New York state is the latest–and largest–state to recognize the right of gays and lesbians to marry. By all means, this is good news as everyone who wishes to marry should be allowed to, and in every state in the U.S. However, the manner by which proponents of gay marriage have gone about gaining greater access to mainstream society might benefit from some complicating. Here’s one way we might do that:
The images of gays and lesbians that proponents of gay marriage have deployed to garner support for marriage equality from mainstream society often represent gays and lesbians as monogamous, pious, patriotic, fully-employed, home-owning, child-rearing, civic-minded, neighborly, discrete couples who just happen to be of the same sex. Ultimately, the gays and lesbians that lawmakers and mainstream society is agreeing to let marry are staunchly middle-class and, as Thaddeus Russell writes, “sexless and their relations platonic” (330).*
Russell also writes that
Today’s movement for gay marriage–a renewal of the homophile movement–ended gay liberation, is helping end straight liberation, and seeks to return all of us to the 1950s. Like the homophile movement, the gay marriage movement demands that, in order to gain acceptance as full citizens, its constituents adopt the cultural norms of the American citizen: productivity, selflessness, responsobility, sexual retraint, and the restraint of homosexual expression in particular.^ (330)
And therein lies the problem: by suggesting (the proponents of gay marriage)–or by insisting (mainstream society)–that same-sex couples who wish to marry play by the rules of heteronormativy, the rules of heteronormativity are reinforced. And this at the expense of all those who don’t wish to–or can’t–play by the rules.
Sure, there might be some gay couples who naturally look like the upstanding, all-American citizens that the rhetoric of marriage equality has proffered, but there are many more who don’t. There are, in fact, thousands upon thousands of gays and lesbians who don’t wield the same consumerist power as the ideal “American citizen” does, and by suggesting and/or insisting that we do, the false homogeneity of U.S. society is reinforced.
And reinforcing the homogeneity of U.S. society will ultimately result in a harder-fought fight for the next group who feels itself oppressed by the dominant group (now thousands-more stronger!).
*Which isn’t to say that this sexless-ness is only applicable to (the image of) gays and lesbians mainstream society has been presented with–in fact, a Victorian sense of propriety and prudishness is characteristic of American society in general. So, in a way, it makes a lot of sense that the marriage equality movement would do away with sexuality if it means to gain full acceptance into mainstream society. One need only look at the various ethnic identities in U.S history that have been successful in being re-categorized from “ethnic” to “white”–the Irish, Italians, and Jews, for example–to see how so much of that success was dependent on them doing away with the ascribed lasciviousness of their culture and the adoption of more restrained and “civilized” behavior. Rhetorically speaking, proponents of gay marriage have been quite successful in doing precisely that in states such as New York.
^The homophile movement that Russell refers to here was an organized response to the antihomosexual culture of the 1950s. In February of 1950 a State Department official testified before Congress about how the State Department was overrun with homosexuals. Congress responded by initiating an investigation into the “perverts” working for the federal government that lasted for five years. The FBI surveilled thousands of Americans suspected of sexual deviance, the armed forces doubled the number of discharges on account of sexual deviance, and President Eisenhower banned all homosexuals from serving in the federal government (a pre-employment screening was used to identify homosexuals). At the state and local level, police departments conducted thousands of raids on suspected gay bars and cruising areas, and newspapers and reporters took to “reporting” the names of men and women who had been arrested for illicit sexual practices. Dozens of homophile organizations were formed during the era–the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and Janus Society, for example–to offer a response. In all cases these homophile societies adopted “the politics of respectability” through the condemnation of effeminate behavior in men, masculine behavior in women, and through wearing conservative and business-proper attire. Now we know that these attempts at putting on of heteronormative airs was all for not: “The respectable movement of the 1950s failed to end police harassment (it actually increased in the 1950s and 1960s), won no civil rights, and, by eliminating the most powerful form of sexual dissent in American culture, actually contributed to the sexual conservatism of the time” (326). I ask: could the adherence to these heteronormative tropes (which–if not for the sexual liberties this institution inadvertently inherited from Gay Liberation–would still require married couples to sleep in separate beds) in the name of marriage equality also end up contributing to the conservatism of our time?