In the final act of Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Lady Bracknell describes her nephew Algernon as being “an extremely, I may almost say an ostentatiously, eligible young man.”
Young, I am not. Eligible is questionable. But ostentatiously unattached — I lay claim to that distinction; I am perpetually, some might say obstinately, single. So much so, that the last time I was remotely “attached” at all, it was indeed remote. For a little over a year, I maintained a long distance relationship with a young man who lived in… Shanghai.
“Of course,” my friends said at the time, “when you finally get a boyfriend, he would have to live in Shanghai.” After having seen every tourist site there was to see in Shanghai over several week-long visits, the affair was over, somewhat to my relief, though I don’t regret the impetuousness of it for a minute.
So it may seem incongruous that I would be thrilled at the passage of legislation this past Friday in New York State allowing same-sex marriage. I am the least likely person I know to ever, ever want to be married. And yet, for more than one reason, I embrace the issue enthusiastically and celebrate its favorable resolution in my home state.
For starters, I love the issue for how it demonstrates discrimination, pure and simple. There was a position publicly expressed by many that said, “I’m willing to grant gays all the legal and financial accommodations and judicial recognition of marriage through the institution of a civil union… but “marriage” is a status reserved for a man and a woman.”
However you justify that position — on moral or religious grounds or just the way life is– you’re giving one group an entitlement that you deny to another. That’s the definition of discrimination.
But more importantly to me, it’s the particular nature of the discrimination around the marriage equality issue that appeals to me, because it strikes at the very heart of what it is to be gay.
When I first went to gay pride marches in New York in the late ’70s, the tone of those events was strident and defiant - we were demanding equal rights and an end to discrimination in housing and employment. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 that were the iconic launch of the gay rights movement were not that far behind us. Coming out was the great act of personal activism.
Then in the ’80s, with the advent of the AIDS epidemic, the marches had a desperate edge to them. “SILENCE = DEATH” was the slogan; a pink triangle — the badge for homosexuals in the Nazi death camps — on a background of black, the symbol. We were fighting for survival.
But sorrow and pathos were the prevailing emotions. I recall one year, standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue, as hundreds of thousands of people the length of the parade route together observed a moment of silence to remember those who had died. All that could be heard was wind whistling through the canyons of Manhattan.
AIDS prevention and treatment, at least in the developed world, gradually lessened the urgency and the political activism surrounding the disease. The attention shifted to the issue of gays in the military and the absurd “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that had been adopted in 1993.
Somewhere in there, I stopped going to pride parades. I suppose I had a bit of a “been there, done that” attitude about them. And the issue of gays in the military — while always a bristling example of homophobia — was not one of personal salience; I wasn’t itching to get to Afghanistan in an armored personnel carrier.
But then came marriage equality.
Several years ago, I went to a double-bill screening of two documentaries at the annual gay film festival. The first was about the mayor of the tiny village of New Paltz, New York — a 26-year old straight man named Jason West — who solemnized the marriages of 25 same-sex couples at the New Paltz Village Hall on February 27, 2004. The second was about another young mayor — this one of a tiny village in Spain where same-sex marriage was already legal — performing same-sex marriages in his village. What was not apparent at the beginning of the film, was that he himself was gay. And at the end of the film, he was married to his boyfriend who lived in another village, in a ceremony attended by family and friends.
There is nothing unusual about people crying at weddings; declarations of love are deeply touching. I’ve wiped tears from my eyes at many weddings. But what struck me in both these films were the number of couples not just crying, but actually sobbing as they said their vows or heard their marriages proclaimed.
The young Spanish mayor in particular — who was shown throughout the film performing ceremony after ceremony for other same-sex couples — was convulsed with sobs as he walked down the aisle hand-in-hand with his soon-to-be husband. I wept in my seat. And I realized then why I loved the issue of marriage equality, despite my having no interest in ever getting married myself — because it is about love.
No one cries at a wedding because they now can share their partner’s medical benefits or make decisions about their healthcare, should their partner fall ill. No one cries because they can now inherit or continue to live in their house when their partner dies. No one cries because they can now file their taxes jointly.
We cry at weddings because our love — that deeply personal butterfly that has unfolded its wings inside us and which flutters happily toward someone else to be held in their hands; that private, vulnerable thing — has been made public; has been validated, honored and celebrated.
And if the very nature of our love is invalidated every day of our lives, when publicly we finally can declare it and have it validated… we sob.
Even if I’ve never been married and, what’s more, am perpetually single — it doesn’t mean I’ve never been in love. I have. More than once. And I cherish the memories of each of those loves.
Until I recently redecorated my bedroom, I had a slim volume of poetry on the bottom shelf of a night table next to my bed. One poem in the volume, entitled “I Love You,” is highlighted in yellow. The book was sent to me by my first love, a college friend, almost 30 years after our brief, mutual adoration, which ended rather badly. He subsequently married and fathered two children. This is an excerpt from an email he sent me in 2001:
“You were my first love. You are forever entangled in the mystery of my fantasies and dreams. I want you to know that. So powerfully that I cannot begin to describe. In dreams I kissed your eyes, I felt your lips. I wish…that I had not been so confused, so scared. I am truly sorry I ever hurt you.
I just did not know how to love you.”
Homosexuality has been and still is — even in many places in the United States — illegal. I guess that’s because you can legislate against sexual acts, against the behaviors of sex. But you cannot legislate against love; only against the public and legal validation of it.
Using the word “homosexual” to define myself as the way that I’m different from the majority of people actually seems to miss the real point. Even common phrases like “I don’t care who you sleep with” or “it doesn’t matter who you share your bed with” are using euphemisms for the sexual act.
Perhaps I do myself a disservice by allowing myself to be labeled a “homosexual.” The word reduces me to an animal constantly in rut, humping my own gender.
I think we should return to an older name for homosexuality — “the Love that dare not speak its name.” The phrase is actually a line from the poem Two Loves by Lord Alfred Douglas, who was Oscar Wilde’s lover. And perhaps I’ll start referring to myself as “homo-amorous.”
Because when all the rights to this and that are lined up end-to-end, isn’t there one that stands in front of them all — the right to love in the way that’s natural to me and to have that love recognized and validated?
This weekend, in New York State, the Love that dare not speak its name has spoken up. And it said, “I do.”
PS: For those who like a love song to accompany something about love, here’s one of my favorites. Terrific, despite the cheesy ’80s video.