Steve and I have been together 32 years, yet after a recent trip to Vancouver, we’re newlyweds. And while I’m a 66-year-old professor of American studies, this particular Canadian journey taught me fresh lessons about myself and my country.
We had planned our trip as a vacation well before the idea of getting married occurred to us. If not exactly on a lark, we decided to marry largely because Canada allows it, feeling that the ritual and resulting status wouldn’t move us much after so many good years in a union of our own devising.
In fact, Steve and I had long thought that marriage was something we really didn’t need, though we vigorously supported the desire of other same-sex couples to marry. Ours is a relationship of love, respect, trust, candor, humor and passion, there for all to see, and we haven’t needed marriage for that. Making marriage a low priority wasn’t entirely sour grapes on our part, a rationalization typical of the deprived; we weren’t simply making the best of a bad situation. Thoroughly conventional men in most ways, we’d actually come to prize being outlaws of a sort.
What a happy and instructive surprise, then, how the marriage ritual itself and our being married has made us feel. The ceremony was simple, an occasion just for us, with the marriage commissioner’s husband and son our only witnesses. We donned sport coats and jeans; and no elaborate vows for guys who’ve talked to each other profoundly and abundantly ever since the days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
But in the days after the wedding, we experienced something we’d thought irretrievable: the unique excitement of the new and unfolding, that feeling of discovery that distinguishes a fresh relationship. Much as it might sound like the lyrics to a cheesy song, long after I thought I couldn’t possibly love Steve one bit more, as his spouse, I’ve discovered I was wrong.
I want an opponent of same-sex marriage to look me straight in the eye and tell me why what Canada has made so easy, and what U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker has declared constitutionally sound, should be so difficult in the United States? How can any society that dares to call itself free dare as well to exclude same-sex couples from marriage’s singular advantages — legal, cultural and (as I newly understand) psychological? Why is what Steve and I did in Vancouver, and what we’ve felt ever since, a threat to anyone else’s marriage? By what conceivable logic do we now jeopardize, rather than strengthen, marriage as an institution?
I’ve taught the power and necessity of ritual for my 38 years as a professor of American culture. I’ve also taught the need to see matters in historical perspective. As boys, neither Steve nor I ever expected to marry another guy. Instead, we were barely able to admit how much other guys turned us on and how much we yearned just to be with them. Being young and gay back then was almost always marred by denial and shame.
Things are immeasurably better. When I first started teaching, the American Psychiatric Assn. considered me mentally ill just for being gay. And in the year Steve and I became a couple, 1978, Californians voted on a ballot measure that, if passed, would’ve ousted Steve, as an openly gay person, from his profession as a public school teacher.
Here’s the professor professing: Things are better now, and not simply for LGBT people but for our whole society, which has become not only more tolerant but also more mature and morally sound as gay rights have slowly but surely increased.
So what truly generates the resistance to marriage between people like Steve and me? The “threat to marriage” rationale is patently bogus. But clearly there are many threats to marriage in modern life; the institution is truly in some jeopardy. Those who oppose same-sex marriage have something to explain in the fact that their sentiments are strongest in precisely those states where marriage and family life are already in the most difficulty, as measured by rates of divorce, spousal abuse and pregnancy outside marriage. I swear, Steve and I have had nothing to do with that.
In considering what motivates condemnations of gay marriage, it’s crucial to recognize that condemning some demonized “other” has a pernicious allure for those who are wrestling with personal demons. In the twisted logic of bigotry, denouncing the identity of someone else is sometimes an effort to deny that the denouncer shares that very identity. The shame that Steve and I experienced as gay youngsters hasn’t disappeared from the land, of course, and in a sad irony, those who feel the shame often try to expunge it in themselves by encouraging it in others.
Sometimes it’s less stark than that. The words “heterosexual” and “homosexual,” and the erotic dichotomy they imply, weren’t coined until a century ago. Polarized sexual identity brought with it a powerful preference for heterosexuality. Many Americans, especially males, struggled mightily to “prove” their straightness, so fierce was the fear of being judged otherwise. Though not inevitably, one’s sexual identity became conflated with one’s gender identity: The more thoroughly male the man, the straighter he allegedly is.
The dreary, endless list of ways that our culture has devised to demonstrate “true” masculinity and femininity, and hence straightness, would be merely pathetic were it not the cause of so much misery. The culturally inspired compulsion to seem straight hasn’t just brought heartache to those who desire those of their own sex; it’s disrupted the lives of many who desire the “opposite” sex but still somehow don’t seem to wholly conform to gender prescriptions.
It seems certain that Walker’s ruling Wednesday striking down Proposition 8 will reach the Supreme Court. If Justice Anthony M. Kennedy could show the same constitutional wisdom and common sense that distinguished his opinion invalidating the nation’s anti-sodomy laws, he would probably join Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in affirming Walker. If Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and John G. Roberts Jr. were authentic conservatives like Walker and not culture war ideologues, the affirmation would be unanimous.
The drive for same-sex marriage is no threat; it’s in truth a thoroughly conservative movement, one of the few authentic defenses that the institution of marriage has received in recent history. It’s time that people like Steve and me stopped being scapegoats for those who are struggling with challenges to modern marriage and to personal identity. In a world that made sense, among those who really do favor traditional marriage, we’d be embraced as allies.
Meanwhile, for us, back to the honeymoon.
John Ibson, professor of American studies at Cal State Fullerton, is the author of “Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography.”