I haven't beat up my younger brother Danny—you all know him as Dan Savage, The Stranger editor, Savage Love columnist, and pain in the ass about town—in, oh, 30 years. However, the time has come to give the little fucker some lumps. The occasion is the publication of The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family, the latest book in which he shamelessly tarts up the petty details of his life in a desperate attempt to make some political point—and some money. (He may get some sales from confused Roddy Doyle fans seeking The Commitments, but that's neither here nor there.) It's an odd feeling being a character in a book, but getting to review the thing is a satisfactory form of older-brother revenge—sort of a word-noogie.
In the book Danny examines marriage as defined and practiced by our culture and our family, as well as his personal decision-making process: Should he and his boyfriend Terry get married or not? Danny takes on two large sociocultural forces and two forces of nature.
He grapples with both the conservative Christian-in-name-only right-wingers who oppose legalizing gay marriage and "the gay thought police" in relation to what he hilariously describes as "the marital-industrial complex." Danny's great strength is exposing contradictions and intellectual inconsistencies and he shows how the intellectual justifications used by the right to attack gays and gay marriage have jumped around like chimpanzees on crystal meth. He also attacks the hypocrisies of the "gay thought police and homophobia diagnosticians," who argue that only exemplary gays should be used in legal test cases. Danny spares neither his enemies nor his putative allies, which is as it should be.
The two forces of nature are our mother and Danny's son DJ. Mom wants Danny and Terry to get married—resisting Mom's influence is like fighting the tide. DJ opposes the idea on the grounds that it would be "dumb and stupid and retarded and gross." Some of the most touching parts of the book—if diabetes runs in your family as it does in mine, you might want to have some insulin on hand for when the sweetness gets to be too much—show Danny explaining love and marriage to DJ.
Now for the lumps.
Danny doesn't go far enough, he pulls his punches.
He points out that, like most political issues in this country, what's really at stake is the imposition of values—but he doesn't demonstrate that not all values are equally odious when imposed. He never quite gets around to pointing out that the superiority of progressive values comes from tolerance, from the willingness of most lefties to live and let live.
The legalization of gay marriage by "activist judges" or in-touch-with-reality legislatures would allow right-wingers to continue to live out their religious values. No one is asking for a law to force Roman Catholic priests or Orthodox rabbis or imams to perform marriages that violate their religious principles. Yet they want to impose their principles on the rest of us and
they do so by demonizing gays and lesbians as threats to the moral fabric of America—as insidious political boll weevils.
Danny misses the opportunity to point out what lurks beneath this whole argument: separation of church and state. While many gay-rights activists see civil unions as a sellout, settling for something less than full equality, this is nonsense. All heterosexual marriages are just civil unions with a religious façade and they should be understood as such.
Once such an understanding penetrates the thick skulls of enough American voters, perhaps we'll catch up with Canada and Spain. Until that time, though, my brother, his boyfriend, and my nephew will remain second-class citizens, denied their human rights by the American Taliban. Danny soft-pedals this stark fact, perhaps to allow for more laughs.
The book is nowhere near as grim as my little screed here. As always, Danny is funny, a sound survival strategy for younger brothers everywhere. Some of the laugh-out-loud moments include descriptions of how death defines a successful marriage (a funeral home in Chicago gets lots of free publicity); the story of my nephew's one-eyed, deaf, and brain-damaged dog; how young straight people today live the "gay lifestyle" of the 1970s; the inexplicable tolerance of apparent child abuse in South Dakota; and why skull rings make perfect wedding bands.
Dan Savage reads on Tues Oct 11 at Bailey/Coy Books, 414 Broadway E, 323-8842, 7 pm, free.
Bill Savage teaches American literature at Northwestern University and has reviewed books for the Chicago Tribune and other publications.