Has gay sex been subverted by gay marriage?

My freshman class at Harvard was the first to be randomly assigned to upperclass dormitories ("houses"). The university did not like the fact that students, given the choice, self-segregated into different communities, and was particularly disturbed by the fact that many black students had chosen to live in the old Radcliffe houses, as far away from the Harvard campus as possible. So, in typical liberal style, it denied everyone the choice.

As a result, I found myself--to my great fortune--in Dunster House, a building with a rich intellectual, political, and arts tradition, with a unique layout that encouraged social life by routing foot traffic through an intimate common courtyard. Prior to randomization, Dunster was one of two houses with large numbers of gay and lesbian students. Adams House was the more flamboyant of the two, but Dunster had a larger gay community.

I became friendly with many of my new housemates, and particularly friendly with a lesbian couple who lived downstairs. One was the leader of the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance, or BGLTSA. Through her, I became familiar with the politics of the gay rights movement at the time, and even attended a gay political conference at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government as a curious (not bi-curious) observer.

Perhaps my memory is selective, but I don't remember gay marriage being anywhere on the agenda in those days. The most prominent concern was ending discrimination against gays, and increasing tolerance towards gay lifestyles, i.e. gay sex. I remember hundreds of kids crowding into the Dunster basement to watch Ellen DeGeneres come out on television, and pushes for "Queer Studies," and so on, but very little about marriage.

In fact, the only time I remember the subject coming up was when I raised it, in a question I asked Cornel West during a class he co-taught with Critical Legal Studies scholar Roberto Unger in the Afro-American Studies department. Being a radical leftist myself, I wanted to know whether gay marriage might be the best way to begin a process of revolutionary change, since it targeted something intensely personal. (West deflected.)

Several years later, when I returned to Harvard to study law, and by then more conservative in my views, gay marriage seemed to have become the raison d'être of the gay rights movement. A recent graduate who had gone on to become a professional activist informed us, during a career panel discussion, that the movement intended to proceed from civil unions to full marriage in every state possible, by whatever means necessary to win.

It struck me then, and it still does today, as a different kind of struggle. Marriage--heterosexual marriage, anyway--is recognized as a right by our courts, even though it does not appear in the Constitution. But it is a different kind of right to freedom of speech. It is a conditional right, depending on the consent of another. And like the right to vote--not in the Constitution until the 14th Amendment--marriage depends on a social convention.

At the core of the push for gay marriage is the continuing desire for equality and acceptance of gay lifestyles. But there is another goal as well--perhaps secondary to the original motive, but necessary to its fulfillment: changing the idea of marriage itself. In other words, the campaign for gay marriage has always been about more than equal rights, or fairness: it has been about transforming a convention that is centuries, even millennia old.

It is that aspect of the push for gay marriage that has always troubled me. Not all conventions are good; some are very bad, such as racial segregation (a metaphor often used by gay marriage advocates). But some conventions are good--not just because they may be substantively good, but also because conventions, even arbitrary ones, help sustain the continuity of human civilization, establishing a link between the past and the future.

Champagne is only Champagne if it is from the Champagne region of France. Everything else is sparkling wine of some sort. There is no reason for that, except for the adamant chauvinism of the French, and the fact that the rest of the wine-drinking world derives some use and pleasure out of privileging a certain kind of wine, giving it a special status, enjoying its special story, saving it for very special occasions with special people. 

I feel the same way about marriage. Marriage is what it is: a covenant between a man and a woman, their community, and God--or, if you prefer, the state. I see no problem in granting all the substantive benefits  of marriage to same-sex couples--except the title itself. Marriage is special. Marriage has a procreative potential--even for apparently childless couples, in Biblical tradition. Marriage connects us to the past and to the future. 

That said, I also don't feel particularly exercised about those states that have legalized gay marriage, though I am happier to see it done by legislation or referendum than judicial fiat, precisely because marriage is a social convention and not purely a legal right. Conventions differ across societies, and conventions do change--sometimes, though not always, for the better. We should allow conventions to change--and also to be different. 

But it is precisely because marriage is a convention that the issue of gay marriage is a poor proxy for gay rights more generally. I suspect that the annual dilemma surrounding GOProud and CPAC would be less confusing if CPAC actually had refused "to let gays into the room," as my friend Jennifer Rubin suggests, a bit too carelessly. Many conservatives believes--or would like to believe--that it is possible to embrace gays while opposing gay marriage.

That is something subtly different from the old religious injunction to hate the sin and love the sinner, distinguishing between homosexual acts and the person who practices them. It is possible even to accept that homosexuality is both natural and immutable, and still oppose changing the convention of marriage. And it is unfair to suggest that those who wish to promote traditional marriage are motivated by bigotry, rather than genuine respect for the institution itself.

What gay marriage advocates do not appear to have reckoned with, at least until recently, is that change can be a two-way street--that in changing society's approach to gay marriage, reformists have also changed what it means to be gay. That point was illuminated by a recent article in New York magazine about gay divorce--the unfortunate flipside of gay marriage, and a complete legal, cultural, and emotional mess for everybody involved.

It so happens that one of the individuals featured in the article is my best friend from early childhood, which makes the story particularly moving and poignant for me. The article notes that some gays and lesbians feel a nostalgia for a simpler, pre-marriage era: "'I still love the idea of marriage,' he concludes, 'but sometimes I wish it hadn’t been possible.'...'I miss the old days, when we were in the closet and no one knew what we did.'”

There was, it seemed--as an outsider, at least--a peculiar romance to alternative sexuality before activists decided it had to be not merely acceptable, but conventional. In college, there were plenty of straight kids, myself among them, who would tag along to the campus BGLTSA parties to meet other straight people: the unique atmosphere of rebellion allowed us to relax our own inhibitions in a remarkably pressure-free environment. 

The push for gay marriage may have blunted that edge, spoiling the intensely personal by making it political. Christopher Hitchens once told the story of a public bathroom notorious for illicit gay encounters: "I once heard it said: 'If someone comes in there for a good honest shit, it's like a breath of fresh air.'" The same thing may have happened to gay sex itself: once somewhat subversive, it has been subverted by the tedium of politics.


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