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Opinion: The Trouble With Normal

Poli Psy


Published February 28, 2007 at 5:00 p.m.


The correctness of Vermont House Bill 275, permitting same-sex marriage, is a no-brainer. To forbid the privileges and protections of marriage to couples with matching genitals, when the complementary-genitalia crowd is welcome at the altar, denies a class of citizen equality under the law.

If I were voting, I'd vote for H. 275. But I'd do so with a heavy heart.

It's the same feeling I had in 1993, watching a videotape of 3000 same-sex couples celebrating their symbolic weddings at the gay-rights march in Washington, D.C. To me, those wedding bells were tolling the death of a radical movement.

At the march of 1987, the Reverend Troy Perry, of the Metropolitan Community Churches, had joined several thousand pairs as well - and I wasn't so thrilled then, either. I much preferred the spirit of '72, when the National Coalition of Gay Organiza-tions demanded the "extension of legal benefits to all persons who cohabit regardless of sex or numbers." By '87, as the nation slid rightward, gay organizers were already hewing their vision to the Christian-American model: Noah's Ark. Now the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation was demanding that "homosexual couples" (emphasis mine) get "the same privileges and benefits as heterosexuals who commit themselves to similar relationships."

Beyond that, their demands were far from moderate: health care for all, "without regard to ability to pay" and funded out of the federal military budget; reproductive freedom, including free abortion; "an end to racism in this country and apartheid in South Africa." In no document I could find was there mention of the "right" to put on a uniform to kill and be killed for your country. The word marriage was equally scarce.

On New Year's Eve 2000, I toasted Vermont's new civil union law with some lesbian friends. But our elation was mixed with disappointment. "Is this why I've been a feminist for 30 years?" Nancy asked. "So I can join the military and marry my girlfriend?"

Strictly speaking, Nancy couldn't marry her girlfriend - but that's not why she was bummed. Rather, I think she was saying she wanted to be recognized, not normalized. And she understood that normalcy is always the subtext - and the prize - of marriage.

At the hearings leading up to the passage of the law, I'd been struck listening to witness after witness as they trotted out the bona fides of their normalcy. "Everyone wants to know what Christopher and I do in the bedroom," one man told the judiciary committee. "I'll tell you what we do. We sleep." Have no fear, straight people! Let us marry and we perverts will stop having sex - just like you!

Today the normalcy of people whose movement once proudly called them queer is a standard argument for same-sex marriage - and for that movement, marriage is the gold standard. "Flanked by her life partner, Susan, and their teenage daughter, Caledonia County resident Ann Parker described the ordinariness of her family's life," read the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force's February 7 press release announcing H. 275, which is not slated to come to the floor this year. "We hurry out to basketball games on work nights to watch her cheer," says Ann. "We struggle to save to pay our taxes, we take turns with our neighbors pulling each other out of the ditches in the winter."

She concludes: "All we want is the same opportunity as our heterosexual neighbors to get a marriage license from our town clerk."

If all gay-marriage advocates wanted were equal rights, they might accept what many legislatures and even several presidential candidates now openly support: all the privileges and obligations of marriage, without the name. But that's not all they want. "Being married means something powerful to us - something that no other legal status can capture," Ann says. That desire is at the heart of the marriage movement. The Freedom to Marry Task Force in 2000 pronounced civil unions a "bitter compromise" - and not just because the law would not affect Social Security or federal taxes. Beth Robinson, co-counsel to the plaintiffs in Baker v. Vermont, the lawsuit that wrought the law, put it this way: "Nobody writes songs about registered partnerships."

Ann and Susan and their supporters want that powerful, '50s-love-song feeling. They want not just rights, but what the state confers on their straight friends' relationships: sentimental and moral validation.

For the record, I am 54, never married and, in the 16th year of a committed relationship, not intending to marry. My general feeling, reinforced each time I learn of another nasty gay or lesbian divorce, is summed up in a recent New Yorker cartoon: A man, looking up from his newspaper, comments to his wife: "Gays getting married? Haven't they suffered enough?"

