The Queer Issue
I used to be obsessed with gay marriage. I thought about it, I wrote about it, I got emotionally involved every time a big marriage moment happened. I remember tears, arguments with friends, front pages of newspapers stashed in a drawer in order to better recall defining, historic moments in my gay existence.
This all made sense back when I first started stashing front pages away.
It would have been sometime in June of 2003. I was 25 years old and the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that my sex life was legal. The day after that ruling, the front page of the New York Times carried a photo of the two key figures in the case, Tyron Garner and John G. Lawrence, smiling as word came down that their 1998 arrest in Texas for having consensual gay sex had been unconstitutional. The headline above the photo: "Justices, 6–3, Legalize Gay Sexual Conduct."
It was one of those moments when, as they say, history splits. A before and an after emerges, and if the splitting means something to you—as it did, profoundly, to me—you want a way to remember, proof that things used to be different, proof that, for example, people in this country once actually debated the legality of gay sex in the highest court in the land. So I put the front page of that issue of the New York Times in a drawer.
Then, five months later, another front page worth keeping: The highest court in Massachusetts had legalized gay marriage. I was living in defining times as far as gay people were concerned, and things seemed to be changing rapidly. Next: A number of straight elected officials around the country, most prominently the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, began announcing that they, too, would perform gay marriages—in defiance of local laws. More front pages worth keeping.
I didn't slip every single one of the front pages from this period into my drawer, but I followed all of these events closely; when I think back on that time, the news stories flash through my mind, like one of those sequences out of an old war reel in which a series of battlefield victories is chronicled by black-and-white newspapers with triumphant headlines spinning into view. Gay sex legal. Gay marriage legal in Massachusetts. Gay marriages performed in defiance of state law in San Francisco, New Paltz, and Portland, Oregon.
It felt as if some sort of cultural dam was breaking, but my obsession with following the gay-marriage fight, I can see now, was fueled in large part by something other than just excitement and optimism. It was something selfish: the hope that this was all going to be over very quickly—that, just in time for my late 20s, a combination of pent-up national frustration and sudden cultural acceptance would sweep across the land and erase this country's long history of institutionalized homophobia.
To be clear, as a gay American I, of course, wanted equal rights for everyone like me, regardless of their ages. But honestly, as a 25-year-old gay American, what I most wanted was for this to happen before I actually found myself wanting to get married. I'd had gay sex on both sides of the American legal divide. It was something I felt lucky to have experienced, a tactile lesson in the strange interplay between desire and social approval, but it wasn't something I needed to experience twice.
I didn't want to find myself wanting to be married before I actually could be legally married anywhere I wanted.
Or, to put it another way: Everyone says they want to be present when history is made, but I actually did not want to be present if this marriage history was going to take forever to get made. I wanted, within, say, a year, to be gay, still in my 20s, and living in a country that had everywhere legalized both the sex I was having and the possibility of legal recognition for my relationships.
I wanted to get on with it, this new era that was now so obviously and so inevitably on its way.
But that last part—legal recognition for gay relationships across the United States—proved not to be like a dam breaking. More like a trickle. Some 7,000 illegal gay marriages from the spring and summer of 2004 were invalidated. In the next years, voters in a large number of states added amendments to their state constitutions specifically banning gay marriage. Here in Washington, in 2006, the state supreme court upheld a law limiting marriage to one man and one woman, citing "the well-being of children" and the "survival of the human race."
It is clear to me now that if gay marriage is going to be legalized across the United States, it is going to happen slowly, one state at a time. Then, some day in the distant future, after enough states have declared gay marriage legal and proven it to be perfectly compatible with the well-being of children and the survival of the human race, the U.S. Supreme Court will perhaps take a gay-marriage case that leads to a ruling that legalizes gay marriage everywhere in the country. But that day is a long, long way off.
Seeing this now, I have a hard time comprehending why, at 25, I ever thought it would be otherwise. After all, that first front page that I stashed away, the one announcing the legalization of gay sex in the United States, wasn't the result of some sudden, unexpected cultural and legal shift. It was the result of exactly the process described above: one state declaring gay sex legal, then another, and then finally, many years down the road, the U.S. Supreme Court weighing in with the definitive word on the matter. That, and not the dam-breaking model, is the way it has always been for disenfranchised minority groups in this country, and it's going to be in that way that gay marriage is—very slowly—made a universal right.
Once I realized this, my gay-marriage obsession began to fade. Now I find myself quite bored with the issue.
It's not that I don't think gay marriage is important anymore or that I feel there isn't work to be done. Gay marriage is important, there is still a lot of work to be done, and gay people should, of course, keep pushing for equal rights. But I'm confident that I know how this is going to play out, and it's going to involve the exact thing that I didn't want: waiting patiently for history to be made. Yawn.
I'm now 30, and I expect gay marriage to be a contentious issue for most of my adult life. I believe it will rise and fall in the public consciousness according to political calendars and legal developments (such as the recent ruling in California legalizing gay marriage there), but I don't think it will be settled as a matter of Constitutional law until I'm much, much older—and maybe not even before I die.
In the meantime, if I want to marry, I will need to get myself to a state or a country (Norway just joined the list) that allows gay marriage.
On to other obsessions.