Gay Marriage Is Not the Death Knell of the Sexual Revolution

Expanding marriage to include gay people will change society, but not the way Megan McArdle predicts.
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Gay marriage has always occupied an odd place on the political spectrum. On the one hand, it's clearly a radical policy—gays and lesbians have been demonized for decades, and the almost miraculous public acceptance of them as neighbors and human beings is easily the most inspirational civil rights story of my lifetime. On the other hand, though, gay marriage is an embrace of marriage—which is one of the most longstanding conservative traditions in our country.

This contradiction between left and right, radical and conservative, seems to have resulted, for Megan McArdle, in a kind of apocalyptic befuddlement. In a post at the Daily Beast, she argues that the success of gay marriage is going to turn back the sexual revolution. Acceptance of unwed motherhood will plummet; men and women will marry younger; and America will return to a "neo-Victorian morality." Gays are the new prudes, and all those lefties who rooted for their emancipation will be hoisted by their bits into chastity belts. And serve them right!

Of course, predictions are hard, especially about the future. Nonetheless, here is mine: whatever the Supreme Court decides, gay marriage will soon be legal throughout the land. But this will not mean that we drive ever onwards towards greater sexual freedom—rather, it will mean quite the reverse. The sexual revolution is over. And the revolutionaries lost.

I am not the first to point out the flaws in this argument. There's no way I can bring the snark like Charles Pierce or Wonkette. But I will say that the most depressing thing about McArdle's post is the extent to which it builds on the very stereotypes of queer people that the country, in supporting gay marriage, seems ready to reject. McArdle implies that gays and lesbians as the embodiment of the sexual revolution. They, she suggests, are the nations' uncontrollable lascivious id. They are the sexual force of our time—and in taming them, we tame us all.

Yes, some gay people, like Edmund White, have been disenchanted with marriage, just as some straight people have, which is certainly their prerogative. And aspects of the queer experience can be a way to criticize traditional ideas about romantic love and monogamy. But that doesn't mean that gays are out there to either embody radical sexual politics or betray them for the benefit of conservatives or liberals or Megan McArdle or anybody else. What next, a column about how electing a black President means Americans will lose all sense of rhythm? If the gay marriage struggle has shown us anything it's that gay people are not now, and never were, essentially more sexually licentious or dynamic or cool or edgy or alternative than anyone else. They aren't our nation's raw libido. They're people. Gay marriage isn't a way to forcibly contain the gay essence of the '60s. It's a way to recognize that gay people are not the essence of anything. They're just human beings, who sometimes have sex, and sometimes fall in love, and sometimes want to get married.

Making it possible for them to get married is, as I said, both very radical and very conservative. McArdle recognizes that...and tries to express it through the really extremely unconvincing idea of revolutionary neo-Victorianism. But though her conclusion is not especially convincing, the question she's trying to ask does have some resonance. That question being: What happens when gay people enter the institution of marriage? Is it radical? Is it conservative? Is it both?

The evidence from places where there is gay marriage is legal has, so far, suggested that there won't be any massive change either way—Canada does not seem to have become neo-Victorian, as far as I can tell. But it seems plausible that there might be more subtle changes over the long term. At the least, it seems like gay couples might help folks question some of the gendered assumptions that still often hover around marriage. The still fairly strong assumption that men should do the proposing and women the accepting or rejecting, for example, obviously makes little sense in terms of gay and lesbian couples, which might lead straight folks to wonder a bit more whether it makes sense for them.

More consequentially, gay marriage might put pressure on the noxious idea that the purpose of marriage is to allow domestic women to control the rambling horn-dog sexuality of men. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes, this vision of marriage is insulting to everyone—to women because it defines them as boring homemakers; to men because it defines them as irresponsible assholes. Gay and lesbian relationships, though, clearly don't follow this blueprint. In their traditionalism, they show that not only women crave domesticity, and they show that not only men crave adventure. None of which is likely to end stupid stereotypes or anything—but as a guy who quite likes watching the kid and making dinner, thank you, I personally appreciate the back up.

One could imagine other changes as well, perhaps. Gay and lesbian couples with adopted children could help make adoption more visible as an option for everybody (Dan Savage's popular book being a case in point, perhaps.) And maybe by situating marriage as compatible with social justice and equality, gay marriage could make the institution more popular with folks on the left who have, at least sometimes, viewed it with distrust, or seen it as the antithesis of those things. At the very least, I understand that final, nationwide acceptance of gay marriage will lead Brad and Angelina to tie the knot.

Hollywood power couples aside, it seems like, if gays and lesbians do change marriage, it won't be because "'confirmed bachelors' and maiden schoolteachers"—in McArdle's charming phrase—were the only ones keeping us from '50s-style stifling conformity. Rather, change will come, if it does, because straight people have figured out that gays and lesbians—our neighbors, our relatives, and our friends—have something to teach us about how to love and how to be married, just as gays and lesbians decided that straight people had something to teach them about both those things. And one of the things we maybe have to teach each other is that marriage is not, as McArdle would have it, a sexless bourgeois drag, nor an apocalyptic threat. Instead it is, like love, both conservative and radical—an institution which, I believe, again like love, will be more stable and more freeing as it grows.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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