Saturday, June 25, 2011

Marriage equality comes to New York

New York just became the sixth (and most populous) state to grant marriage rights to gay couples. Now it seems that the only people who remain politically and economically disadvantaged are single renters, who contribute comparatively little to the wedding, childbearing/rearing, and mortgage industries. (In a nation of "consumers"—the preferred American descriptor for what other democracies call "citizens"—it is the size of one's economic footprint that matters, not one's ecological footprint.)[1]

It's a bit ironic that gay couples have fought so hard to enjoy the social legitimacy of a contractual relationship that has so often spelled hierarchy and inequality for the participants. (A recent New Yorker cartoon shows two men in a domestic scene, with the apron-wearing partner saying he wants equality in marriage.) Perhaps this is what really frightens religious homophobes: the possibility that gay marriage will undermine the structural inequality that the religious right believes proper for heterosexual relations. Heterosexuals should be so lucky!  I have gay friends who have been more happily married, and for more years, than many straight couples; I also have gay friends who feel ambivalent about the institution of marriage while still applauding New York's decision, given the socioeconomic realities of contemporary life. One gay friend wrote wistfully of the days when to be gay was to be an outsider, anti-bourgeois; I know several who view the desire of so many gay couples to have children as a mere ploy for social acceptance or, at best, a result of straight culture's brain-washing.

Although I do not have children myself and believe that dominant narratives should always be scrutinized, I think this particular view condemns with too broad a stroke. There are certainly wrong-headed motives for having children—to seek cultural legitimacy, personal validation, or unconditional love (any of which is sure to backfire when said children are born) — but there are generous motives, too.  Any sensitive, thoughtful person, gay or straight, could conceivably want to provide love and guidance to a vulnerable young human, and the world contains far too many unwanted children who desperately need to be adopted into loving homes. Rescuing such children from a life of feeling unwanted and alienated is a noble endeavor, and perhaps no one is better suited to the task than someone who has experienced such wounds and managed to learn, from examining their own suffering, how to strengthen others.

In a similar vein, there's a difference between those who yearn to spend their lives freely and openly with the person they love and those who seek to marry simply because it is expected, all their friends are doing it, or their parents are pressuring them. A case could be made that people who have long been deprived of a right are that much more appreciative of it—there is, in fact, evidence that granting marriage rights to gay couples, who divorce less than heterosexual couples, actually reduces the divorce rate among heterosexuals as well. (Not that we should make too much of statistics, for they tell only a small part of any story.) And it surprises many people to learn that there is a long history of gay marriage in other cultures and historical periods, dating from the ancient Greeks and continuing into the 18th century among Native American tribes [2]. To ignore this history, not to mention the equally long history of long-term heterosexual love, is to disdain those relationships that do endure, among humans as well as many other species.

Human motives are complex, however, and, often as not, confused and opaque even to the most introspective among us.  All I can say is that it is best to carefully consider why we want to marry or not marry, to have children or not, and to make sure that when we undertake actions that necessarily and profoundly affect another sentient being we consider the consequences with a rigor as robust as the passion we feel [3].  Here we can find inspiration in two poets, one 19th century German (Heinrich Heine) and one 20th century American (Dorothy Parker), who achieved crystalline clarity about what they wanted from marriage:

Die Heimkehr [4]

Und bist du erst mein ehlich Weib,
Dann bist du zu beneiden,
Dann lebst du in lauter Zeitvertreib,
In lauter Pläsier und Freuden.

Und wenn du schiltst und wenn du tobst,
Ich werd es geduldig leiden;
Doch wenn du meine Verse nicht lobst,
Laß ich mich von dir scheiden.


If you shall be my faithful wife
Then fortune on you shines.
You'll live a gay and carefree life
Of leisurely pastimes.

And if you scold and if you rave
I'll abide it all with pleasure.
But if my poems you will not praise
Then let us split forever.

Fighting Words

Say my love is easy had,
Say I'm bitten raw with pride,
Say I am too often sad—
Still behold me at your side.

