Gay Marriage On The Rocks: Ain’t No Surprise

The wheels appear to have come off the gay marriage bus in the US and no one seems to know how to put them back on.  Not even the lesbians.

And that’s not according to meddlin’ Limey Uncle Tom ‘slut’ me (as I was dubbed by the Voice of Gay America) but according to the gay-marriage-supporting  New York Times in a piece last week titled ‘Amidst Small Wins, Advocates Lose Marquee Battles’:

…the bill to legalize same-sex marriage in New York failed by a surprisingly wide margin on Wednesday. In New Jersey, Democrats have declined to schedule the bill for a vote, believing that the support is no longer there. Voters in Maine last month repealed a state law allowing same-sex marriage despite advocates’ advantage in money and volunteers.

And on the other reliably liberal coast, California advocates of gay marriage announced this week that they would not try in the next elections to reverse the ban on gay marriage that voters approved in 2008; they did not believe they could succeed.

Gay marriage doesn’t appear to be something that even liberal ‘bi-coastal’ America has much of a stomach for, let alone the God-fearing ‘flyover’ States that of course make up most of the US.  So how earth did the US gay rights movement turn down this gay marriage cul-de-sac, apparently without a reverse gear? 

Even supporters of gay marriage say that all the optimism got ahead of the reality.

“I think there was some overreading of the political marketplace for gay marriage,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. “It’s not so much that something changed. There was a misreading of where the public was at.”

You don’t say.  Perhaps though it was not so much an ‘overreading’ or ‘misreading’ but rather more a case of complete illiteracy.  I mean, who would have guessed that screaming ‘BIGOT!!’ at beauty queens for believing, like most Americans, including President Obama, that marriage is between a man and a woman wasn’t going to be a terribly persuasive strategy? Whoever would have imagined that trying to blame black voters for California’s re-banning of gay marriage last year at the same time as trying to hijack their history of civil rights struggle and proclaim gays as ‘the new blacks’ wouldn’t play so well?  

And who could have possibly conceived that self-righteously denouncing civil unions, a much more politically achievable – and in my Limey Uncle Tom slut opinion also much more appropriate and modern – institution for giving same-sex couples legal protection as ‘riding at the back of the bus!’, and instead going pell-mell after gay marriage and respectability would have turned out to be such a tactical and strategic blunder? 

Empowered by judicial decisions affirming a constitutional right to gay marriage, beginning in Massachusetts in 2003, advocates argued to move away from a strategy that had focused on more incremental change.

“The gamble has not paid off,” Mr. Garin said.  “We leapfrogged from civil unions to marriage, primarily as a result of judicial decisions that were followed in some cases by legislative action. But the reality is that the judicial decisions were substantially ahead of public opinion, and still are.”

And, it might be added going pell-mell after gay marriage also helped George Bush get re-elected in 2004. Which as we know was such a wonderful outcome for everyone, gay or straight.

Mr Garin may be more clear-headed on this issue than many gay marriage advocates, but the expression ‘ahead of public opinion’ sounds to me like more ‘overreading’.  Maybe most Americans don’t accept that a relationship between two men — and after all, it is this double-penised aspect, not two wombs together, that the straight public think about — is ‘just the same’ as a relationship between a man and a woman, not because they’re backwards, or ignorant, or prejudiced, but because, if you’re not blinded by liberal platitudes, it clearly isn’t. 

And please, can someone over there point out, if only just to be really annoying, that the assimilation of the radically new phenomenon on modern gay relationships to the moribund institution of marriage with its reproductive role-playing, religious flavouring, and history of treating women as chattel does not exactly represent ‘progress’?

Fortunately, there’s one American homo left who isn’t Gore Vidal doing exactly this — though not of course in the NYT.  The novelist Bruce Benderson, interviewed by Christopher Stoddard in the latest issue of East Village Boys about his new book Pacific Agony makes some salient points about male sexuality which the Andrea Sullivanized American gays don’t want to hear:

Bruce Benderson: I have a kind of old-fashioned idea about what a homosexual is, and I think it’s somebody who is made to live outside the social norm. And the reason he was made to live outside the social norm is because one of the main functions of the structure of a social norm is to perpetuate the species, but I don’t think that’s a natural thing for male homosexuals. Not just homosexuals, but men in general are naturally too promiscuous. It’s their relationship with women that makes them more stable so that they can channel it into building a family. These gay couples are going around saying, “Oh, we’re just like you straight couples, really! We just happen to be two men.” I don’t believe that. I think they’re different.

