Aug 10 2011

Queer Alternatives to Married Life

Samuel Huber



The weekend same-sex marriage legislation passed in New York, we celebrated. All kinds of people—straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual—came out to party, and pundits and politicians proclaimed it a turning point. But as the dust settled in the intervening weeks, sympathetic skeptics have emerged everywhere from the local gay bar to the New York Times Op-Ed page, and their reservations are not your grandmother's. Since long before same-sex marriage seemed like a viable political option, people of all sexual persuasions have been questioning its desirability, innovating alternate modes of affection and support that often bear little resemblance to the heterosexual gold standard. "Even among my apparently conventional circle of [gay and lesbian] friends," reflects Jason Anthony in the Boston Review, "one finds a robust gamut: friends who are sometimes lovers, former lovers who are now best friends, PLPs (platonic life partners), the odd 'thruple' (polyamorists that come in handy packs of three), inventively non-monogamous couples. And, of course, those rare birds forever fated to be together for whom marriage fits just fine."

Of course, the cultural conceivability of marriage between two men or two women is something to get excited about, but, Anthony continues, "[If] marriage equality launches a widespread flight to the culturally sanctioned form of partnership, have we lost a history and a field of experience that the rest of the world might well have benefited from?" It's a question many authors and thinkers, queer and straight, have been preemptively grappling with for years, and each of the books below voices its own doubts, critiques, and counterproposals—direct or indirect—to institutional assimilation.

The Trouble With Normal by Michael Warner

For those of us who've always felt uncomfortable with the idea of marriage—we who shift in our seats and dodge questions about our ideal wedding with groans and shrugged shoulders when the topic comes up—Warner's book, equal parts moral philosophy and political agenda, is Gospel. Beginning with the seemingly common-sense question, "Shouldn't it be possible to allow everyone sexual autonomy, in a way consistent with everyone else's sexual autonomy?" Warner, a former activist with Sex Panic and current English professor at Yale, demonstrates all the ways in which marriage denies sexual autonomy to those who don't fit its mold. Warner's critiques are fiery and unrelenting as he points the finger at both straight-laced conservatives who condemn queerness and the LGBT activists who would clean up and play nice, throwing under the bus those queers who either cannot or will not dissociate their identity from the messy, explicit, and (yes, say it with me) exciting business of sex. Those queers, Warner insists, "have an astonishing range of intimacies. Most have no labels…. Who among us would give them up?" Take notes, commit the arguments to memory, and mail a copy to your governor. Or tie it to a brick and toss it through his office window. Warner would probably be pleased with either.

The Screwball Asses by Guy Hocquenghem

I could not in good conscience recommend this book without a blunt disclaimer: most of it is nuts. In The Screwball Asses, originally published as a long essay in a 1972 issue of the journal Recherches and quickly seized by the French government, Hocquenghem makes everyone his enemy – capitalists, Marxists, the bourgeoisie, the Left, straight monogamists, gay cruisers—brazenly conflating them in a hypocritical jumble of mixed metaphors and loose ends. All of which proves entertaining enough to make the read worthwhile, but buried within the madness are searing and still-relevant insights into the perils of identity-based political organizing and the ways in which resistance too easily comes to parrot the power it pits itself against. The young and promiscuous revolutionaries at whom Hocquenghem takes aim may bear little superficial resemblance to the well-dressed, well-funded marriage equality lobbyists at the Human Rights Campaign, but both have lost sight of what the author identifies as the indiscriminate, liberating potential of desire for desire's sake. Woven into fever dreams of gay men sleeping with lesbians and adolescents seduced by ogres is an impassioned call for the rediscovery of a sexuality that precedes gender roles and object choice, one equally stifled by anonymous bathhouse sex as by marriage. "When shall we be able to shatter the power of words by the movement of skins?" Hocquenghem asks, later comparing himself to a transvestite cop. Eighty pages in, the image makes complete sense.

Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities by Ken Corbett

Ken Corbett has spent much of his career as a psychoanalyst working with families, but unlike other writers on this list, Corbett sees no threat in the domestic. With Boyhoods, Corbett carves out a clinical and cultural space for families that do not fit psychoanalysis's reigning heterosexual, two-parent model, exploring the ways in which children of single parents, same-sex couples, and supportive extended families negotiate their position within these units and society at large. His clinical case studies are well chosen and often adorable, and, despite the sometimes difficult psychoanalytic language, Corbett manages to water down his Freud with pop culture references that never pander or sound out of touch (Eminem and Superbad both get serious close readings). By unpacking the nuclear family from its vacuum and respecting the specificity of each case he investigates, Corbett reclaims the nontraditional family from stigma and affirms it as healthy, loving, and more various in its arrangements than we've yet to account or give it credit for.

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

In her introduction to Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson credits the Greek poet Stesichoros, on whose fragments her verse novel is oh-so-loosely based, with freeing adjectives from their established meanings, thereby undoing "the latches of being" (4). In this odd and unclassifiable book, Carson reimagines the myth of Herakles slaying the red monster Geryon as a coming-of-age gay love story set in the present day, continuing the admirable work of unlatching words and images from their anchors in the everyday. Love and desire become flighty and electric, not to be trusted. Stability is not only impossible, but its privileged status as end goal is called into question. "There is no person without a world," Carson reminds us, and in Autobiography of Red she pushes us to imagine all the various shapes one's world might take and all that might happen when two (or three or four or five) bump up against each other, however briefly.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Generations of scholars have churned out book upon essay on Virginia Woolf's difficult and often contradictory approaches to sexual identity and desire, both in her personal life and in her writings. The gender-bending joy ride Orlando has alone produced libraries, but I've always looked to The Waves for a more subtle and sincere vision of the multiple forms that relationships can take in the grey area between friend and lover, self and other. This fluidity originates in the novel's structure, impressionistic and polyvocal; Woolf wrote her saga of the rather unremarkable lives of six friends from childhood till death as a series of extended, presumably internal, monologues, with each friend narrating the changing courses of their lives. Even as some of the six settle into domesticity, both the collective consciousness that emerges from the narrative voice and the evolving relationships to which that voice bears witness complicate and resist the cordoning off of intimacy as demanded by marriage.

Samuel Huber is a student at Yale University and managing editor of the online feminist magazine Broad Recognition.

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