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When Gay Marriage Was Radical

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On June 26, 2013, crowds gathered at Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village to cheer two major wins for same-sex marriage: the fall of Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and of California's Proposition 8. Sheridan Square is best known for a less peaceful, less jubilant demonstration. On June 28, 1969, patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, physically resisted a police raid and sparked several days of rioting. Their uprising heralded the emergence of a militant, radical movement: gay liberation.

Those who identified with gay liberation -- many of whom also identified as feminists, hippies, socialists, anti-racists -- were generally hostile to institutions like marriage and the military that later generations would clamor to enter. Gay Liberation Front leaders called the relation of husband and wife "the microcosm of all oppression." Revolutionary Love: An Introduction to Gay Liberation condemned "the whole nuclear family structure" for yoking "woman to man, and children to both, in a box that limits human growth."

It may seem ironic -- or worse, a betrayal -- to toast same-sex marriage's victories in the literal shadow of Stonewall. Yet marriage litigation played an important political role in gay lib's heady early years. Between 1970 and 1972, among the dozen or so American same-sex couples who sought civil marriage licenses, three pursued lawsuits to the bitter end: Jack Baker and Mike McConnell in Minnesota, Marjorie Jones and Tracy Knight in Kentucky, and John Singer and Paul Barwick in Washington.

The courts that heard these cases responded contemptuously, but the gay lib movement, on the whole, did not. Abstract ideological antagonism toward marriage only rarely spelled opposition to specific couples' attempts to infiltrate the institution. Kentucky plaintiffs Jones and Knight were hailed as "The First Ladies of Gay Liberation." Disapproval within the gay community came not from radicals identified with Stonewall but from more cautious, conformist, "establishment homosexuals," who generally were older and often deeply closeted.

Today it is, quite precisely, "establishment" gays who assume the public face of same-sex marriage. They are no longer closeted, and not necessarily older, but in many respects they continue to project caution and conformity. The major gay-rights litigation firms expressly choose plaintiffs like Kris Perry and Sandy Stier for their palatability to middle America. With a houseful of athletic sons, lovingly brought up, these lead litigants against Proposition 8 are hardworking, white-collar taxpayers in a long-term, presumably monogamous relationship. They are models of the respectable homosexual.

To most Americans in 1969, when every state but Illinois had an anti-sodomy law on its books, there was no such thing as a respectable homosexual. The first same-sex marriage plaintiffs shunned propriety simply by stepping into the public eye. And they were unconventional in other respects. Marjorie Jones in Kentucky worked in a massage parlor until police advised her to find less suspicious employment, while her partner Tracy Knight was a nightclub dancer and a professional drag king. Jones and Knight appear to have been monogamous in the few years they were together, but neither of the male couples was. Minnesota plaintiffs Baker and McConnnell, however ostentatiously in love, proffered their open relationship as "something heterosexuals can learn from us." In Washington, commune-dwellers Paul Barwick and John Singer -- the latter changed his name around this time to "Faygele Ben Miriam" -- freely admitted that, despite occasionally having sex, they were not an item. In fact, they said, "we would just as soon abolish marriage."

Today, gay rights advocates run in horror from the idea of marriage abolition. In 2007, when the California Supreme Court asked, on its own initiative, whether the state's
separate-but-equal problem -- marriage for straights, domestic partnership for gays -- could be solved by eliminating marriage altogether, plaintiffs said no. They wished "to express their love ... in the way that marriage -- and only marriage -- makes possible." For them, marriage was not merely "a fundamental human right, but ... a fundamental dimension of human experience and belonging."

Clearly, when same-sex couples today seek a marriage license, their main goal is to be married. It was not always so. Minnesota plaintiffs Baker and McConnell certainly would have welcomed a marriage license, but the lawsuit, they said, was primarily "a political act with political implications." Bringing the case, not winning the case, was the important thing.

Why? What were these plaintiffs trying to accomplish with their lawsuits doomed to failure?

First, these early cases vividly protested the gendered nature of marriage and society's vastly different expectations of husband and wife. These traditional roles, alas, continue to define the lives of millions of Americans, but in the early 1970s, before the great feminist law reforms of that decade, they defined the marital institution. If, as Baker put it, lawsuits like his might turn that institution "upside down," it was because they championed an egalitarian view of it.

Second, staking so bold and so jarring a claim as same-sex marriage brought intense publicity to a nascent movement. Lynne Pfhul, a founder of Louisville's Gay Liberation Front (she accompanied Jones and Knight to the county clerk's office), explains that applying for a license was "a concrete, visible thing. It was something we could actually do" -- a high-yield, do-it-yourself media splash. The cases were designed, as the Washington plaintiffs put it, "to generate public discussion about gay people and gay relationships," which is exactly what they did. Such visibility was no small thing for a movement that called the closet its worst enemy.

Finally, marriage offered -- and continues to offer -- an excellent vehicle for pressing the claim, fervently embraced by the Stonewall generation, that "gay is good." Taking advantage of marriage's privileged association with sex and romantic love, the first plaintiffs proclaimed not only the political equality of straights and gays but the moral equivalence of heterosexual and homosexual relationships. That claim of equality was vital to gay liberation, but it was -- and is -- only the beginning.