My favorite Baltimorean iconoclast, filmmaker John Waters, had a wonderful line during a local NPR interview a few years ago. The topic had turned to same-sex marriage campaigns and Waters reacted, “I thought the whole point of being gay was that you didn’t have to get married, have kids, or join the army.”
It used to be that queer culture was, well, queerer than it is today. It wasn’t defined by the desire to join and uphold the ancient institution of marriage, romantic narratives of true love, and lifelong monogamy. Don’t get me wrong. Please. I am 100%, without equivocation or exception, unconditionally, entirely, in support of marriage equalityand same-sex marriage rights.
My theme isn’t legal and civil rights. It’s about culture. As someone who was not part of it, but who was a sympathetic fellow traveler while growing up, queer culture always had a place that I valued. It provided an alternative to mainstream relationship culture, what we used to call in graduate school the “heterosexist” norms.
The queer culture’s view of intimacy and relationships provided some alternative beacon, even if only in the collective imagination, to the “first comes loves, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage” catechism of the mildly-derisively named straight world. This idea of intimacy didn’t end up with mediocre bands and Jordan almonds at wedding receptions and a registry for housewares and wedding gifts at Crate and Barrel.
Obviously, the estrangement of intimacy from marriage was for some people not a subversive preference at all. It was a deprivation forced upon them because they had—and still have, in most states—no marriage rights at all.
These people wanted to be married, and had lifelong, committed partners, but the state wouldn’t allow it. For far too many, this prohibition is still in place.
There were others, however—and there still are, but they’re no longer the most culturally prevalent voice—who simply did not want marriage or the lifestyle that goes with it. Or, maybe they thought that the traditional, legal institution and recognition of marriage was not how they wanted to define their commitment or relationship.
Incidentally, these marriage-agnostic and marriage-resistant figures used to cut a broader, more festive swath in heterosexual culture, too. We had the “confirmed bachelors” and the gay divorcees, who embraced their freewheeling single status gleefully rather than enduring it with the panicked dread that you read about in advice books, or with that dreary, morose, even excruciating treatment that you encounter on HBO series such as “Girls.” Being a bachelor had some panache. Being the single girl had some pizzazz.
It was nice to have that idea out there—a community, somewhere, that wove into the larger cultural tapestry a tangible alternative to the equation of romance, intimacy, marriage, monogamy and procreation. Its value wasn’t only for those who preferred that life, but for those whose imaginations were expanded simply by its visibility and existence.
Unqueering is occurring in other ways. We’ve got bourgeois 40-something wives sitting around in book clubs reading about s/m and a confused girl getting her ass whipped in Fifty Shades of Grey.
By the way, that book is god-awful written. It illustrates once again the massive disconnect in publishing between what we recognize as writing and commercial success.
It’s as if the Marquis de Sade was working the Borscht Belt comedy circuit in the Catskills (“he was taking me, in more ways than one!” Ba Dump bump! ), or Gomer Pyle meets the Inquisition (“Holy Cow!” It’s bondage!).
I don’t think it’s a book so much as a pornographic and masturbatory aid for readers, primarily women, who might not enjoy s/m visual porn, but who can enjoy reading about it, and spice up their libidos. In other words, this book is more something you use than something you read. And that’s totally fine. But why someone would read it chastely like a real book on the train, or in the company of non-lovers, baffles me. That’s just the unqueered times we live in, I guess.
It reminds me of what Joseph Kennedy said right before the stock market crash of 1929: When your shoe-shine man starts sharing stock tips, then it’s time to sell (which he did). Likewise, when your grandmother is reading about bondage and s/m in her book club over pasta salads, as people I suppose drone on about fetishes and exotic practices that cease to be exotic practices when they are mainstreamed and de-kinkified like this, then you have to admit that the culture has lost some of its shock appeal.
Next, of course, will come Fifty Dissertations on Fifty Shades of Gray. Mark my words. The first dozen dissertations are probably already lurching and lumbering their way through committees.
And, if you think Fifty Shades is just too sizzling in its sex scenes to be made boring, then read one of those dissertations, and it’ll put a fork in your libido. There is no piece of pop culture—not even Fifty Shades—that a dissertation can’t desiccate for you.
The point is, bondage and whatnot used to be kind of edgy, and “out there,” with a taste of the wild to it. Today, you have to wonder how much farther out there you need to go to be out there, seeing as how erstwhile subversive cultures have been colonized, developed and subdivided. Everyone is now “just like regular people” or aspiring to be; that is, just like middle-class, middle-aged, settled married people, with children and mortgages. Oh dear. As someone who is in that culture, I have to ask: Why?
What subculture is going to take up the mantle of being the proud queer place that resists the idea that all intimacies are about true love, romance, marriage, lifelong commitment, and monogamy?
To be sure, there are plenty who are drifting aimlessly and without any particular intention or replacement away from the institution of marriage. But I mean a group with a more deliberately, intentionally, and philosophically queer stance. To some extent, single mothers by choice are doing it. And, ironically, some of the outwardly conventional marriages that I talk about in my book have, indeed, taken up that mantle, because they are committed to each other in marriage, but openly non-monogamous. Maybe a new, queer subculture will become visible out of the more conventional culture of marriage.