Christopher Stoddard: Okay, so you think that gay men are essentially subject to “vice”?

BB: If you want to make that moral judgment… Suppose a bomb dropped and there were only 100 women and 1 man left. Well, theoretically, that man could repopulate the species by impregnating 100 women a year. Now, take 100 men and 1 woman after the bomb drops; we could only make 1 baby a year, okay? To perpetuate the species, men have been programmed by evolution to be promiscuous. Marriage is the social taming of a man’s sexual energies by a woman, which is necessary to build a social structure. Because a man is made to screw more than one person, there’s nobody to stop him if he’s with just another man.

CS: You sound like the proverbial Repulican who believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

BB: I think that marriage should be illegal! Just like pledging to God should be illegal. Marriage is a sacrament that has absolutely nothing to do with the State, and it should have no legal status whatsoever. A domestic partnership should be recognized by the State, and it should hinge on things like wills, joint tax filing, inheritance, things like that. And any two people should be able to do it. A marriage is just this left-over sacrament that somehow wiggled its way into legal status.

CS: You don’t believe that two men can be devoted to each other in a monogamous way and not cheat because of these carnal needs?

BB: Correct. I believe two men can be totally devoted to each other, but it probably won’t be in the same way that a man and a woman can be totally devoted to each other. I know several gay male couples who’ve been together a long time and go to the baths together, or they both go to one of those, you know, orgy places.

CS: I think I know who you mean. {chuckles}

BB: Yet they’re totally close, and they totally trust each other, and it’s a wonderful pairing.

Be careful, Bruce!  You can’t just go around talking the truth about gay men in public!  Not if you want to be taken seriously, that is.

The Gay Case Against Gay Marriage and Gay Bigotry

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By Mark Simpson (Guardian CIF, 30 April 2009)

Who would have guessed the dainty opinions of a Miss America candidate would have been taken so seriously by gays and liberals?

Miss California, a practising Christian, was last week denounced by Miss America judge Perez Hilton on his blog as ‘a dumb bitch’ and unworthy of the Miss America crown because she gave the ‘wrong’ answer to his chippy question about gay marriage. Like most Americans – including the current Democratic President of the United States – she believes that marriage is ‘between a man and a woman’. Boo! Hiss! Rip her to shreds!

It wasn’t just the famously bitchy gay gossip-monger Hilton casting stones, however. For honestly and somewhat courageously answering his question Miss California was roundly condemned as a ‘bigot’ by hosts of gay and liberal bloggers, and was even denounced by the directors of the Miss California pageant who declared themselves ‘saddened’ by her views and that they had no place in the ‘Miss California family’, whatever that is. Most now agree with Hilton’s gloating claim that her answer cost her the crown.

Candidate Obama expressed the exact same view during the Presidential Election: “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it’s also a sacred union. You know, God’s in the mix.” Instead of being scorned as a bigot and a dumb bitch, Obama was handed the Mr America crown by liberals and probably most gay voters. But I suppose that being President of the United States is a rather less important title than Miss America.

Branding Christians and traditionalists ‘bigots’ for being Christians and traditionalists and thus none too keen to fundamentally revise the definition of marriage is a highly unattractive exercise in liberal self-righteousness that makes Miss America look quite sophisticated. Not to mention sounding a lot like pots and kettles rattling. It’s faintly absurd to have to even say this, but it isn’t bigoted to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. It’s just being conventional. And after all, marriage itself is convention and tradition tied up in a big red bow and covered in confetti and sprinkled with Holy Water. Which is exactly why lesbians and gays should have nothing to do with it.

Today’s out and proud same-sex relationships are very unconventional and a very new kind of phenomenon. And so are in fact many of today’s cross-sex relationships in a brave new world of gender parity. Marriage on the other hand is an antiquated, failing institution based on inequality and traditional roles. Much like Miss America.

Marriage is, whether you like it or not, also based on religious sentiment: ‘God’s in the mix.’ Especially in a very religious country like America. And I have a hunch, based on millennia of violent opposition to sex that doesn’t produce more Christians, that God is not going to sanctify ‘sodomy’ any time soon.

New ways of living and loving require new institutions. Or in the words of the famously unmarried Galilee carpenter and fisher of men: put new wine into new wineskins. And keep the flippin’ Pharisees out of it. Or else you’ll end up with a tacky mess.

