I’m Gay and I’m Against Gay Marriage
The case for wedlock not being all it’s cracked up to be, for queer and straight people alike.
I was working from home on a weekday afternoon when a friend dropped round in the hopes I'd be able to entertain her, despite the work piling up on my desk and the unanswered emails screaming in my inbox. We sat down in the living room, where I curled my legs underneath me and watched her warm her hands on the cup of coffee I’d just made her.
As I half-listened to the stream of mundane information coming out of her, I made a to-do list in my head: reply to Cathy, make notes for tomorrow’s meeting, read that student’s draft. By the time I returned to what she was saying, she was discussing marriage. Someone she worked with had recently ended their 14-year marriage after an affair. It was messy: hurt egos, kids caught in the middle and a rising financial cost.
“I’ll never get married,” I said, without a thought.
My friend blew on her still-too-hot coffee, a reminder of how slowly time was passing. “Never say never,” she said, her voice oddly casual as she dismissed me with three simple words. “You never know where you’ll be in a few years.” She seemed ignorant that she had just outlined one of the most quoted arguments against marriage: divorce.
Not Everyone Dreams About Their Wedding Day
The thing is, I did know.
I hadn't been raised to think of marriage as aspirational. Instead, I was raised by a single father who discouraged relationships of any kind. He built up a small world, one that was impenetrable to outsiders. We saw our extended family once a year, he never dated and he discouraged the pursuit of romance over education. Once, when I was eight years old and still unsure of my sexuality, I asked when I should have my first girlfriend. “In your twenties,” he said, “when you’re done with school.”
Through watching him, I had learned the value of independence and a particular type of working-class emotional repression that was hard to shake. I was never quite comfortable when someone else paid for dinner.
I had also grown up queer, questioning my sexuality and gender identity ruthlessly. For the first twenty-one years of my life, marriage wasn’t an option that was actually available to me. There were civil partnerships, but their perceived status, both culturally and politically, was second-class to marriage. So while my straight peers dreamed of white dresses and quaint countryside churches, I checked out. I thought about sex and exploration. I thought about my future, about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. I thought aimlessness and the fact that I floated between potential professions, unable to moor myself to anyone, was the biggest issue facing me. Marriage was never even part of my plan.
Now, in my late twenties, marriage is an ever-present specter. Mornings go by scrolling on Instagram, which is often filled with the delicate fingers of young women adorned with diamonds that could sink a ship. These women, who are often burdened with making the announcement, caption their photos “I Said Yes,” alongside an engagement ring emoji. Then there are photos of bridal fittings, wedding fairs, pink champagne, hen nights, stag parties and nuptial destinations, before the eventual walk down the aisle.
What I began to notice more and more, though, were the LGBTQ+ people engaging in this type of behavior and the way that type of content often went viral. On Twitter, I saw a video of two women at Disneyland. One pulled out a ring and got down on her knees. The other screamed and pulled a ring from her rucksack too. I read Tinder bios of men looking for “husband material.” I saw women in tuxes in front of the altar and men posing outside churches in a shower of rice. The posts, and the way they spread across the internet, spoke to just how much the culture at large wants to see queer people married.
For the better part of a decade, gay marriage was the rallying cry for the queer liberation movement: The theory held that this major legal milestone would burst the dam and give way to a flood of total equality. Then, when it finally happened in various places across the world, this hard-fought-for parity felt anticlimactic. If anything, it created another stick with which to bash nonconformists while fueling the already tense respectability politics within the LGBTQ+ community. Much like second-wave feminism, the queer liberation movement was now keenly aware of what “type” of queer best-served progress. Was it the hypersexualized gay that could be spun by right-wing pundits as perverted and predatory? Or was it the sweet innocent gay dreaming of one day getting hitched?
I Don’t Think Gay People Should Get Married (or Straight People)
A month or two after that conversation, I met up with another friend for a walk. The heat was oppressive, and my back dampened with sweat with each step I took. As we caught up, I listened to her lay out her life to me—work, family, pressures and assorted stresses—until we got onto the topic of her boyfriend. She was in a long-distance relationship and struggling with isolation. The post-university shift, where everyone either goes home to reconfigure, transplants themselves to the capital or follows a job offer, had left the two of them hundreds of miles apart. The question was not only how they would navigate their current position—using FaceTime, Skype and expensive train journeys—but also their future status. Where would they settle down? My friend suggested that moving in together would most certainly lead to marriage, and she had decided she was comfortable with that. She saw it for herself and always had. She'd attended a Catholic school, after all.
“What about you?” she asked.
“What about me?”
“Do you think you’ll get married?”
"I don't think gay people should get married," I said in a tone harsher than I intended. "At least, in the political sense."
She looked at me, puzzled. “Surely, you’re joking?” she said.
Marriage was in the abstract for me. I had no long-distance boyfriend and so, annoyed that I had to consider my decision in relation to hers, I became oddly defensive.
“I’m just not sure we’ve thought it through,” I said. “It feels like all these gay people are rushing to get married, and what is marriage but a heterosexual concept, one that is built on a history of female oppression and patriarchal control? How can gay people fit within a structure that wasn’t built to include them without compromising?”
She was still silent.
Over the past few months, I had been reading and informing myself about the politics of gay marriage. I was marching towards 27, and I realized that I would have to heavily defend my decision not to marry for the next few years. I'm the last single adult in the family; thus, I needed the ammunition.
It seemed that most people cast me as a bitter queer who was turning down something I had not yet been offered. As if, when the offer did come along, I would be grateful that someone had come to rescue me from the stew of resentment and loneliness I was broiling in. They arrogantly assumed their heteronormative predictions would prove fruitful and I would eventually succumb to their way of thinking. It didn’t seem to occur to them that my disavowal of marriage didn’t mean I would live my life alone. It didn’t mean I couldn’t be with someone for a long time, or that we couldn't draw up legal contracts regarding co-owned property or how we would split up assets if we broke up.
