Entry from May 19, 2008

The same day that the California Supreme Court decided that gay marriage, like other kinds of marriage, was a civil right, it transpired that, at least according to The Daily Telegraph, Jodie Foster was splitting with her lesbian “partner” of 14 years, Cydney Bernard, with whom she is said to have two children — born to Jodie and Anon. and adopted by Miss Bernard. So what? I seem to hear you say. It’s tough on the kids, of course, but the failure of one gay marriage — which this relationship surely would have been had the California court got around to its decree just a bit earlier — is no more an invalidation of the concept than the failure of a straight marriage is of marriage itself.

And no less, say I. In other words, the problem with gay marriage is the same as the problem with non-gay marriage. No-fault divorce had put the latter well on its way to meaninglessness already, long before the former arose to help it along the way. Marriage of any kind these days is only a sentimental gesture and can scarcely be any better than cohabitation at ensuring permanence and stability in family life — which is what the advocates of gay marriage so often say they want it for. I’ll believe such claims when these advocates also turn advocate for harder-to-obtain divorce. A contract so easily broken by either party on any pretext is not really a contract at all, and yet gays are if anything even more eager to cherish the illusion of permanence than straight people are.

Let them have their little game of dress-up, just like the rest of us. If we’re all playing at being married anyway, why shouldn’t gays have their shot at it, the same as anybody else? That seems to have been the reasoning of the Court’s majority. And if marriage is just an opportunity for a bit of role-playing until you get tired of it, who can fault them? The fundamental precept of American jurisprudence these days seems to be that everybody is entitled to his own fantasy, which it is fundamentally, constitutionally illegitimate for the state to interfere with. At any rate you mustn’t ask the court to adjudicate between fantasy and reality. That’s bound to be offensive to the fantasists. Gay marriage is just one more way of denying the reality of millennia of human experience and pretending that the world can be re-made according to ideological prescription.

That’s why, in ruling as they did, the justices seem to have accepted the comparison between the legal restriction to man-woman marriage and miscegenation laws. They were specifically praised for having done so by The New York Times, whose editorial predictably welcomed the decision. “In striking down the ban for violating state constitutional provisions protecting equality and fundamental rights, the court’s 121-page opinion fittingly drew on a 1948 decision in which California’s high court removed the bar to interracial marriage 19 years before the United States Supreme Court followed suit.” But miscegenation laws entailed no debate on the nature of marriage. They were, rather, an artificial imposition upon what was universally recognized as a moral, religious and legal institution by which a man (of any race) and a woman (of any race) could be united in the eyes of God and the law. By taking the view that the California law limiting marriages to the heterosexual variety was in principle the same as the Jim Crow laws against miscegenation, the justices were implicitly accepting the slippery-slope argument of gay marriage’s opponents.

After all, they don’t call themselves “progressives” for nothing. If limiting marriage to heterosexual couples is oppressive in the same way as limiting it to couples of the same race, what other limitations will not further oppressed minorities rise up to demand an end to? If history is the process of liberating ever greater numbers from legal or economic constraint, where does this process come to a natural end? And if marriage is nothing, in its essence, but the publicly stated wish of two people to be together, why should it be limited to two? Why should it be limited to people? Polygamists and practitioners of bestiality have their fantasies too, after all.

Better that the state should get out of the marriage business altogether and leave it to the churches as an option for those who want the old-fashioned kind of permanent marriage. For the rest, it should be civil unions for everybody, gay and straight alike. And the right to contract them should be extended to partners of all kinds: brothers or sisters living together, for instance, or an unmarried daughter with her widowed mother. There are plenty of reasons for giving legal protections to such relationships between couples, but that is no reason to mix them up with marriage, which once was and still pretends to be something quite different, something intimately bound up with the physical, social and spiritual differences between male and female and conceived in its very essence in terms of permanence.

I can’t resist adding that I’ve never understood why homosexuals should want to marry. What is the point of being a homosexual if not to be bad — or, as the intellectuals say, transgressive? The savor of sin is the essence of the pleasure, it seems to me; to turn yourself into mom and pop is just a ludicrous parody of bourgeois life. Gays may have their own reasons for wanting that parody, but it doesn’t seem to me that they can be serious ones unless they are simply to undermine (further) legitimate marriage for the sake of it. How central to the gay experience is the closet: the secret signs, the “gaydar,” the styles of dress and code words, the foot-tapping that the arrest of Larry Craig last summer alerted us all to. Gay marriage is an attempt to abolish all this, to take the shame out of sex — and not just gay sex. Do we really want that?

Maybe the answer is that we do and we don’t, all at the same time. We want to be mom and pop, even if we’re mom and mom, but we also want the great tragedy of exclusion that comes with transgressiveness. That’s what Brokeback Mountain was all about. In essence, that movie was anti-marriage, gay or straight. For if marriage is to mean anything, it must mean that it takes precedence over the expression of extra-marital sexuality. Yet again and again, as in Brokeback, the iconic figure for the advocate of gay marriage is the guy who would leave his marriage in order to express “who I am” through sex. The marital vows, as such, mean nothing. Such self-dramatizing poignancy must be almost as heady a feeling as the elation of being able to marry your same-sex sweetheart. But you can’t have both — except, perhaps, in fantasy-land.



Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts