Unwedded blissby The Listener
Even now they can legally marry, says Peter Wells, he and partner Douglas Lloyd Jenkins will never “tie the knot”.
Marriage is – of course – an unnatural state. The number of divorces shows that. So what made some homosexual women and men queue before the locked door, rattle it loudly and demand their human right to join this deeply flawed, problematic and endemically failing institution?
It is one of the curiosities of our time that this kind of new-right demand wears the clothing of the old left. And the old right is reacting in the beautifully Pavlovian way of refusing to have anything to do with it, failing to see that engaging homosexuals in marriage – entrapping them in marriage, I really want to write – is the best way to consolidate society in an ancient institution, thus making society more stable. All it requires is an extension of definition – marriage equality. But the old right is adamant that it must cling to something. A new pope kisses the feet of prostitutes but turns a deaf ear. Who would have guessed that the old conservatism was running so scared?
Marriage for gay men and women touches on important human issues such as inheritance and the right to visit a partner who is at death’s door. Then there’s the social aspect. Few things can be more affirming than a wedding, where all one’s whanau, in the widest sense, are converted into a cheering team, adoring you and your chosen one in a concentrated spume of love.
And that doesn’t count the presents. The old idea of a wedding was that you were being set up for future life. (I have the list for my parent’s wedding on the cusp of World War II. One present from a well-to-do family was a travel rug. How things change.) We queers who choose not to be married miss out on the love-in and all the goodies that go with it.
A love-in has a special power for people traditionally stigmatised and marginalised. Somehow a gay wedding has an added shadow: incredulity that it could happen at all; happiness that times have changed to the extent that once-stigmatised people can now be “normalised” in the most normal of all ceremonies – apart from a funeral. But what a wedding is to marriage, the sizzle is to steak. If you have steak every day of your life, no matter how many different ways you cook it, it ends up like the pork that the early immigrants from Britain experienced: it induces a faint miasma of nausea.
Here is writer Susan Sontag, exiting a nine-year marriage: “It is an institution committed to the dulling of feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong, mutual dependencies.” How true. But then life is a long endeavour and part of the beauty of any long-term relationship – inside or outside marriage – is the narcotic calm. It is lovely being dull with a person you can trust. And we have to remember that Sontag, who was highly closeted in public about her lesbian status, went into a long-term relationship with photographer Annie Leibowitz – so clearly she needed the “strong, mutual dependencies”. Sometimes the dulling of feelings is exactly what you need.
But for gay men especially, the monogamy of marriage is a tough call. As American writer Daniel Mendelsohn says in his eloquent Waiting for the Barbarians, “I and most of the other gay men I knew seemed to be torn between the ostensibly straight identified values we’d been brought up with (domesticity, stability, commitment, mortgages) and the ‘queer’ habits and behaviours – in particular, the freewheeling, seemingly endless possibilities of unencumbered erotic encounters – made possible in enclaves that were exclusively gay.” One could add to this, today, the open world of online dating. The “endless possibilities” now extend to just about everyone – including “men who have sex with men”, which usually means married men on the down-low.
EXPLORING THE EROTIC
For me, part of the attraction of the gay male world was its exploration of the erotic. In some ways it seemed a reinvention of how it was to be human.
As David Herkt said astutely, “I always thought straight people should have wanted what we had – fluidity of relationships, sometimes multiple partners, committed but not monogamous relationships, as well as the traditional pairing – a huge variety.” Some gay men, such as singer George Michael, choose to explore their options by being emotionally monogamous with a long-term partner but sexually exploratory with others – something the French have managed to do for centuries. This requires an emotional agility alongside the “strong mutual dependencies”. I suppose, in the end, part of my ironic stance towards marriage is that it limits humans to a tried-and-failed bondage system.
Or, I should say, a system that has a 50% chance of working out. Would you put your money in a bank that had a 50% chance of failing?