To them, the choice was either marriage or life as a spinster.
My friend took a deep breath and decided she wanted to move on. But I wasn’t done.
“I mean, don’t you think it’s fucked up?” I went on. “Queer people spend their adolescence being treated like shit, called names, beaten up, and then when they get older, they’re so conscious of what the straight majority thinks. So what? They get married as if to say, ‘I’m just like you, please stop hating me.’ It’s super weird.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I give no weight to conservative objections to it. Fuck them. But, I don’t know, I think it’s more complex than people realize.”
“Isn’t marriage about love?” she asked, absently, hoping this brief interlude into radical social politics was coming to an end. I didn’t know if it was worth entering into the debate around marriages as transactional and the idea of “love” being used as an institutional selling point. So we walked on.
Queer People Can’t Be Expected to Fix a Straight Institution
For a long time, there has been a feminist argument against marriage, and now there is a queer one too. In her book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino posits that there is room to change the gendered implications of marriage because, in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, same-sex marriage, “reconfigured it as an institution that could be entered into on gender-equal terms.” Relying on queers to revitalize a heterosexual institution, rather than allowing them to create their own, is problematic. We're not going to come in and Queer Eye an outdated tradition by putting it in a shiny metallic bomber jacket and teaching it to love itself. That is not the path to queer liberation.
The view that LGBTQ+ people and straight people are now equal in Western society is a blurry illusion. We’re now allowed to engage in traditionally straight activities such as marriage or raising children, and while these are essential legal rights, they aren't precisely equality. They merely equate to assimilation, or the right to be treated fairly if you conform to the structures already in place. This means that LGBTQ+ people who don’t wish to enter into marriages—especially those who might be non-monogamous or in “unconventional” romantic arrangements—are judged differently and not offered the same social status who follow straight traditions.
It is no mistake that marriage offers certain legal and social advantages that no other agreement can. In that way, marriage is incentivized to gays and straights alike who seek legal security for their children, healthcare benefits and insurance payouts. But, I believe this speaks to how we should offer alternatives—a straight female friend of mine recently talked to me about how she would much rather have a civil partnership. “All the benefits without the patriarchal history,” she called it. I am inclined to agree.
The queer feminist writer Audre Lorde wrote that when trying to build the vision of your future within the confines of a racist patriarchy, "Only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable." But how does that affect queer people? Have we, as queer people, given up any hope of forming our own rules now that we have the right to abide by someone else's?
The Painter Problem
In the summer of 2018, I dated a painter for two months. At no point did we talk about marriage (why would we?), but that didn't stop the idea from percolating amongst my friends. He was, on paper, a perfect match for me. He was American, an artist, chilled-out enough to balance my neuroses and occasionally even thoughtful. To others, it seemed that I'd found my match—and that was it. I had done what every single person was supposed to do: I found a potential end to my singledom. Though, as the weeks passed by, it became increasingly clear that I was unnerved by the prospect of monogamy and the idea of lifelong commitment.
Even in the hypothetical, marriage was terrifying. It felt like I wasn’t just talking about the painter as he was, but also as he would be. Would his scatterbrained nature prove annoying in the future? Would I eventually find the weed smoking tiresome? Would we be happy together, forever, in a three-bedroom, semi-detached in the suburbs? I felt like I was having a pre-approved future forced upon me—a quasi-heterosexual life that felt like it would close in on me with its mortgages, baby clothes and shared cemetery plots.
Could I spend the rest of my life with the painter? Doubtful. Was it possible to know that after two months? No. So, why then was I going insane over lifelong compatibility? I was considering his potential through the lens of heteronormativity, subconsciously assessing our whatevership by heterosexual standards. Then, when it ended, it felt more like a failure than the two-month romp that it was. Would it have felt that way if the pressure of marriage or longevity weren’t so prevalent?
My disdain for marriage is born from a confluence of reasons, some personal and some political. Mostly, however, it comes down to the fact I’m not made for it, and it was not made for me. Yet, I am expected to want it. The idea of it makes me anxious. (While writing this essay, my right ankle broke out in a stress rash.) But it also makes me angry: angry about a lack of understanding from heterosexuals who continually promote marriage as the pinnacle, and mad that it’s me who’s expected to alter my perception, rather than them. Instead of doing their part in dismantling the heteronormative patriarchy and the systems of oppression, they ask that I, as a queer person, enter into their institution and try to galvanize it—to make it cool again as if it were a '90s tracksuit or Polaroid camera.
That day when my friend rang my doorbell as I was trying to work, I realized how little sense the whole thing makes. My friend was mourning the death of a marriage because we see marriage as success and divorce as a failure. What if, as queer people, we were able to opt out of that, and create our own systems of success and failure as we see fit? What if you happily spend 20 years of your life with someone and then break up? Is that failure? What if it were normal for people to split and move on when things became a little stale or were able to spread their wings sexually without the curtain-twitching neighbors getting curious? What if it were normal not to expect all things from one person, if society were set up to value close friendships and nurture them alongside romantic ones? Why not let queer people figure out that new vision? Let us make our own rules and not bend to someone else's.
When she finished her coffee, she stood up and made to leave. I followed her out into the hallway and slinked around her to open the door. She stood still for a moment, looking out onto the street. I wondered what she was thinking. She turned me to, hugged me briefly and headed off into the afternoon.
I sat back down at my desk, opened my inbox, and got back to work, but I couldn’t shake what she’d said. Never, I thought defiantly. Never, never, never. Never.