Re-evaluating tradition in times of social change
It’s hard not to read the buzz around Dustin Lance Black’s new play “8,” in which Hollywood A-listers including Brad Pitt and George Clooney reenact Perry v. Schwarzenegger, as confirmation that the Proposition 8 trial has been one long piece of theater. In 2008, Prop 8 amended the California state constitution to restrict marriage to opposite-sex partnerships, and the resulting lawsuit has unfolded with all of the tension and climactic build of drama. The plaintiffs’ lawyers have taken on the task not only of undermining the legality of the amendment, but also of casting the same-sex couples in question as sympathetic characters, selling them to their audience as relatable, as human.
The latest plot twist came this February, when California’s Ninth Circuit upheld a 2010 ruling that declared Prop 8 unconstitutional. In the majority opinion, Judge Reinhardt concluded, “That designation is important because ‘marriage’ is the name that society gives to the relationship that matters most between two adults…. It is the designation of ‘marriage’ itself that expresses validation, by the state and the community, and that serves as a symbol, like a wedding ceremony or a wedding ring, of something profoundly important." Reading this, I considered the correspondences between a symbol and a prop, and what profound importance a wedding ring might be made to stand for.
I used to want one. I was always a successful kid, a kid who was going places, and the place Future Sam was bound for would feature a nice house with a big yard, a child or two, and—the linchpin—a wife. The failed loves and thwarted romances piled up as I entered middle and then high school, but the dream life persisted, shiny and static, like the most convincing of mirages.
I did not think to doubt the institution of marriage because no one else seemed to, because adults didn’t not get married and so of course I would as well. And I wouldn’t need to do anything to make it happen, because it was conspiring all around me on my behalf. Judge Reinhardt knew this, reminding us, “We need consider only the many ways in which we encounter the word ‘marriage’ in our daily lives and understand it, consciously or not, to convey a sense of significance." Marriage, like puberty before it and death sometime after it, would take care of itself; I would get a marriage certificate as surely as I’d gotten a birth certificate, as surely as I would get high school and college diplomas: one more sheet in the paper trail of a life well lived.
As high school advanced, more loves failed and more romances were thwarted, and I began to harbor distressing suspicions of my difference. They registered as a gnawing pain. No one else seemed to worry about missing the marriage track because they were already on it; I knew that the hookups and movie dates my classmates were stumbling through were inadvertent first steps in the direction I yearned after, and the farther I felt myself drifting away from it the more desperately I clung to its promise. Neither was this assurance lost on Judge Reinhardt: “The name ‘marriage’ signifies the unique recognition that society gives to harmonious, loyal, enduring, and intimate relationships." What could be more appealing to a derailed teenager than harmony, loyalty, and duration?
At seventeen I read Autobiography of Red for the first time and felt my world crack open. In it, Anne Carson retells the myth of Herakles slaying the red monster Geryon as a current-day queer bildungsroman: The young monster Geryon falls in love with the young rebel Herakles, and over the course of the verse novel this love melts into something less stable, less nameable. It makes room for variables, for distance, for other people. I still felt isolated and crippled with difference—and it would be another couple of years before I identified as anything other than straight—but the lock on the pen had sprung loose. The gnawing pain finally had a pasture to graze in; horizon wheeled out in every direction.
When I met a boy at the end of my freshman year of college whom I thought I could fall in love with (though we never quite made it that far), that formerly crippling difference reified and demanded to be accounted for. Provided with a new kind of object on which to fix themselves, my desires began to feel materially consequential. Like a protective parent, I was terrified of what would happen when my difference came into contact with a world that seemed to have no place for it, but I was quick to learn how much fugitive variety the rest of that world was harboring. The dream life finally dissolved into air. I began to imagine alternatives.
Queer theorist and English scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote a lot of things that have become essential to how I understand myself, but her most important insight might also have been her most basic: People are different from each other. Our culture works tirelessly to reproduce a single kind of love. The actors change, and today even the actors’ genders change (a fact that is itself monumental and deserving of applause), but their desires don’t. Or if they do, we are meant to understand that they shouldn’t, because they are inevitably punished for it. And so Judge Reinhardt’s symbolic wedding ring leaves me ruffled, because I can read it as nothing other than a symptom of the painful and ubiquitous negation that it has taken me years to overcome.
Illustration by Erin Blagman
Among the other things Sedgwick appreciated were our society’s insistence on convergence, and the all too treacherous paths queer youth must brave to arrive at their sexual identities. In the absence of real-life guides, I found my maps in books and blog posts. Reading them, I sometimes imagine the little girl in the nameless town who might not know she’s a lesbian until she stumbles onto a website that arms her with that word and guides her to its meaning. It strikes me then how convincingly our cultural artifacts present themselves as mirrors, and how profoundly alone one feels looking into that mirror and not recognizing oneself among the people staring back.
How isolating to be the child who might understand herself as asexual or pansexual or polyamorous if she were only equipped with the words for it. How scary (though also, I hope, how thrilling) to be the child who must invent new words or even languages with which to order an emotional and sexual life more rich and particular than our current vocabulary can accommodate. That child doesn’t need Judge Reinhardt to invoke the wedding rings; she’s bombarded with them every day.
Laws have a teaching effect—they’re not meant simply to codify dominant practices and beliefs, but to guide us towards better behavior, better thinking. By recognizing marriage and marriage alone as a relationship structure worthy of affirmation and reward (because in addition to social privilege and cultural approval, the legal rewards are numerous and material), our government teaches us to share in that value system.
Though I oppose marriage’s very existence as a legal institution, it still pains me to know that many of those same people complicit in its glorification are prejudiced enough to insist on my exclusion from it. And so I cried—of course I cried—right there on the subway platform that night in June when I learned that the state of New York had legalized same-sex marriage. Given the unrelenting reports of gay teen suicides over the last couple of years, I do not doubt that more than a few lives were saved by the news.
Because I imagine that every additional state that passes same-sex marriage legislation gives a few more queer children the hope they need to stay alive, I have to support it. I am haunted by these children, these beautiful children driven to death by their peers’ and their culture’s brutal refusal of their identities, and I think of them daily.
But I also worry that our affirmation of marriage not simply as one kind of acceptable and fulfilling relationship but as an inalienable right precludes too many queer children from imagining their own best futures. In my opposition to the institution, I imagine these futures with them.
“There is no person without a world,” writes Anne Carson. The quote is taped to the wall above my desk. Ironically or not, exploring my particular emotional topography has led me to believe that long-term monogamy may suit my sexual and emotional needs best after all. When my personal world feels sufficiently charted, I’ll probably settle into something more or less resembling a marriage, though I can’t say with what kind of partner and I won’t ask the government to register it as such. Still, it gives me great joy to imagine how many other people’s worlds I bump up against in the course of a day, and how dramatically their landscapes might differ from my own.
A few nights ago I caught up with a friend over bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches. It was 2:30 a.m., and we were complaining about work; among the things I had to complain about was this essay. When I mentioned that I would be writing about not wanting to get married, his eyebrows furrowed, then softened in concern. “You don’t? Sam, that’s really sad.”
It occurred to me then that I’d never been happier.
This article appeared in a modified form in The Yale Herald.