It needs to be said out loud that full civil unions with the same legal rights and privileges of marriage at both the State and Federal level, supported by President Obama and many Republicans and even some right-wing evangelicals – and the large majority of American voters – are not only much more politically achievable in the US than gay marriage, they are also a better fit for most same sex relationships. What’s more they represent an entirely dignified way of side-stepping this endless, unsightly domestic between liberal and conservative, secular and religious, metropolitan and rural America.

But instead, gay marriage zealots, many of whom admit that they themselves don’t wish to get married, insist on characterising civil unions as ‘second class’, ‘social apartheid’ or ‘riding at the back of the bus’. I’d like to think it was merely a ploy to make fully-recognised civil unions more achievable, but many really seem to believe their own shrill propaganda. Worse, they’ve made even more of a fetish of the word ‘marriage’ than the religious right they rail against.

In the UK, where nationally recognised same-sex civil unions with the same legal status as marriage – called civil partnerships – were introduced in 2004 there is little or no appetite now for gay marriage. In my experience few lesbians or gays feel they are ‘riding at the back of the bus’. Maybe because in many ways they’re actually riding at the front. It’s probably only a matter of time before gay civil partnerships in the UK are made available to all, as they are in France – where the vast majority of applications are now made by cross-sex couples disenchanted with traditional marriage.

What’s more, fully-recognised, open-to-all civil unions are a fully-fledged secular institution that helps to shore up a fragile secular society. And make no mistake, it is secularism on which most of the – historically very, very recent – freedoms enjoyed by lesbians and gays are based, along with those of women.

But so far the gay marriage crusade in the US doesn’t seem very interested in any of this or lessons it might learn from the experience of other countries. Instead it seems too busy proving itself holier-than-thou. And less sophisticated than Miss America contestants.

Marry Me, Ms P – But Civilly

A little late -my brain turns to plum pudding during the festering season – I’d like to flag up a section on gay marriage from the stand-up intellectual Camille Paglia’s December column on Salon.com. Mostly of course because it mentions me in a flattering fashion. (If you find mutual love-fests a little queasy, you may want to look away now….)

Maybe because we’re both incurable Freudians dogmatically wedded to his concept of universal bisexual responsiveness, I consider Paglia a genuinely free thinker. Something all-too rare on the left these days. She is also a powerful, sometimes literally incandescent writer with a mischievous, kinky-booted provocative sense of humour. Sexual Personae indeed. Above all, or perhaps below all, she has big, brass, Italianate balls. I’m in awe of them.

And so, whether they know it or not, are Salon readers – that’s why they line up in their hundreds every month to rail against ‘that crazy bitch’ and, the ultimate insult, apparently, ‘narcissist’ on the letters page and demand she be sacked and paraded in chains through the streets of San Francisco otherwise they’ll tear up their Salon party membership card. Again.

In her column Camille makes the case for civil unions over gay marriage rather better than I do. In fact, my own view was very probably influenced by my eager reading of her barnstorming works back in the early 90s (they certainly helped inspire the dissident collection ‘Anti-Gay’). As she writes in Salon:

My position has always been (as in “No Law in the Arena” in my 1994 book, “Vamps & Tramps”) that government should get out of the marriage business. Marriage is a religious concept that should be defined and administered only by churches. The government, a secular entity, must institute and guarantee civil unions, open to both straight and gay couples and conferring full legal rights and benefits. Liberal heterosexuals who profess support for gay rights should be urged to publicly shun marriage and join gays in the civil union movement.

In their displeasure at the California vote, gay activists have fomented animosity among African-Americans who voted for Proposition 8 and who reject any equivalence between racism and homophobia. Do gays really want to split the Democratic coalition? I completely agree with a hard-hitting piece by the British gay activist Mark Simpson (which was forwarded to me by Glenn Belverio), “Let’s Be Civil: Marriage Isn’t the End of the Rainbow.” Simpson, who has been called “a skinhead Oscar Wilde,” is famous among other things for a riveting 2002 Salon article that put the term “metrosexual” into world circulation. I appreciate Simpson’s candor about how marriage is a very poor fit with the actual open lifestyle of so many gay men, which is far more radical. Marriage may be desirable for some gay men and women, but at what cost? Activists should have focused instead on removing all impediments to equality in civil unions — such as the unjust denial of Social Security benefits to the surviving partner in gay relationships.