Still, I have the option to reject marriage or embrace it - because I am heterosexual. And if I have the option, so should Ann and Susan.

But cheerleading? Taxpaying? Neighborly acts in the freezing cold? Is this what it takes to get a few rights around here?

More to the point, is "ordinariness" - a.k.a. normalcy - what gay advocates should be exploiting to convince others they deserve those rights? At a time when Constitutional protections are being denied to an ever-widening class of deviants - illegal "aliens," sexual "predators" - is it in the interest of gays and lesbians, or any American, to hold up normalcy as the ticket to citizenship?

**** The below section was inadvertently omitted in the printed version of this article. ****

Proponents of gay marriage argue that because gay marriage makes homosexuality more visible, it also makes it more acceptable, not just for judges or ER doctors but for the lesbian bride's formerly homophobic cousin. Because gay marriage renders queerness "normal," notes Yale legal scholar William Eskridge, it is both radical and conservative.

But marriage is intrinsically conservative. It does not just normalize, it checks for normality at the door. Assimilating the monogamous, long-term, "virtually normal" homosexual couples like Ann and Susan, marriage pushes the queerer queers - drag queens, club-crawlers, polyamorists - farther to the margins. Gay marriage won't help these outliers. It could even leave them more vulnerable, as wedded homosexuals cease to identify as sexual outlaws.

"Marriage sanctifies some couples at the expense of others," wrote cultural critic Michael Warner in his 1999 book The Trouble with Normal. "It is selective legitimacy." In Vermont in 1999, his words were borne out. A coalition of liberal clergy implied that same-sex married people, like straight ones, are more godly than couples in unofficial unions. Married gays, they wrote, "exemplify a moral good which cannot be represented by so-called registered partnership."

A secular state in a pluralistic democracy has no business affirming any religious version of relational morality. But if we didn't have marriage, a legitimate state function would be left undone: Ensuring the individual and collective interests of people sharing homes, expenses and children. "You can call it anything you want," remarked Brooklyn Law School professor and sex-law expert Nan Hunter when I interviewed her a few years ago. "But you have to have some mechanism by which people can easily, quickly, and cheaply designate another person for a whole list of purposes" - co-parent, co-homeowner, medical proxy, heir. I'd call it "personal partnership," and a variety of such partnerships can encode legal rights and strictures commensurate to the obligations incurred, notably children. Such a range exists in many other democracies.

Civil unions stand in this secular tradition, not the tradition of marriage. Indeed, what I like best about CUs is the distance they maintain from marriage's role in bestowing sexual-moral legitimacy. One little-advertised clause of the 2000 law is a less-extensive class of mutual rights given to cohabiting kin, called "reciprocal benefits." The clause was included in response to opponents' claims that queers would get "special rights" denied to "maiden aunts" and others barred from marriage by incest prohibitions. I believe the drafters regarded it as a necessary compromise. To me, the clause is extraordinarily radical, because it undermines the sexual-regulatory function of marriage.

H. 275 nods toward church-state separation by allowing clergy to refuse, on religious principle, to "solemnize" a same-sex marriage. But what were they doing signing civil marriage licenses in the first place? Rather than letting them decline, legislators should rescind the clergy's authority to confer civil marriages at all. And while they're at it, they should let straight people get civil unions, too, as nonreligious partners do in Europe, Australia and elsewhere.

The government must distribute its material and legal benefits equally. As long as heterosexual marriage endures, homosexual marriage is a necessary liberal reform. But that does not mean replicating every marital right, sacrament and diagnosis of normalcy.

Instead of counting on marriage to deliver economic, medical and social security, Americans should work for these benefits as they are provided in every other industrialized democracy - to each child or adult, whether single or coupled, living within or outside a family of any configuration.

And all of us - G, L, B, T, Q or S - should get behind the most radical demand of all: full social and sexual citizenship for everyone, both the demonstrably normal and truly queer.