Saturday, June 25, 2011

NY State Victory: Divorce Equality!

In a brilliant display of political maneuvering, and a stunning defeat for anti-gay bigots, New York's governor Cuomo succeeded last night in getting a marriage equality passed in the state's Republican-controlled State Senate. The previous governor had been unable to get a similar bill through two years ago when the State Senate was controlled by Democrats; this year's effort involved a massive behind the scenes push from marriage equality advocates, and the addition of somewhat redundant language that absolutely positively guaranteed religious institutions could hang on to bigoted practices if they so desired. Cuomo signed the bill into law almost immediately upon its passage.

Despite the massive lobbying efforts of hateful organizations like the National Organization for [sic] Marriage and New York's wretched Conservative Party, and despite rallies organized by bigoted religious fundamentalists (including one led by the lone Democratic Senate opponent Ruben Diaz, who is also a Pentacostal preacher), the bill passed with a several-vote majority: four brave Republicans bucked their party line and crossed over to support it. The NOMbies and their ilk tried again to inflict their backward beliefs and questionably selective interpretation of religion on our secular society and failed. Thank God decent people with a greater respect for the law and a more loving spiritual/religious philosophy prevailed.

And all of this on the Friday of Gay Pride Week, two days before one of the world's largest lesbian and gay pride parades takes to the streets of Manhattan. It's certainly something to celebrate, even if it's a local victory. This makes only six states where marriage of same-sex partners is recognized, and federal laws like DOMA and numerous state constitutional bans on marriage equality make anti-gay statutes still the law of the land as a whole.

According to friends, the streets of the Village were full of celebration last night, even though the uber-gentrified neighborhood is the shadow of the gayborhood it once was: only investment bankers and celebrities can afford to live there these days. I'm looking forward to more street partying tonight, and to a triumphant pride parade tomorrow. But as real and joyful as this victory is, I feel called to qualify the celebratory tone.

While as long as the marriages of straight people are recognized and legally advantageous, it's only just that the marriages of gay people be treated equally under the law. But what about that institution of marriage? Those of us of a certain age can remember a time when marriage was rightfully derided as a outdated relic of the past. Its origins as a tradition are not actually in the glorification of love or the holy sanctification of family relationships, but in a bourgeois property relationship where women were turned into the property of men.

And for many of us, a fairytale picture of marriage as the pinnacle of human fulfillment does not jibe with reality. My parents divorced after fifteen or so years of marriage before I was ten. My mother's second marriage lasted a little over a year; and my father once described his second marriage as an "on-again off-again" thing. My father's father divorced my father's wife when he (inaccurately) questioned my father's paternity. My mother and my grandmother were both forced to retool their lives completely upon finding themselves single. While my mom worked when she was married, she had to find a new career that would support the two of us independently. My grandmother was forced to find work in the mid-1930s, no easy feat. And yet despite hardship and disappointment, I don't think either my mother or grandmother would have described their lives as lesser for having spent the greater parts of their lives unmarried.

Closer to home and modern times, I love my boyfriend very much and feel very lucky to be with him for the six or so years we've been together, but our relationship is what we make of it: I'm not sure how recognition by the state would change its trajectory or legitimize our intimacy.

It's not that I'm heartless: I've read those stories of many-decades-long gay partners finally being able to marry with a tear in my eye. During the brief period when marriage equality was the law in California, lesbian activist pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were able to marry in 2008 after being a couple for fifty-six years, a few months before Del Martin passed on at the age of 87. And yet I wonder what are the ramifications of the gay movement, which once described itself as the "gay liberation movement," now aiming at the much more earthbound target of equality through marriage rights.

As I recently wrote, I grew up knowing I was gay. I never fantasized about getting married. Since I was never interested in meeting "the right girl," that ritual held no power for me. While the times I have been single I usually longed for a steady relationship; but what I longed for was companionship and intimacy and deep friendship, not a ceremony of bells and lace, and not a piece of paper from the government. How will little gay boys in the future grow up? Will they feel unfulfilled if they're not married in white by their early twenties? And what about our new gay divorcees? Will gay people get married too often? Everybody thinks straight people who get married and divorced too often are losers. How will that change gay male culture, where promiscuity and serial monogamy seem more accepted as alternatives to life-long commitment?

There's a collective of queer activists called "Against Equality." While I don't endorse their views as a whole, I think they ask provocative, important questions. Here's an excerpt from their statement on marriage:

"When it comes to gay marriage, the times, they are a-confusing. For instance, we recently overhead some people extolling the virtues of marriage, and how it allowed them to finally join in family gatherings as respectable married people, instead of skulking in as shamefully unmarried partners. They reminisced about the joys of being able to walk up to coworkers and introduce their husbands, the sparkle of their wedding rings legitimizing their socially sanctioned and forever-to-be unions....

