Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2005

Civil partnerships will soon be introduced in the United Kingdom, but many gays have demanded nothing less than marriage. New Yorker Michael DiSchiavi wonders why we need to ape straights.

Do We Really Want Gay Marriage?

by Michael DiSchiavi

During a recent visit to my mother-in-law’s house, the subject of gay marriage entered the conversation, which was not surprising since she has five children, two of whom are gay men involved in long-term relationships.

My partner and I were quick to point out the plethora of reasons why gay marriage should be passed: the tax benefits, health insurance, beneficiary rights, etc. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law, however, remained on the fence. They both felt that, while gays should be entitled to the aforementioned rights, the word “marriage” should not be used, since it “upsets people”.

Although my initial reaction to those comments was one of righteous indignation, recently I have begun to stop and think. It was that conversation that led to the genesis of this article.

I begin this article on two basic premises. First, that as lesbians and gay men we have a constant struggle of “fitting in” to normative society while not losing our own identities in the process. Second, that in our quest for “gay marriage” we implicitly give privilege to the heterosexual lifestyle that has historically enjoyed enough privilege already.

The very word “marriage” is inextricably linked to heterosexuality, which is equally inextricably linked to fixed notions of gender: e.g. males take out the garbage and mow the lawn, females bake cookies and care for the babies. These fixed definitions do not fit the queer community. To quote the words of Tucker Pamella Farley in her essay “Lesbianism and the Social Function of Taboo” [Farley 1988] from The Future of Difference:

... as lesbians, we know several things not accommodated in heterosexist knowledge.

We know that women can act in non feminine ways, can act as males do, can behave in combinations of ways both baffling and enticing, but not gender-determined ...

If behavior is not gender-determined, then all the systems of knowledge and all the social systems built on the assumption of heterosexuality and male-female differences are inaccurate [my emphasis].

Aside from the financial/pragmatic reasons cited above, one of the main reasons used by proponents of gay marriage is that it will show the world that gays and lesbians are “just like everyone else”. In her essay, “Queering Citizenship? Same-Sex Marriage and the State” [Brandzel 2005], Amy Brandzel quotes the American gay civil rights organisation Lambda’s Freedom to Marry Educational Guide: “Gay people are very much like everyone else. They grow up, fall in love, form families and have children. They mow their lawns, shop for groceries, and worry about making ends meet. They want good schools for their children and security for their families as a whole.”

At first glance, this passage seems valuable in the quest for gay and lesbian rights. No-one likes to be different, to stand out. The above is a testament to the normalcy of homosexuals. The real danger lies in the fact that the normalcy that we attribute to ourselves is a heteronormative. As Brandzel says later in the paragraph, “... by attempting to obtain marriage rights, gays and lesbians help further heteronormativity.”

At this point, I feel that I should clarify my thesis. As a partnered gay man, of course, I want the same “benefits” as my straight friends and colleagues enjoy from the moment they say, “I do.” I believe that I am entitled to them; they are part of the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” guaranteed by the American Founding Fathers.

However, I do not want these benefits by conforming to heterosexist notions of normality. To do so would be not only to agree with the oppressor, but actively to participate in my own oppression, which would be analogous to the behaviour of the inmates of the Panopticon, as discussed in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish [Foucault 1998]. The inmates no longer need the overseer because they have learned to police themselves.

As an educator, I am often sensitive to the “straightening” of the curriculum. In a yet unpublished work, I argue about “hidden messages” transmitted by schools. Texts continually reflect the value of white, heterosexual (and therefore by definition, phallo-centric), middle-class society. Teachers talk in heterosexist terms, referring to students’ mothers and fathers, thereby reinforcing heterosexist ideology.

Straight teachers commonly mention their spouses and children in the course of normal classroom dialogue; lesbian and gay teachers seldom if ever refer to their partners, thereby implying that they have none. Indeed, the very fact that a gay person would need to “come out” in the first place goes directly to the heart of what Toni McNaron calls “the heterosexual assumption”: that students automatically presume heterosexuality unless challenged otherwise. In Epistemology of the Closet [Sedgwick 1990], Eve Sedgwick also deals with this presumption:

Furthermore, the deadly elasticity of heterosexist presumption means that, like Wendy in Peter Pan, people find new walls springing up around them even as they drowse: every encounter with a classful of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets ... and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure.