But then imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as a certain married man, father of two, once said (Oscar Wilde). But is imitation the best defence? Or will homosexuals entering marriage actually change the form of marriage itself? If one looks at funerals, the way of saying goodbye changed globally with the advent of Aids. So many young gay men dying demanded a reinvention of the ways of mourning. Funerals stopped being by rote and became highly customised expressions of individual grief. The straight community then adopted what was clearly a good idea. (Sometimes, as I listen to yet another emotionally clotted teen weeping into the microphone, mistaking Gran’s funeral for an American Idol audition, I wish for a return to Anglican austerity.)
But my larger point is this: rituals can change. But what about the form? Marriage in an ancient sense had its source in patriarchy, in the handing down of property through legitimate heirs; that was at the heart of European marriage. (In the pre-Pakeha Maori world it was different. If you weren’t a slave, polygamy – many wives – was the way marriage was. Should we look at something indigenous now we are talking about new names for the North and South Islands? Effectively, many heterosexuals practice polygamy in the form Dorothy Parker described drily as “chasing monogamy from bed to bed”.) Illegitimate children now hold Mum’s startlingly white dress as she proudly walks her way up the aisle – if there is an aisle. Things have changed in heterosexual marriage, so isn’t it time to extend the courtesy to homosexual women and men?
But let’s scale the discussion down to the personal. Why have Douglas and I not formalised our relationship? After all, we have been partners for 23 years. Civil union has been a possibility, so why haven’t we “tied the knot”?
We were both schooled in the beautiful court of reason. Neither of our parents’ marriages was perfect. In my case it was a schooling in the nausea of monogamy, the muffled, desperate, seemingly lifelong wrestling of two individuals who did not fit. My parents didn’t divorce. Douglas’s parents did separate. Why would we wish to enter hell via a golden ring? Warily, we stood outside.
I was from an older libertarian generation, anyway, which had been brought up to regard marriage as a disempowering state-sanctified institution. But then everything changed around this assumption: women became empowered, men occasionally did a barbecue by way of showing they, too, could cook.
Marriages appeared more equal, more affectionate. But more than that, contemporary fathers entered into the bringing up of children in an emotional way that was light-years distant from the stern diffidence our own fathers practised, by way of hardening us off.
WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?
Once gay partners could have children, it seemed to change everything. The equation suddenly was reversed. It was not what was “good” for you as an individual, it was what was “good” for the children. Children demand stability; ergo, a marriage contract becomes a kind of necessary certificate of constancy. It tells to the world you are in a constant relationship. Of course, many marriages end in divorce, which shoots holes in that idea, and a good number of the rest have adultery keeping the air in the bread. So is gay marriage necessary? As a fiction of constancy, perhaps. As a way of allowing gay parents to wave the certificate that they, too, have enough constancy to merit having children.
It always bemused me, anyway, that conservatives are so opposed to gay marriage. Are they so stupid they don’t realise that by extending the courtesy of marriage to gay women and men, they are simply extending a stabilising force to society generally? Instead, conservative resistance makes gay marriage seem a radical issue. It isn’t – in some ways it seems as kitsch as a desire for matching bath mats. And it is radical, because of course it does change the great privilege that underlies being heterosexual. Being heterosexual has always been seen – by heterosexuals certainly – as the great statement of nature at rest. It is what is normal – for heterosexuals. So widening the definition of normality challenges heterosexual privilege.
For many people this isn’t a problem. They’re talking about their brother, aunt, son or daughter. Or much-loved friends. For others, however, it is crucially important that they retain their ancient privileges intact. It keeps being the Deep South in some people’s heads all their lives. Integration should never come. But like the tide seeping in, the motion of generations is to unsettle the most adamantine beliefs.
Gay marriage is part of a shift in the definition, not so much for queer people but for all people. The future of children demands this fiction. Whether it will be any more meaningful or will institute fidelity is not open to question. There will be messy divorces, there will be angry scenes. Divorce lawyers and real estate harpies are already rubbing their hands. There will be multi-married facelifted gay celebrities entering their fifth marriage with a much younger cutie.
And I guess there will be dear old queers happy as tea cosies toasting their golden anniversaries in front of serried ranks of great-grandchildren. So what do I think of marriage equality? A lot of things. And not a lot. In the end, it boils down to what do I think of marriage itself. I’m a survivor.
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