“I don't" is a strong statement, more so than “I’d rather not” or “I’ll pass for now.” It’s a position, not a preference. It’s also a provocative title for an article about same-sex marriage, like The New York Times’ Sunday piece “Gay Couples, Choosing To Say I Don’t.”
The article features LGBT folks who are wary of diving head-first into marriage just because they can, and who want you to be wary, too. Fair enough. We should all test the waters before making the choice to dive into anything. But this is where the article—and others like it—has a blind spot. It suggests that most same-sex couples are rushing into marriage with eyes shut or blinded by novelty, and overlooks the fact that, for many of us, the choice of marriage is a highly informed one.
Here are three ways that I find nuptials to be a liberating queer choice—for straight and gay couples alike.
It’s a Choice
Traditionally, marriage may have been predicated on one man dragging a woman by the hair and throwing her at the feet of another man. But it has evolved far from these roots, from women being property to women proposing.
Today women and men are choosing marriage with eyes wide open, having spent years together. Years of arguing and cohabitating and compromising; rupturing trust and repairing it; failing at sex, failing better at sex until getting it righter than a one-night-stand ever could; learning to recognize each other’s emotions and verbalizing them with empathy; surviving deaths and illnesses together; supporting each other creatively in careers and the arts and as parents. We’ve come a long way since the final scene of the 1967 film The Graduate, in which a young couple rails against their parents by breaking up a traditional wedding, only to abruptly commit to each other with blinders on—the way their parents likely did. Now when we say “I do,” we know what we’re getting into. We’re awake at the wheel, fueled by the power to choose.
Queer sensibility is inspired by the ironic. The Times article quoted the filmmaker John Waters, who said, “I always thought the privilege of being gay is that we don’t have to get married or go in the Army.” The quip grabs attention through its eloquent, provocative irony.
But these days, many couples enter marriage aware of its many ironies. More than ever there exists a queer understanding that weddings are not ends in themselves—or beginnings. They are collaborative performances we stop for on a rocky train ride. This isn’t to say that weddings can’t be fairy tale bliss, because there’s a glossy theatrical way in which they can. Nor can it be said that weddings aren’t disasters. There’s a backstage, and sometimes onstage, way in which they always are. But embracing these ironies and multiple realities, and negotiating between fantasy and reality—as queer artists and thinkers have always done—is how we make our lives, and our marriages, work.
The most juicy irony of all is the inclusive nature of same-sex marriage, as opposed to its commonly critiqued exclusivity. By participating in marriage, LGBT folks are finding kindred experiences with many straight folks who share in a queer approach to marriage—one that celebrates individuals and individual couples rather than a rigid position, tradition, or dogma.
It Recognizes One of Our Truths
Where there’s queer, there’s truth. Where there’s queer, there’s need.
At its core, queer is not about being deviant to be deviant, or to preserve a deviant identity. Queer behaviors, performances, and identities spring from the desire for a life more livable, a life of recognition as we are and not as we’re expected to be. So when we want our primary relationships to be seen, acknowledged, and immediately understood—at Thanksgiving, at the hospital, at parent/teacher conferences, when we need to keep our apartments after our partners die, or at any social gathering when someone simply asks who we are and when we got married —we can appreciate the many ways marriage allows our truths to be revealed.
As many noted in the Times piece, the law doesn’t change two people’s feelings about each other. I agree. But in our imperfect system, laws are the imperfect means we have to gain crucial recognition of our rights, our dignities, and our truths. One of the most difficult struggles for LGBT folks has been to bring the truth of our lives out from a culturally-imposed darkness into light. If being in a long-term relationship with one person is what we want, I can’t think of anything more queer than getting married—to have an event everyone unequivocally understands to be a “wedding,” by the light of day in front of our families, friends, and communities.
The first rule of improv comedy comes to mind here: you can respond to your scene partner with Yes, and… (adding to what’s been said) or Yes, but… (changing the direction of what’s been said), but you can’t say No. No brings the scene to a stand-still, extinguishing all potential life.
We don’t have to say “I do” to marriage, whether we’re gay, straight, or otherwise. But taking the position of “I don’t” actually stops movement, evolution, and queerness from flourishing.
Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW
Adapted from Mark O'Connell's book Modern Brides & Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other Nontraditional 21st Century Weddings, (Skyhorse, Nov. 4, 2014).