Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Chauncey on gay marriage

George Chauncey, professor of American history, at the University of Chicago has been widely admired for his 1994 book “Gay New York,” which covered the field up to the year 1940. Soon to appear is a sequel with a broader remit, “The Making of a Modern Gay World (1935-1975)". In between these two landmark works, Chauncey has found time to produce a shorter volume on a subject of great current interest, “Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today’s Debate Over Gay Equality.” The time frame of this book is about fifty years, though his analysis of the institution of marriage as such delves back into the 19th century.

Not previously noted for his interventions on the subject of on gay marriage, Chauncey can claim a detached point of view. This does not mean that he endorses any of the unviable arguments against gay marriage emanating from “traditional values” defenders. But he does not take sides among the several factions arguing for same-sex marriage. And of course some gays and lesbians, mainly on the left, continue to be leery of marriage. Here he makes a shrewd point. The fact that gays differ over marriage shows that there is no gay agenda. Chapter 3, on the historical variability of marriage, is excellent. Chauncey indicates that some anthropologists have been so struck by this variability that they deny that there is any single thing called marriage. This means that both traditionalists, who deplore the profanation of their parochial concept of marriage, and gay social-policy types, who assume marriage stability for their own purposes, are on shaky ground.

Presumably reflecting his historian's credo, Chauncey gives little attention to the contributions of individuals, so that Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, and Evan Wolfson rate only passing mention. He thinks that historical forces are the main element.

However, his approach to the central problem is unsatisfactory. On the one hand, he holds that the migration of gay marriage from the periphery to the center of attention (a trajectory that has taken just ten years) is a phenomenon. I agree. On the other hand, he claims that he can easily explain this development. Well, if it is a phenomenon it is not easily explained, even by means of a prophecy after the event. If it is easily explained, the amazing “legs” of the issue cease to be problematic. In short Chauncey has framed the problem, but has not advanced very far towards its solution.

Though fluent, the book rarely probes deeply. Instead of gesturing towards the ineffable wisdom of the historian’s stance, Chauncey needs to do some hard empirical work to find the relevant data. In fact he misses most of the whole first act of the drama, which prefigured that which was to come in our own day.

In 1952 ONE Magazine was founded in southern California, as a publications counterpart of the Mattachine Society, our first stable and serious gay rights organization. Early on, in August of 1953, the monthly published an exploratory article “Homosexual Marriage?” Matters hung fire until 1961. In January of that year ONE, Inc., the organization, convened a summit meeting to discuss a homosexual bill of rights. According to the position paper plank No. 3 read as follows: “Marriages between homosexual members of the same sex should be recognized and provided for by law and should have exactly the same status and confer the same benefits and responsibilities as heterosexual marriages. This would include tax exemptions, joint ‘husband-and-wife’ ownership, and so on.”

This proposal led to a heated controversy. Generally, the southern California delegates were in favor, the northern California ones (including a delegation from The Ladder, the lesbian organization) were against. A flurry of publications ensued. A pulp journalist, R.E.L. Masters, publicized the matter in his expose’ book “The Homosexual Revolution” of 1962. The last notice in the series seems to have been a 1963 article in ONE Magazine. This terminal article is the only item in this ten-year development Chauncey has noticed. In this way the California movement laid the foundations for what was to become a mass-movement for gay marriage. This movement did not stem (as some have suggested) from the grass roots, that is from a few obscure gay and lesbian couples. The idea was hatched by an avant-garde of intellectuals, centered in Southern California.

The art historian Jonathan Katz has rightly singled out a paradox. The fifties were in some ways the most homophobic decade this country has witnessed. Not only was same-sex behavior illegal in every state, but gays were denied federal employment and widely subject to entrapment by vice squads, which were intensely proactive. Yet, as Katz points out, this era also shaped such luminaries of American culture as Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, and Andy Warhol. Among the creative responses, we must now include the debate on gay marriage.