When I wrote my book Against Marriage, it never occurred to me that it would drop me right into the middle of a political debate. Let me make one thing clear: The book Against Marriage does not take a position against gay marriage, or any kind of marriage at all, as long as they remain private affairs. What I and my book object to is the promotion of marriage to the status of a legitimate legal institution. Strange as it may now seem, I see marriage as a blatant defiance of the separation of church and state.
Although I keep insisting that my book is a cultural rather than political statement, everybody keeps seeing it as the latter. Last December, I spoke about the gay culture of 30 years ago at a conference in Paris, honoring Lionel Soukaz, director of the legendary gay film, Race d'ep. I asked my audience why those left out of the marriage equation, such as gays and lesbians, hadn't struggled instead to expand the rights of domestic partnership, rather that "walking around in a deluded dream state wearing synthetic satins and rented tuxedos." My presentation ended in a shouting match with an outraged lesbian. Gay marriage had just been legalized in France in defiance of some virulent demonstrations by the French right. The woman who attacked me claimed that no position on marriage other than pro was possible without my supporting the right wing.
Would it have helped to tell this woman that I was gay and identified with the political left, or that the cherished institution she was defending has never been anything much more than a symbol stamping you as a legitimate member of society? Probably not. Nor would it have helped to explain that notions of love, romance and fidelity that supposedly characterize marriage now have only been part of it for the last 150 years. Before that, it was merely a cold way to control inheritance and succession and create various forms of one-upmanship upon the bloody chessboard of political control; or a tool the Church used to enforce guilt about the notions of sin and sexual infidelity.
I call Against Marriage cultural because it looks at the entire history of the institution. But I admit it was inspired by a dramatic political event. On November 5, 2008, same-sex marriage in California was reversed by the vote for Propositon 8, an amendment to the state constitution making same-sex unions illegal. Propostion 8 would be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court five years later; but the summer following Proposition 8, our media was full of images of outraged gay or lesbian couples. On TV I saw one lesbian couple in their 90s bitterly complaining that they were being kept from "celebrating our love." Did they really need to prove their love to each other by a legalized commitment ceremony after 50 years together? I wondered. No. It was legitimacy within the larger social body they were seeking and a piece of paper that said so. Whose approval would that marriage certificate symbolize? Some of the very people who had made their lesbian lives a living hell before Stonewall. Such thoughts led to the writing of my book.
Researching my book turned me off to marriage in general. Lurking under the bland banner of "marriage-for-all" is the specter of nuclear family values, with all their connotations of intolerance, xenophobia and child protection schemes. Marriage today is as full of religious strategies, political goals and power imbalances as it ever was and remains the mainstay of conservative thinkers. Its story is that of one of the most unstable institutions ever touted as the cement of civilization. I'll even go so far as to say that the new emphasis on marriage goes hand and hand with the cultural decline of our urban environments, Which in large part were thanks to the creative efforts of the unmarried -- including gays and lesbians -- in flight from the nuclear family.
Now I wonder about those like myself, who don't want to get married?
Are we merely witnessing another stage in the co-optation of our minority group, as it drives its more marginal, less "presentable" (and unmarried) members toward pariah status?
Benderson's book was published by Semiotext(e) as part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. You can buy it here.