Say I'm neither brave nor young,
Say I woo and coddle care,
Say the devil touched my tongue—
Still you have my heart to wear.

But say my verses do not scan,
And I get me another man!

May we all find an appreciative audience, whether straight, gay, or ameobic.



[1] The economic impact of this decision was not lost on anyone: marriage (or, rather, weddings) are projected to add $142 million to the NYC economy and $184 million to NY state as a whole. Another angle that should not be overlooked: this is the first time gay marriage has passed in a state where one of the houses was controlled by Republicans. Back in 2009, when Democrats controlled the state house and senate, the gay marriage bill was roundly defeated (by 14 votes).  On Friday, the bill won by a four-vote margin (33 to 29). 

[2] That is, before Protestant Europeans dedicated themselves to imposing gender dimorphism on the "savages" who were otherwise living happily with each other and the rest of the natural world. So much for progress.  See, for example, Michael Bronski, A Queer History of the United States (2011), and Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, John d'Emilio and Estelle Freedman (1988, 1997). The latter book is a classic and was cited by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy when he struck down a Texas law criminalizing sodomy.

[3] This includes the decision to acquire a pet. Today I was walking down a Manhattan street and saw a young couple, probably in their twenties, stepping out of a souped-up black car to deposit a tiny, and I mean tiny, pit bull puppy on the sidewalk. I had the impression they wanted it to "do business" but the poor thing looked lost and very fragile. I asked how old it was as I stooped down to give it some affection and protect it from the stark sun, if not the heated pavement; the young man, thick arms crossed in front of his capacious chest, said "almost 4 weeks." I tried to suppress my horror and said that was awfully young. The man, this boy, really, mumbled, "it's ok, we have a book... we give it milk." I dared not ask what kind; images of chocolate and strawberry milk cartons popped into my head.

I pointed out that puppies need more than milk from their mother, and continued supporting this tender little fellow whose cerebellar development was so incomplete he could barely stand without wavering. Or maybe he was dehydrated: he tried to suckle my finger, and the boy gruffed, "no biting," to which I replied that he might be hot and thirsty. Hefty boy was unimpressed.

Puppies should not be taken from the mother before 8 weeks; 10 weeks is even better, and frankly, we don't know how much better it would be if we didn't make a habit of breaking up canine families at all.  (A famous wag once wrote that the only reason dogs hadn't yet acquired language is because we take them away from their families so young.) I really didn't know what to do; I tried gently admonishing this young guy and his girlfriend, but walked away wondering if I should have told them to report the person who sold or gave them such a young dog. This was a set-up for disaster, and these kids had absolutely no idea what they were doing. Sadly, I am certain their ignorance was learned: had they been wisely parented themselves, they could not have been so obtuse.

[4] It's exceedingly difficult to translate poetry well—to capture both the sense and the sensibility of it. I was delighted to find that Justin Erik Halldór Smith has met the challenge beautifully with his translation of this Heinrich Heine poem.

Since I first posted this, I have altered the essay in several ways. Most importantly, I had quoted a friend anonymously but without asking her permission, and I have removed the quote. I usually would not have been so careless, but two friends had expressed virtually the same thought, except that one wrote and the other spoke. I therefore quoted the written lines, which the other person could just as well have thought were his, but on principle I should have asked. I am normally punctilious about such issues, and I regret the error. I amended the passage, which in the end led me to reconsider and clarify what I was really trying to say anyway.


  1. i do love the serious and thoughtful essaying that you invite. have been traveling and glad to return to some good news even though florida is setting the example of how horribly things can go awry when someone like our present governor thinks a slim margin equals a mandate. sorry to change subject- but everything's related right?

  2. Thanks for the comment, and welcome back! What new shenanigans is Governor Rick Scott up to these days?

    Last news item I noticed was that he was requiring all state employees to get drug tested. Conveniently, he makes money through his healthcare clinics, which, lo and behold, happen to offer drug testing services. Apparently they are most popular with people who want assurance they will be able to pass an upcoming "official" drug test, e.g., for an employer.

  3. oh, and yes- you're right - everything is related!