Gay marriage apes hetero privilege and allows everyone to forget that marriage ought not to be the guarantor of rights like health care. In their constant invoking of the “right” to gay marriage, mainstream gays and lesbians express a confused tangle of wishes and desires. They claim to contest the Right’s conservative ideology yet insist that they are more moral and hence more deserving than sluts like us. They claim that they simply want the famous 1000+ benefits but all of these, like the right to claim protection in cases of domestic violence, can be made available to non-marital relationships.

We wish that the GM crowd would simply cop to it: Their vision of marriage is the same as that of the Right, and far from creating FULL EQUALITY NOW! as so many insist (in all caps and exclamation marks, no less) gay marriage increases economic inequality by perpetuating a system which deems married beings more worthy of the basics like health care and economic rights."

It's food for thought. Marriage equality is an important social victory, but when it turns to divorce equality, perhaps we should remember that civil rights and the liberation and fulfillment of human spirit are not equivalent. What is that prize we're keeping our eyes on, anyway?

(That art above is a quick ten-minute Photoshop cut and paste job by me, courtesy of Google images and modern technology. That's Barbie's Change-of-Heart Ken and Marx's Sam Cobra tying the rainbow ribbon!)


  1. "...I don't think either my mother or grandmother would have described their lives as lesser for having spent the greater parts of their lives unmarried."

    I have not been married since sometime in the mid-seventies and as a single I have had a pretty great life.

    It would be nice if anywhere here in American people of any flavors could marry if that was their desire. Just simply be able to do it.

    That being said, congrats to NY for joining the 21st century.

    Now I hope all my NY gay buddies don't go running off and get married and leave me here at home all alone.

  2. I don't think my boyfriend is out shopping for diamonds, Annie!

  3. Thank God there are still a couple of radicals left in America.
    I am really taken with this quote from Susie Bright-
    "Of course we want civil rights for all, duh. I defend anyone's right to let the state be their pimp, to fight the wars, be the cannon fodder, acquire family assets like a stamp-collecting hobby. Bully for you. But as Peggy Lee said, "Is that all there is?" Christ, I hope not."
    I know there's some kind of trade off. When the minority acts like the majority some portion of the minority's world is also assimilated into majority culture but Christ I hope the world has more to offer it's outsiders than a chance to be normal.,0

  4. What a great quote Jon. You've recommended her to me before, I understand why.

  5. She's an old IS'er. A lot of her autobiography is about her involvement in the '70's sectarian left that was so much a part of our youth. She went off into a world that had almost nothing to do with mine but when I read about where she was coming from, I immediately recognized her as a comrade.

  6. Connubium, which is the Latin term for the right to marry, is a right that has now completed in New York the gender-neutralizing of the state's domestic relations law.

    Marriage is a right, and certainly not an obligation. The bundle of rights, responsibiliities, privileges and obligations that come with the issuance of a license and the performance of a ceremony in front of witnesses is not mandatory.

    There was a time when there was no hope for connubial rights for same sex couples, and that went deeper than the different terms for spouses, "husband" and "wife."

    Years ago, the law provided a different bundle to the male party than that provided to the female party, and if we go far enough back we see that the woman's bundle was often rather less, and then sometimes some aspects of the bundle were preferential to the woman. The idea was that there was a certain legal complementarity that could not heve existed under the law with two wives, or two husbands.

    In those days, before the rest of the domestic relations law was gender-neutralized, there was not a hope for legal marriage in the L&G community - and as with the Fox in Aesop's fable involving the grapes that were so tempting but just out of reach, the community insulated itself with the idea that such unequal rights as were offered to the heterosexual parties to marriage only confirmed and expanded patriarchal dominance, or were in some other way just sour and inedible.

    In the past couple of decades, the state legislature has gone so far as to smoothe out all the differences in the bundles of rights afforded the parties to marriage, until there was only one right that had not been made gender-neutral, and that was the connubium.

    And now it has.

    There are those for whom the grapes are still sour and will always e that way - and they still have the right to not get married.

    For others, the right to form a family with the mutual rights and obligations appurtenant thereto, is a right that they would like to exercise - and having the right is a good thing.

  7. A friend just sent me this extraordinary poem by the late Essex Hemphill.

    American Wedding

    By Essex Hemphill

    In america,

    I place my ring

    on your cock

    where it belongs.

    No horsemen

    bearing terror,

    no soldiers of doom

    will swoop in

    and sweep us apart.

    They’re too busy

    looting the land

    to watch us.

    They don’t know

    we need each other


    They expect us to call in sick,

    watch television all night,

    die by our own hands.

    They don’t know

    we are becoming powerful.

    Every time we kiss

    we confirm the new world coming.

    What the rose whispers

    before blooming

    I vow to you.

    I give you my heart,

    a safe house.

    I give you promises other than

    milk, honey, liberty.

    I assume you will always

    be a free man with a dream.

    In america,

    place your ring

    on my cock

    where it belongs.

    Long may we live

    to free this dream.

  8. Ian, that is the best most strangely romantic poem I've read since I know not when. Thank you thank you.