Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Same-sex marriage in historical perspective

George Chauncey, professor of American history at the University of Chicago, garnered favorable reviews for his 1994 book "Gay New York," which covered the field in the Gotham up to the year 1940. Soon to appear is a sequel with a broader scope, "The Making of a Modern Gay World (1935-1975)."

Between these two major works, Chauncey has found time to produce a quickie 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 contributions to 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 gay 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,” as homophobes like to claim.

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.

Reflecting his credo as a social historian, 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.

Regrettably, his approach to the central problem is unsatisfactory. On the one hand, he holds that the progress 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 as a prophecy after the event. If, by contrast, 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 began in southern California, founded as an offshoot of the Mattachine Society, our first stable and serious gay rights organization. In August of 1963, 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 generated a heated controversy. On the whole, the southern California delegates were in favor, while 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 1963. The last notice 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. He seems unaware of the dimensions of this first encounter with the issue.

The art historian Jonathan R. 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 first debate on gay marriage.

Still, the early efforts to place the issue on the table evoked only a modest response--especially by comparison with the outpouring of interest and demand shown in the 1990s. Why was the earlier response muted?

An obvious answer was that expanding marriage to include same-sex couples was "too radical." This response does not take us very far. During the period after Stonewall (1969 ff.) same-sex marriage seemed not radical enough, being perceived as a compromise with bourgeois norms which must be overthrown. Indeed this objection lingered when the gay left dragged its feet with regard to the marriage movement in the 1990s, helping to ensure the sense of its irrelevance.

It may be suggested that the real roots of the modest reception in the early years are based in an experience of long standing. During the early modern era, in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe there were a number of prominent instances of simulated marriages—men and men, women and women. The Molly Houses of early 18th century London saw mock marriage ceremonies in which two men went through a parodic version of the marriage ceremony. More common and lasting were unions between women. Typically one of the two would assume the dress and outward bearing of a man, and the couple might be accepted. Some of course were found out. What excited particular horror in the general society was the perception that one of these women was "usurping" the male prerogative by using a simulated penis, a dildo, during sexual congress.

By the early 20th century an egalitarian ideal had come to be dominant among gay men and lesbians. Not always, as we know from some instances of the butch-fem dichotomy among lesbians. As the egalitarian concept gained ground, men rejected the idea that they, or at least the “submissive” one in the coupled relationship, must adopt the appearance and psychic demeanor of men. Similarly, lesbians, even butch ones, rejected the idea that they must "really" be men. Of course, a small proportion of each sex sought a sex change. But the vast majority rejected both the need for sex change and a long-term commitment to cross-gender identification.

In this perspective gay marriage could only gain more general acceptance as the older idea of simulating the opposite sex faded. There could now be pairs with two wives and two husbands.

Put in this fashion the matter seems a bit outlandish--as indeed it does to some skeptical heterosexuals. Still an increasing number of gay men and lesbians aspire to lead lives that are normal in every way, except for their choice of partner. This "bourgeois" aspiration is decried by the gay left, but its influence has steeply declined.

The removal of the sodomy laws the remaining states that had them, as a result of the Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence decision enhanced the sense of gay progress and entitlement. Equality has become the watchword.

There are practical concerns as well. As it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain affordable health insurance in this country, having a married spouse is one way to obtain it. There are other needed benefits as well, including hospital visitation, inheritance, and adoption rights.

There is division in the gay community as to whether the new arrangements will be in the form of marriage or civil unions, which it is hoped will be marriage in all but name.

At all events a new constellation of events had come into play. This constellation has make the gay marriage a central concern--as it was not when the matter was first broached a half century ago.