Sometimes the gay marriage debate overwhelms me. No, not the frustrating, frequently vitriolic one playing out in America, I mean the one in my head. Actually it’s more of a “me” marriage debate. Though it lies dormant for months, even years, all it takes is a bad PMS month (A therapist once called my PMS “PMO,” as in “Premenstrual Opportunity,” as in opportunity to take stock. I took her saying that as an opportunity to find a new therapist.), a friend’s Facebook engagement photo album (Did people always do this? Like, in the Dark Ages, did couples haul around a painter and pose in front of various whimsical locations, say with their sheep or near the gallows, or were they too busy dying of Bubonic Plague?) or a seriously good salmon (The kind you serve with fresh strawberries and spinach salad, none of that iceberg lettuce and stuffed chicken breast bullshit) and I’m back to mentally planning my wedding.
Of course “Wedding’ isn’t synonymous with ‘marriage.” Friends have helpfully informed me of this. (I have helpfully replied, “Do you think I’m Kim Kardashian?!) The compulsion to strap a mile-long net to my head and subject guests to “Summer Lovin’” (Why do DJs always play that song? More pressing, why do women shriek like that when they do?) is obviously unrelated to a fervent desire for two hearts to become one (complacent, sweat pant-wearing unit). I know the difference. I’ve even written here before about how my apparently intrinsic desire for a wedding seems sometimes in direct contrast to my early distaste for marriage itself. The debate runs deeper though.
As I’ve grown, I’ve found myself continuously drawn to the idea of marriage (again, as distinct from wanting my own goddamn wedding because I’m tired of buying bath towels for straight people). My craving seems relationship-independent (Sorry everyone I’ve ever dated.) and has little to do with all of the important practicalities of marriage — insurance, plug-pulling, automatically being your kid’s legal parent even if you weren’t the one on the table in excruciating pain. My impulse to marry is emotional, I think, maybe even vaguely spiritual; tied up with a longing for the sort of union that may very well be unattainable except by really happy nuns. I want to connect in some all-consuming, impossible way. I want the fairytale.
When I get to this part of my internal argument I’m brought up short because, hello, I’m quoting a Hollywood hooker and aside from the fact that I would wear the hell out of those vinyl boots, pursuing marriage for the same reasons Julia Roberts agreed to drive off into the sunset with a man who PAID for her is probably ill-advised. Still, there are lots of wrong reasons to get married, and people wed based on them every day. But for me, being gay adds further confusion. It’s awkward enough to be a feminist, committed to independence (except for my modem-installing clause) and self-reliance (except that I never want to carry anything myself) and feel drawn to an institution put in place to control a patriarch’s lineage. But as whatever I am, which is probably a lesbian (although I’m getting really tired of identifying with a group who seems mostly intent on telling other members they should quit wearing men’s clothing), shouldn’t I be somehow immune to the compulsion to wed?
In search of answers to this question, I did what I always do when seeking medical advice or fashion tips; I asked The Great Oracle i.e. Facebook. As usual, FB produced a buffet of contradictory responses. (Wedding Note: Buffets are totally classy, even more so if you spring for the ice sculpture.)
“I prefer a queer subculture,” said Tess from California. “But I also want the protection afforded by a federally recognized marriage (i.e. Social Security benefits). I wish there was another way to get the benefits of marriage without submitting to the heteronormative paradigm.”
When I asked what it meant to submit to the heteronormative paradigm or HP as I affectionately refer to it, Tess clarified, “It’s about submitting to the state–prescribed gender roles, patriarchy, and nuclear family. We don’t need a state sanctioned marriage to love who we choose. Gay marriage makes queers seem more “normal” to heterosexuals and less threatening because they “are just like (hetero)normal people.”
I’m not sure I agree with Tess, but I do know that every important social movement (think civil rights, women’s rights, etc.) must contain both those interested in working inside the system, and those determined to oppose it. We need both contingents, so don’t go throwing shade at Tess. (Wedding Note: See if a drag queen, preferably RuPaul, can officiate.)
In contrast, Chicago comedian Fawzia Mirza gladly copped to a desire to marry, sighting cultural underpinnings. “I come from a Pakistani, Muslim culture and religion, where marriage is not just essential, it’s mandated. You are raised to believe that you as a little girl, will marry, and should dream to marry, that the act of marrying someone is as essential a part of your dreams as anything you personally do.”
Mirza doesn’t necessarily “subscribe to all the tenets, rituals or beliefs” of her upbringing, but, she said “there are many facets of my culture and religion I cannot tear away from my DNA, nor do I want to. In fact, I crave, adore and celebrate some of them. I want the option of marriage. That way, I can make any and all of my dreams come true. I know that may mean a heteronormative sub culture to some, but to me, it means, I can be South Asian, Muslim, a woman and Queer, in the way I chose. That, to me is power, freedom. And probably also the ultimate queer dream come true.”
I agree with Mirza that culture can play a strong, nearly subconscious role in shaping our desires. Then again my culture (Judaism) wants me to visit a ritual bath whenever I menstruate, and I’ve never felt compelled to do that. (Wedding Note: Invite a bunch of strong men because I really want to do the chair-lifting thing.)
Robin from Oregon also admitted being tentatively drawn to the idea of marriage, although even her fantasy tweaks heteronormativity. “As a teenager looking for ways to mentally frame my feelings for other girls, marriage didn’t quite do the trick. I didn’t imagine a wedding as a typical girl might — the proposal, the dress, the ring, the perfect honeymoon and perfect house — if I imagined a meaningful moment in a hypothetical wedding, I imagined myself in the groom role, or if I imagined a hypothetical marriage, I thought about myself in that traditional protector role. I wanted to be Prince Charming.”
Ultimately however; Robin remains wary of marriage, though not out of loyalty to a gay subculture. Instead, she conceptualizes her apathy in terms of self-protectiveness. “As a lesbian born in the early sixties,” she said, “I learned not to look to the church or the state for validation of a relationship, or to look to those big life-passage steps like engagement or marriage as a indicator of the seriousness or depth of my feelings for someone. It’s not about avoiding what is heteronormative; it’s just that those options were not available to me so I never let them have importance. And even now when federal recognition of same sex marriage seems just around the corner, I find it powerful and emotionally meaningful only in the social or political sense, not personally. There is a self-protective distance between me and marriage that I doubt will ever be closed. I still can’t find my place in it.”
So where does all that leave me? I can see the benefits of a queer subculture (Who else is the mainstream going to co-opt? Other than African Americans, Harajuku girls, Indians, Native Americans — on second thought, the dominant culture will probably be OK without us.). I also do not, at my core, believe that I need mass recognition in order to feel validated (If I did, I definitely would not have become a novelist.). However, I remain drawn to the idea of the sort of intimacy fostered by symbolic commitment. Of course I could create my own symbols, we all could, (Unicorn Onesie Twerking as Dance of Commitment anyone?) but marriage boasts the weight of history and cultural normativity, both of which are hard to dismiss, at least for me. Still, in the end — because marriage is the end, right? It’s when the curtain drops or the credits roll — I’ll need to judge for myself the import I want marriage to have. It’s up to me to determine my next move when I find myself, just a girl, standing in front of a girl, asking her to love me. Crap. I’m quoting Julia Roberts again.