First published on The Guardian, June 28, 2014. Read the original here.
Wisconsin. Indiana. Utah. Hardly a week goes by that the courts don't rule same-sex marriage street legal in another state in America (the last twenty-two consecutive cases have all come down on the side of marriage equality), making what once seemed impossible now seems unstoppable. Wedding white is the new black – and all the gays are wearing it.
So on this anniversary weekend of the Stonewall Riots, let me be the shrill voice in the back of the church, speaking now instead of forever holding my peace. I think we're losing something. I have no desire to turn back the clock on marriage equality: it provides both real and symbolic benefits to queer communities, families and our country as a whole. But I cannot ignore the coercive (and corrosive) power that marriage holds. In this country, it is not just an option: it is the option. It is the relationship against which all others are defined, both an institution and an expectation – and you cannot have one without the other.
Before marriage was an option of first resort, queer people had been making our own ceremonies and families for (at least) a century. This will never stop, but the new expectations of marriage will curtail this kind of life-building (just ask any single straight woman over thirty how people treat her relationship choices). We will have to justify our reasons for not marrying, and any relationship that survives past a certain sell-by date will be looked at as pre-marriage.
For better or worse, gay kids today will think of their lives and their relationships in terms of marriage – as will their straight families and peers. Same-sex marriage is not going to harm opposite-sex marriages, as opponents so often claim, but its gravitational pull is likely to warp all other kinds of queer relationships. Our community’s pluripotent, mutable ways of loving one another are fast becoming something we need to defend all the more to the straight world – and, now, perhaps to our married gay peers as well.
Stonewall is often cited as the foundational moment of the modern gay rights movement. In the wake of that hot summer night’s anti-cop riot, the group that immediately came together in New York was the Gay Liberation Front, whose statement of purpose read:
We are a revolutionary group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished.
That bears little relationship to the modern movement for marriage equality, which has effectively become the bulk of what remains of the gay rights movement. Where once we used our place as outsiders to critique the very structures that created "inside" and "outside" in the first place, now we are simply banging on the door, asking to be let in.
(If the revolutionary spirit of Stonewall lingers anywhere today, it is in the growing transgender movement, where activists still embrace a transformative concept of justice that questions social institutions before – or instead of – asking to be included in them.)
I’ll come clean here: I never dreamed about marriage – and not just because, as a gay man, I didn't think I would be allowed. Marriage never meant much to me, though love and family did – and as I now have two long-term partners, it's unlikely to be a part of my future. So I can't pretend that the movement for marriage equality won’t affect me (and my community) in ways I’m unhappy about in addition to all the ones I'm in favor of.
Somewhere along the line, the gay rights movement – and maybe the gay community writ large – separated its short-term goals and some people's immediate needs from the larger ideals of justice and societal change that initially stirred our community to action. This diminution happened by degrees, making it almost impossible to locate the moment when we could have turned around. But I suspect we will one day look back on the contentious 2000 Millennium March on Washington as the point of no return.
Maybe the same-sex marriage wave will begin a broader reconsideration of why our government is in the business of giving benefits to sexual relationships at all – gay or straight. Perhaps we will some day expand these privileges, for which we have fought so hard, to any group of people in a long-lasting relationship of care that keeps them safe, happy, and less dependent on government services – the way France tried (and largely failed) to do with their pacte civil de solidarité. Maybe we canqueer the institution.
But for now, it's straightened us. We have gone from dismantling an inherently flawed system that privileged some people based on their sexual relationships to demanding some of that privilege for ourselves – or, at least for some of us. On some days, I’d call this compromise and, on others, capitulation. Perhaps the only real difference lies in whether this is a first step, or a final one.
Marriage is here, it’s not queer, and we’ve already gotten used to it. I just hope the remaining states pass it quickly, so we can move on to something else.