miss them terribly it’s probably just as well that they’re living in a country where their two-parent, two-child family is recognized as a family. Each of them is the biological mum of one daughter and has (under current New Zealand law, which is being revised but bloody slowly) only guardianship papers for the other, which poses certain problems for immigration. Although in Canada, as Michelle put it, “nobody blinked an eye -- on this side of the border we're legally a family.”
Exactly. "These are families already," in Joan Walsh's words. Michelle's partner Anne expands eloquently on that thought: “The real fear motivating the homophobic reaction to gay marriage is the constitution of families that don't fit into the heteronormative model. Problem for them is that we are already here -- and there have always been lots of families that, in various ways, have never fitted into that model.” (And concomitantly plenty, that by virtue of consisting of a man and a woman, have passed as entirely normal).
Here's the thing. Far from threatening our marriage, Anne and Michelle aided and abetted it, despite being currently barred from either taking up or refusing the rights of marriage for themselves and their children. Our lovely accidental bridesmaids threw us a party. And if they or anyone in their position ever wished some day to buy into the institution too, I would want nothing more than to meet them in San Francisco or Toronto or New Paltz -- or Auckland -- and do the same for them, right down to the one-egg Edmonds chocolate cake. Busytot can help his little cuzzies carry the flowers and eat the cake.
Look, I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but if anyone here knows any good reason why these two people should not (if they want to) be wed, then dammit, I haven’t heard it yet.
A totally unrelated bonus link for those of you who read all the way to the end: if for whatever reason you're planning on seeing The Passion of the Christ, you'll be needing this incredibly handy guide to useful Aramaic phrases (from the Guardian).