Same-sex marriage is becoming a national inevitability. A cascade of court opinions, significant public support, not to mention increasingly sympathetic gay couples and increasingly implausible opposition—all these and more point to an emerging national consensus that “gay marriage” is actually a form of “marriage.” It’s not exactly clear when the hump took place—but we definitely seem to be over it.
Which leads to a perfectly logical question: What’s next? Moderates and liberals have argued that same-sex marriage is No Big Deal—it’s the Same Love, after all, and gays just want the same lives as everyone else. But further right and further left, things get a lot more interesting. What if gay marriage really will change the institution of marriage, shifting conceptions around monogamy and intimacy? On the other hand, what if the domesticating institution of marriage changes—and even erases—the more libertine tendencies of gay culture?
Obviously, we now know that the sky doesn’t fall when gays get married. Contrary to the hysterical claims that same-sex marriage would threaten marriage in general, 10 years of experience in Massachusetts have shown the opposite: The divorce rate has gone down, and straight kids aren’t suddenly turning gay.
At the same time, there is some truth to the conservative claim that gay marriage is changing, not just expanding, marriage. According to a 2013 study, about half of gay marriages surveyed (admittedly, the study was conducted in San Francisco) were not strictly monogamous.
This fact is well-known in the gay community—indeed, we assume it’s more like three-quarters. But it’s been fascinating to see how my straight friends react to it. Some feel they’ve been duped: They were fighting for marriage equality, not marriage redefinition. Others feel downright envious, as if gays are getting a better deal, one that wouldn’t work for straight couples. Maybe they’re right; women are from Venus, after all. Right?
If you think about it, actual monogamy has never been the Western norm. A monogamous ideal, sure—but men could always sleep around, hire prostitutes, and even have long-term affairs with few societal consequences. After all, it’s not single men who’ve made prostitution the world’s oldest profession.
Really, it’s only in the last hundred years or so that monogamy has been taken so seriously, starting with the first wave of feminism and the 19th-century temperance movement. (There’s even prostitution in the Bible, for heaven’s sake, as well as polygamy and concubinage, all of which are approved, or at least tolerated, by the Biblical texts that describe them.) The results have been disastrous. Of course, one can’t blame the 50% divorce rate on monogamy—regarding women as chattel unable to control their own destinies surely played a larger role—but it surely can’t be helping.
What would happen if gay non-monogamy—and I’ll include writer Dan Savage’s “monogamish” model, which involves extramarital sex once a year or so—actually starts to spread to straight people? Would open marriages, ’70s swinger parties, and perhaps even another era’s “arrangements” and “understandings” become more prevalent? Is non-monogamy one of the things same-sex marriage can teach straight ones, along with egalitarian chores and matching towel sets?
And what about those post-racial and post-gender millennials? What happens when a queer-identified, mostly-heterosexual woman with plenty of LGBT friends gets married? Do we really think that because she is “from Venus,” she will be interested in a heteronormative, sex-negative, patriarchal system of partnership?
If not, the future of marriage, in fact, may turn out to be a lot like the Christian Right’s nightmare: a sex-positive, body-affirming compact between two adults that allows for a wide range of intimate and emotional experience. Maybe no one will be the “husband” (as in, animal husbandry) and no one the chattel. Maybe instead of jealousy, non-monogamous couples will cultivate “compersion” to take pleasure in their partners’ sexual delight. And most dangerously, maybe marriage will be only one of many forms of such a compact; maybe people will choose their own intimate futures without coercion from the state. The horror!
Despite my own condescending tone to the ninnies of sexual repression, I want to admit a certain discomfort with this more radical vision. We are still a messed-up, male-dominated society that has trouble dealing with sexuality. Sure, polyamory works well for a few hyper-educated urban elites. But what about douchebags? What will sexual liberation look like at the bottom-feeding, lowest common denominator?
Will women be even more objectified, assaulted, and leered at? Is the future one long Miley Cyrus video?
Could be. But radical traditionalists aren’t the only ones fearing the consequences of same-sex marriage. So, it may surprise you to learn, are radical progressives.
“Marriage will never set us free,” wrote academics Dean Spade and Craig Wilse last September, just as the current wave was getting going. For them, as for 30 years of radical critics including Yasmin Nair, Michael Warner, Lisa Duggan, John D’Emilio, Katherine Franke, Kenyon Farrow, Gayle Rubin, Sally Kohn, and the “Against Equality” collective, same-sex marriage is a step backward for LGBTQ people and others whose agenda is liberation rather than assimilation.
Why? Because marriage is a patriarchal, sexist institution that should be discarded rather than reformed. Because it is, as Spade and Wilse say, a “tool of social control used by governments to regulate sexuality and family formation.” Because it has, in the past, been a tool of racism and colonialism, and in the present, is a means of rationing health care. This is, as Warner named it, “the trouble with normal.”
Perhaps most importantly, normalizing marriage is a narrowing, rather than an expanding, of sexual possibility. Radicals point out that gay liberation in the 1970s was, as the name implies, a liberation movement. It was about being free, questioning authority, rebellion. “2-4-6-8, smash the church and smash the state,” people shouted.
Can you imagine that being chanted from the General Electric float at the pride parade? Today’s LGBT movement is, at most, about equality—that is, about assimilation. Its defining symbol is the equal sign. Liberation promised greater-than.
If your agenda is liberation, then the vision of same-sex marriage, in which gays become domesticated and live happily ever after, is a kind of nightmare. It is, at best, the squandering of a revolutionary potential, but at worst the growth of exactly what we were supposed to have shrunk: repression, patriarchy, convention, religion. And this is exactly why it appeals to conservatives like Ted Olsen (the former solicitor general under George W. Bush who has won several key marriage cases), pundit Andrew Sullivan (conservative at least in his early writings), and David Blankenhorn, the former intellectual leader of the traditional marriage movement who did an about-face last year. In various ways, these folks have all espoused a relatively conservative social agenda—family, white picket fence, monogamy—and supported gay marriage as a means to achieving it.
Notice, by the way, that the ultra-conservatives and the radical liberationists share the same vision of LGBT liberation. Whether as dream or nightmare, both see it as destroying conventional notions of church and state. The only question is whether same-sex marriage will speed or slow the process. And, of course, whether it’s for better or for worse.
The mainstream LGBT movement, meanwhile, still insists that neither of these futures will come to pass. Don’t worry, they say, we’re not out to smash anything.
Who’s right? Only time will tell.
Personally, I’m not on board with either the progressive or the conservative doomsday scenarios. Unlike the radicals, I don’t think straight people need the gays to perpetuate (or destroy) the institution of marriage, and I don’t think gays were ever as liberation-minded as the romantic history suggests. And unlike the conservatives, I don’t think a few non-monogamous gay couples will turn the world into Studio 54; once again, philandering televangelists don’t need queers to teach them how to sleep around.
But I do like the notion of same-sex marriage as a liberation gateway drug. Inclusion of LGBT people within institutions like marriage will eventually transform those institutions, just as including women, non-whites, non-Anglos, and non-Christians has done. The experiences and perspectives of LGBT people are different from those of straight people, and different in a good way.
So, if I had to predict, I’d go with a gradual realization of the conservative nightmare—only it won’t be a nightmare, and plenty of straight people will thank us for it. Maybe gays will preserve marriage precisely by redefining, expanding, and reforming it—and maybe then it can be palatable to progressives, as one of a multitude of options.
We can entertain these divergent visions of the future because same-sex marriage was really a campaign, not a movement. For a moment, it brought together liberals, progressives, and even some conservatives. But now that its goal is within sight, the center cannot hold.
And then, things get interesting.