(I’m not sure I’m much of a ‘gay activist’, but ‘rivetting’ sounds entirely accurate to me.)

While fully-equivalent civil unions are much more politically achievable in the US than gay marriage, they are being misrepresented as ‘second class’, ‘social apartheid’ or ‘riding at the back of the bus’ by gay marriage zealots who seem obsessed with appropriating, or perhaps expropriating, the experience of the black civil rights movement and presenting homosexuals as ‘the new blacks’. In the UK, where nationally recognised same-sex civil unions with the same legal status as marriage, called civil partnerships, were introduced a few years ago there is little or no appetite for gay marriage. Very few lesbians or gays feel they are ‘riding at the back of the bus’. Maybe because in many ways they’re actually sitting at the front.

Modern same-sex relationships are a new kind of institution. And so are many if not most of today’s cross-sex relationships. Marriage is an antiquated, failing institution based on inequality, traditional roles and religious sentiment. That’s why it’s seen most as being between ‘a man and a woman’. This isn’t bigotry – it’s tradition. Which is what marriage is. In the words of the Galilee carpenter and fisher of men: put new wine into new wineskins. And keep the fucking Pharisees out of it. Or else you’ll end up with a tacky mess.

What’s more, fully-recognised, fully-equal – and fully open to all – civil unions, would help to shore up our fragile secular society. And make no mistake, it is secularism on which most of the (very recent) freedoms enjoyed by lesbians and gays are based, as well as those of women in general, and also metrosexual man.

Which reminds me: I disagree with Paglia’s continued kicking of Hillary Clinton in the same column – perhaps there’s only room for one ‘ball-breaking’ 60s feminist in American public life – but she more than makes up for this with her plucky defence of spunky Sarah Palin against scolding, univocal liberal snobbery that continues to lash against her and the red-state, rural America that she represents. To do that anywhere in the liberal press would be quite something, but to do it on Salon, which during the election became a kind of spiteful schoolgirlish diary of hatred towards the Republican Vice Presidential Candidate is well-nigh heroic. (Did anyone, anywhere write anything about Joe Biden? Even when he frequently put his ‘expert’ foot in his ‘experienced’ bureaucratic mouth?).

On this occasion, Paglia took umbrage with NYT columnist Dick Cavett’s piece ‘The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla’:

Cavett’s piece on Sarah Palin was insufferably supercilious. With dripping disdain, he sniffed at her “frayed syntax, bungled grammar and run-on sentences.” He called her “the serial syntax-killer from Wasilla High,” “one who seems to have no first language.” I will pass over Cavett’s sniggering dismissal of “soccer moms” as lightweights who should stay far, far away from government.

I was so outraged when I read Cavett’s column that I felt like taking to the air like a Valkyrie and dropping on him at his ocean retreat in Montauk in the chichi Hamptons. How can it be that so many highly educated Americans have so little historical and cultural consciousness that they identify their own native patois as an eternal mark of intelligence, talent and political aptitude?

I love the image of La Paglia taking to the air ‘like a Valkyrie’ and ‘dropping in’ on Cavett in his Montauk retreat. It would be a comically uneven match. Despite an illustrious CV, Cavett’s prose reads as if one of Palin’s bagged, wall-mounted mooseheads had started talking.

I suspect we will wait some time for Cavett’s column defending American English from President Uh-bama’s phony-folksy way of talking when interviewed. Because of course Harvard educated Obama is being condescending, which is just fine, while ‘white trash’ Palin is being who she is, which is completely unforgivable.

Let’s Be Civil: Gay Marriage Isn’t The End of the Rainbow

by Mark Simpson (A shorter version originally appeared on Guardian CIF November 2, 2008)

“It’s better to marry than burn with passion,” declared St Paul. But now marriage itself seems to have become a burning issue – or at least, gay marriage.

The re-banning of gay marriage in California earlier this month with the passage of Proposition 8 has been presented by gay marriage advocates as a vicious body-blow for gay rights. Angry gay people and their allies have protested across the US, some reportedly even rioting. The timely release of the Gus Van Sant movie Milk, about the murder in 1977 of Harvey Milk, the US’s first out elected official, has fuelled the sense of gay outrage and defiance. Surely only a hateful bigot like the one that gunned down Harvey would be opposed to gay marriage?

Gay marriage is the touchstone of gay equality, apparently. Settling for anything less is a form of Jim Crow style gay segregation and second-class citizenship.

