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Get Your Mind Out of the Gutter

Once in college, I had a baffling conversation with my mother. It had started when I brought up the possibility of coming out to my elderly great-aunt and great-uncle. We were on our way home from a visit with them, and I was feeling extremely uncomfortable. I had brought a pile of pictures to share with them, which they eagerly passed back and forth. And I had spent 45 minutes repeatedly calling my girlfriend, who showed up in an understandably high percentage of my pictures, my “friend.” Not used to being closeted in any situation, I didn’t intend to repeat the experience, and I brought up the idea of coming out to them just to discuss timing and appropriate wording, and to give my parents some forewarning.

But my mother thought the whole thing was a bad idea. Her reason? It would be akin to telling my 80-something-year-old married-for-60-of-those-years relatives, “Hey, by the way, you see that woman on the left in the combat boots? I’m screwing her.” Never mind that my great aunt and uncle had known of my high school boyfriends. This was different. My mother did eventually come around, but it seems like all too many people take her gut reaction and run with it: Discussing gay relationships means discussing sex in some way that discussing straight ones doesn’t.

Take the kid in Louisiana who was sent to the principal and made to write “I will not say bad words in school” over and over because he explained in response to a classmate’s question about his mother and father that he had two moms because they were gay. What does ‘gay’ mean? the classmate asked. When a girl likes another girl, he replied. A conversation more G-rated than most Disney movies. But the teacher’s report home to his mom had written in indignant script across the top “He explained to another child that you are gay and what being gay means.” The horror.

This comes to mind now as the debate on gay marriage has suddenly taken center stage, with the echoes ringing from Boston to Sacramento, from Northampton to the Castro. I can’t help wondering if, religious fundamentalists aside, the underlying reason that so many people stumble over the pairing of the words “gay” and “marriage” is that they’re still stuck on gay relationships being about sex. All this shrieking about “threat to the foundation of society” and “non-ideal situations in which to raise children” may well be rooted in a failure of the imagination.

But why is a long-term relationship between people of the same gender so hard to imagine? For those of us in such relationships, or who have friends and family in them, this difficulty is a little confusing. There’s very little about stealing the covers, divvying up the chores, or taking the time to learn and understand and support and grow with someone over the long haul that necessitates having opposite genders involved. Is there something about marriage we’re missing?

My partner has a theory, which makes sense to me: Most of how mainstream American society understands dating and marriage is actually still dependent on gender roles. The girl wants commitment, the guy is nervous about being snared. The wedding is the bride’s special day and she is invested in choosing the flower arrangements while the guy pays the caterer and arranges the transportation. At home, today’s guys might “help” with the housework, but it’s still the woman’s responsibility to coordinate and plan the effort and nag for compliance. A working woman has a dilemma in terms of “balancing” career and child raising, whereas for men, it’s not working, if anything, that causes a dilemma. Women want their husbands to talk more about their feelings, men are withdrawn and want to feel in control of the remote. Men need to be kept from staring at other women by jealous wives who constantly wonder if their looks are going down the tubes. Women spoil their kids, men discipline them.

The list of stereotypes is long, totally inaccurate, and widely believed, even by a lot of people who consider themselves exceptions in one way or other. Even if they don’t believe that’s how it ought to be, too many people’s idea of “marriage” is still a negotiated truce in the gender wars.

If none of that is happening in same-sex relationships, that leaves only one thing distant observers can be pretty sure is happening: sex. This is why more than 35 years after Stonewall, a Massachusetts legislator can still refer to gay families as a “lifestyle.” And why right-wing cranks can call same-sex marriage “marriage for sodomites” and sarcastically say “Well OK then, I want to marry my dog.”

That’s why the opening of the floodgates for same-sex weddings in San Francisco is for so many of us deliriously joyful. It’s not only the glimmer of hope (maybe it’ll actually stick!). It’s the images of those weddings out there in the world, hundreds of them, images of couples of all ages (though a heavy proportion of older, longtime couples), races, and styles. Couples with kids. Couples who drove hours and camped out on the sidewalk in the rain. (Note to Schenectady: Being the first on the East Coast to follow San Francisco’s lead could be a surefire answer to your economic woes.)

I can’t stop looking at the pictures. As of this writing, there were hundreds at Yahoo!’s news-photos section on same-sex marriage, and nearly every one brought tears to my eyes. The radiance in the faces of these couples should be recognizable to all but the most hardheaded fundamentalists as something conspicuously more profound than lust or afterglow.

Meanwhile, people from Sen. Barbara Boxer to Rep. Barney Frank are agonizing over the possible backlash—and it may well come. But the power of the San Francisco weddings is that, unlike abstract legal arguments, lobbying and protests (which are all absolutely essential), they are a very public face of real families just going about being loving and committed, taking a break from demanding something and getting a chance to fulfill long-held dreams. This can hardly be threatening unless you’re afraid of your own shadow. It could be the gay-rights-movement equivalent of little black children integrating a school. Next to the simple beauty and familiarity of what these couples are doing, the few lonely protestors look downright silly.

One of my favorite pictures of the bunch is of two men heading down city hall steps, grinning, each wearing a Snugli with one of their twin baby girls in it, one holding a marriage certificate. And I have to say, if this makes you think first of sex, you’re the one who’s a pervert.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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