In the summer of 1979, I was enraptured by the sunny smile of an erotic dancer called Adele. I never saw her at work, only around the neighborhood and at the local lesbian bar, where she and I routinely danced ourselves into a mutual trance, spinning and sweating hip to hip, ignoring the hoots and hollers of the old-school butches who just didn’t understand girls like us. When the songs stopped, we’d scoop up the change that they threw at us and buy ourselves a drink.
Adele had a surly girlfriend who didn’t like to dance. I had an older and ostensibly heterosexual lover who couldn’t afford to be seen with me in public. Wednesday nights left us both at loose ends on cheap drink night at the bar, where some kind of alchemical reaction conjured up a protective bubble between us and the rest of the world, wherein we were safe until the arrival of her girlfriend or the too-bright lights of “last call for alcohol.”
To understand the import of what I’m about to impart, you need to understand this: Adele’s smile taught me the meaning of “weak in the knees.” I loved her with a fierce tenderness that still makes the base of my throat ache. But when her girlfriend Trey stopped by my apartment to say she was going away to join the army, I spent the next several hours trying to talk her out of it.
No matter how much I wished she would go away, I couldn’t bring myself not to say the things I thought Trey needed to know about what she was planning to do. Like many young black women who don’t conform to either European or African American notions of femininity, Trey saw the army as both a refuge and a way out. She couldn’t imagine anyplace else where she could both make money and be herself. The costs — conformity, possible combat, and certain collusion with a government she hated — seemed small in comparison to the freedom it felt like subordination would buy.
In the end, nothing I said made a difference and Trey sold her youth to the US army. I never did work up the nerve to tell Adele how I felt, even when she came to me for protection from another surly girlfriend. Years later, I learned that she had had a crush on me too but by then it was too late.
But that’s another story and there’s no time for such silliness these days. The movement for gay liberation long ago stopped being about freedom for superfluous love and crushes on all the wrong people. Now we want the right to get married and join the army.
We had a big victory recently, when the ban on homosexual soldiers was set aside to allow gay and lesbian reservists to go to Iraq. The Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military uncovered a regulation holding discharges for homosexual conduct in abeyance when a unit is scheduled to be deployed. In such cases, the homosexual soldier is to enter active duty along with the rest of the unit.
Now that we know that US soldiers routinely use homophobia to humiliate prisoners of war, aren’t we proud that gay men and lesbians are part of it all? Of course, forcing hooded and naked Arab men to simulate oral and anal sex is just one highlight in the great gay Iraqi adventure. During the invasion, gay and lesbian soldiers were right there with the rest of the troops, attacking a disarmed country without UN sanction and despite the desperate pleas for peace by the majority of people in the world. Doing their part by helping to drop cluster bombs on children, terrorize elderly civilians into abject submission, and occupy a nation under the guise of liberation, the unasked and untold soldiers of the rainbow brigade proved once and for all that the gay men and lesbians of the USA pose no threat whatsoever to the patterns of power and privilege that pattern the domestic and global socioeconomic order.
Why then, I wonder, do so many Americans feel so profoundly threatened by the idea of gay marriage? Focus on the Family president James Dobson says that “civilization will go down” if efforts to ban same-sex marriage fail. He means it. Unlike George W. Bush and other slick politicians who don’t really care about the issue but are happy to manipulate it, Dobson and his ilk really do fear that their world will come crashing down if girls are allowed to say “I do” to each other.
Thus RenewAmerica columnist Fred Hutchinson writes that “The defense of marriage is on the front line of the war to defend civilization.” My question for him is: Will gay soldiers be allowed to fight in that war? My question to all of the would-be gay soldiers and brides is: What are you thinking?
Let’s get one thing perfectly straight (yes, straight): Heterosexual marriage really is a cornerstone of Western civilization. Historically and continually, the patriarchal power that constructs the governments that armies defend is obtained, in part, by marriage.
You don’t need to read complicated feminist histories to see that men have and continue to be aided and comforted by the labor and property brought to them by the marriage ceremony. Think of the ceremony itself, in which the echoes of the days when women were chattel still reverberate. The original owner (aka the father of the bride) transfers his property to the new owner (aka the husband of the wife). Think about the word “groom,” which is used for both tamers of horses and takers of wives. Understand why the words “bride” and “bridle” are so similar.
Did you know that, in many countries, married women still may not work, travel, or get medical care without the permission of their husbands? Even married women in modern democracies are less free than they believe. There are still plenty of places in the world where marital rape is not a crime and husbands thus enjoy the right to enter their wives at any time, with or without consent. Cross the border into one of those places and you are your husband’s sexual slave. Maybe you’re right in thinking that — even though one in seven married women is raped by her husband — your man wouldn’t ever assert his legal right to rape you while visiting one of those places. But he could. So, I have to ask heterosexual women who are or hope to be married the same question I asked queer would-be soldiers and brides: What are you thinking?
Male-headed nuclear families are, indeed, the building blocks of industrial countries with atom bombs. It’s only when we understand the role of marriage in male rule that certain seeming absurdities start to make sense. Suddenly, we can see why conservatives will use any means necessary — including the punitive welfare reform measures that have hurt millions of children — to coerce teen mothers and impoverished women to marry men but cannot abide the idea that women might marry each other. We can see why the Christian right is so keen to convince African American mothers that their children need a father in the home — even though the extended family structures and communal child care practices common in many African cultures offers children many more adult role models and sources of support than the European marriage-based family — but so determined to keep African American gay men from marrying each other.
It’s not monogamy or stability or child-friendly families they seek. A personal patriarch for every woman is what they want and need to ensure the continuation of male rule in this country. And — make no mistake — we do have male rule in this country. Look at the Senate or the list of state Governors if you have any doubts about that.
If Dobson and Hutchinson were right, I’d be all for gay marriage. This so-called civilization is sick and anything that might bring it down would be okay by me. But I fear that, if achieved, gay marriage would be, like gay soldiers in the military, a boon to the powers that be. Like those futile protest marches that reinforce the myth that we live in a democracy but do not in any way impede the war machine, same-sex marriage would prop up a dangerous institution by making it look less oppressive than it is.
But — wait — maybe I’ve missed something. Maybe we’re smarter than that. Maybe the gays in the military movement has been a sham all along. Maybe all the patriotic fervor has been a ruse to trick them into giving us the guns so that we can melt them down in a frenzy of nonviolent noncompliance, one aim of which would be getting the government entirely out of the business of legitimizing families. That would be a truly queer coup!
– An activist since the 1970s, pattrice jones lives in rural Maryland, where she works at the Eastern Shore Sanctuary and teaches at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. “Adele” and “Trey” are pseudonyms standing in for real people.