But not all gays agree. This one for instance sees gay marriage not so much as a touchstone as a fetish. A largely symbolic and emotional issue that in the US threatens to undermine real, non-symbolic same-sex couple protection: civil unions bestow in effect the same legal status as marriage in several US states – including California. As a result of the religious right’s mobilisation against gay marriage, civil unions have been rolled back in several US states.

Perhaps the lesson of Proposition 8 is not that most straight people think gay people should sit at the back of the bus, but that if you take on religion and tradition on its hallowed turf – and that is what marriage effectively is – you’re highly likely to lose.  Even in liberal California.

Maybe I shouldn’t carp, living as I do in the UK, where civil partnerships with equal legal status to marriage have been nationally recognised since 2004. But part of the reason that civil partnerships were successfully introduced here was because they are civil partnerships not “marriages” (the UK is a much more secular country than the US, and somewhat more gay-friendly too – but even here gay marriage would almost certainly not have passed).

At this point I’d like to hide behind the, erm, formidable figure of Sir Elton John, who also expressed doubts recently about the fixation of US gay campaigners on the word ‘marriage’, and declared he was happy to be in a civil partnership with the Canadian David Furnish and did not want to get married. Needless to say, Mr John wasn’t exactly thanked for speaking his mind by gay marriage advocates.

But amidst all the gay gnashing of teeth about the inequality of Proposition 8 it’s worth asking: when did marriage have anything to do with equality? Respectability, certainly. Normality, possibly. Stability, hopefully. Very hopefully. But equality?

First of all, there’s something gay people and their friends need to admit to the world: gay and straight long-term relationships are generally not the same. How many heterosexual marriages are open, for example? In my experience, many if not most long term male-male relationships are very open indeed. Similarly, sex is not quite so likely to be turned into reproduction when your genitals are the same shape. Yes, some gay couples may want to have children, by adoption or other means, and that’s fine and dandy of course, but children are not a consequence of gay conjugation. Which has always been part of the appeal for some.

More fundamentally who is the “man” and who is the “wife” in a gay marriage? Unlike cross-sex couples, same-sex partnerships are partnerships between nominal equals without any biologically, divinely or even culturally determined reproductive/domestic roles. Who is to be “given away”? Or as Elton John, put it: “I don’t wanna be anyone’s wife”.

It’s increasingly unclear even to heterosexuals who is the “man” and who is the “wife”, who should cleave to the other’s will and who should bring home the bacon. That’s why so many today introduce their husband or wife as “my partner”. The famous exception to this of course was Guy Ritchie and his missus, Madonna – and look what happened to them. Pre-nuptial agreements, very popular with celebs (though not, apparently, with Guy and Madonna), represent the very realistic step of divorcing before you get married – like plastic surgery, this is a hard-faced celeb habit that’s going mainstream.

If Christians and traditionalists want to preserve the “sanctity” of marriage as something between a man and a woman, with all the mumbo jumbo that entails, let them. They only hasten the collapse of marriage. Instead of demanding gay marriage, in effect trying to modernise an increasingly moribund institution, maybe lesbian and gay people should push for civil partnerships to be opened to everyone, as they are in France – where they have proved very popular.

I suspect civil partnerships, new, secular, literally down-to-earth contracts between two equals, relatively free of the baggage of tradition, ritual and unrealistic expectations, would also prove very popular with cross-sex couples in the Anglo world at a time when the institution of marriage is the most unpopular it’s ever been among people who aren’t actually gay. Yes, cross-sex couples can have civil marriage ceremonies, but they’re still marriages, not partnerships. If made open to everyone, civil partnerships might eventually not just be an alternative to marriage. Marriage might end up being something left to Mormons.

Perhaps my scepticism about gay marriage and marriage in general is down to the fact that I’m terminally single. Perhaps it’s all just sour grapes. Or maybe I prefer to burn with passion than marry. After all, St Paul’s violently ascetic world-view which regarded marriage as a poor runner-up to chastity, also ensured that the Christian Church would burn sodomites like kindling for centuries.

Either way, I think it needs to be mentioned amidst all this shouting about gay domesticity that, important as it is to see lesbian and gay couples recognised and given legal protection, probably most gay men (though probably not most lesbians) are single and probably will be single for most of their lives. With or without civil partnerships/unions.

Or even the magical, symbolic power of gay marriage.

Postscript: The Voice of Gay America responds – loudly.