All of this is to say that, as lesbians and gays, we are markedly different from our heterosexual friends, relatives, neighbours, coworkers etc. We fight to survive in a world designed for heterosexuals; we deal with homophobic remarks and actions (e.g. gay bashing) on a daily basis. Homosexual panic is part of our daily existence. In Between Men [Sedgwick 1985], Eve Sedgwick points out that homosexual panic has even been used as a legal defence for “gay bashing”. One can only imagine the reaction of the straight community if heterosexual panic were introduced as a legal defence for a lesbian deflecting an unwanted advance from a straight man.

If it has been thus established that we are not the same as our heterosexual counterparts, that leaves the inevitable question of why? Why do we consistently attempt to prove that we are “just like” heterosexuals, even to go so far as to fight for access to an institution (marriage) clearly designed without us in mind.

The answer to this question is multilayered and complex. Clearly, the homophobic discourses operating around us have served their purposes well. The very word “heterosexual”, by its definition, can be seen as an example of a homophobic discourse, as Judith Butler states in her article entitled “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” [Butler 1993].

This is ironic when one considers that the word “homosexual” was coined in 1869, as a term to describe a medical condition. “Heterosexual” did not get invented until eleven years later. The invention of the two terms signified the creation of a distinct classification of binary opposites. Gayness or straightness were not, and are not, merely indications of physical genital contact: they now describe entire ways of relating to members of the same sex.

One needs to look no further than to Adrienne Rich and her “lesbian continuum” to see these female relationships exemplified. In her landmark essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” [Rich 1993], she defines the “lesbian continuum” as a set of “woman-identified experiences” above and beyond female to female genital contact.

It would seem that we, like the inmates of the Panopticon, have regulated ourselves to punishment. We fight to be “just like” heterosexuals; we define ourselves using their vocabulary, because we feel that we have no alternative. Theirs is not only the prevailing discourse: it is the only discourse. Take, for example, the questions on seemingly innocuous health insurance forms here in the USA. Under “marital status” (another form of the word marriage), the typically offered choices consist of “married, divorced, single, widowed”. These terms, embedded in heterosexist ideology, leave no room for long-term homosexual relationships.

Having been with my partner for close to six years, I am clearly not single; however, I am not “married”, either. I typically cross out married and write over it, “partnered”. However, I dislike that word as well, as it resonates of a business relationship, rather than a personal one.

As part of the solution to the problems I have laid out, I am calling for the establishment of a queer lexicon that would give formal recognition and definition to homosexual relationships. I believe this lexicon is necessary and long overdue. My closest friends in the English Department where I work refer to Brian as my “friend”, seemingly because they are not sure what else to call him. If a queer lexicon were established, it would command recognition of a culture long in existence, though often in hiding.

I have no desire to be defined and labelled by language designed for and by heterosexuals. I wish, rather, to be defined within the parameters of my own culture. Perhaps my mother-in-law (notice the heterosexist term even here) was right after all: I want the legal rights of “marriage” without having to wear a label that does not fit me. As any “queer” person knows, Juliet was wrong: a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet.


Brandzel, Amy (2005), “Queering Citizenship? Same-Sex Marriage and the State”, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 11 (2), Duke University Press.

Butler, Judith (1993), “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”, in Henry Abelove et al. (eds.), The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York: Routledge).

Farley, Tucker Pamella (1988), “Lesbianism and the Social Function of Taboo”, in The Future of Difference (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press).

Foucault, Michael (1998), “Discipline and Punish”, in Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (eds.), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing).

Rich, Adrienne (1993), “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, in Henry Abelove et al. (eds.), The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York: Routledge).

Sedgwick, Eve (1985), Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press).

Sedgwick, Eve (1990), Epistemology of the Closet (Los Angeles: University of California Press).

Soto, Sandra K. (2005), “Reading Like a Queer” in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 11 (2), Duke University Press.

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Created : Sunday, 2005-12-04 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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