secret_history (2006-44)

The Sexual Imperative

Some puzzlements about the gay-marriage question and its implications

by Jack Neely

Next week, Tennessee will vote to constitutionally ban gay marriage. Folks have their reasons, which I suspect have nothing to do with any translation of the Bible. Its epic stories of extravagant polygamists and stoic celibates offer little in the way of guidance about the one-man-one-woman marriage.

Still, for reasons of their own, people want to legislate a strict definition of marriage and engrave it into the Constitution. Whether it’s right or wrong, I suspect that grandiose gesture won’t do Tennessee much good.

In the 2002 bestseller The Rise of the Creative Class , author Richard Florida compares geographic, economic and social data to point out a provocative correlation. For whatever reason, the places in America that are growing fastest economically, and which are most advanced technologically, are those places that have the highest concentration of gays, and are most supportive of gay rights.

Florida has a knack for jumping to conclusions, but according to several economists’ census research, that correlation is almost eerie in its consistency. San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Atlanta are all among the top 10 American cities for both high-technology firms and predominance of homosexuals in the municipal population. Cities with a very low “Gay Index”—Memphis, Detroit, Buffalo, Oklahoma City—are near the bottom in high-tech growth as well.

Researchers may disagree about why that’s so. Relative education may have something to do with it. Some statistics suggest that gays thrive in disproportionately high numbers in scientific and technological professions. Florida claims that even heterosexual professionals in cutting-edge creative fields say they’re more attracted to cities and states that are known to be tolerant of gay rights.

Regardless, it does seem likely that when the announcement comes on NPR next Wednesday morning, that Tennessee is constitutionally banning gay marriage, which is already illegal in Tennessee anyway, nobody in America will be much surprised. In many minds, the vote will only further solidify Tennessee’s place in the Podunk Bloc. So be it. Go Vols.

Some readers have asked me to come up with some sort of a Secret History of Gay Marriage, but I know when I’m beat. In 19th-century newspapers, you run across puzzled accounts of a couple of men or women who seemed uncommonly devoted to each other, emotionally dependent, perhaps cohabiting. What they did inside was generally not regarded a matter for public inquiry.

Through most of the 20th century, gay marriage hardly existed even in concept except as a Bugs Bunny gag. Today, half of America claims it as a self-evident right, while the other half fears it as a plot against all that’s pure and good, a sure harbinger of the Apocalypse.

You have to wonder how we got here. Why is whom we marry the government’s business, anyway? I suspect it’s only because we’ve redefined traditional marriage in recent decades, and loaded that private contract with public implications it never had before. Most of the specific advantages of marriage mentioned by gay-marriage advocates—tax exemptions, medical benefits—didn’t exist in traditional marriage until the 20th century.

The prospect of gay marriage wouldn’t have risen to the status of a civil-rights issue even in Massachusetts if not for the fact that in the last century, America has decorated traditional marriage like a Christmas tree, with tax exemptions and beneficiary rights, a dazzling variety of new legal and economic ornamentation.

People still get married mainly because they’re in love, intend to live together, have sex with each other exclusively until they die, and maybe have babies. In our culture, sexual attraction is regarded as essential to that otherwise unlikely contract.

People don’t marry each other because they trust the other person to take care of their stuff, or because they seek the other person’s company benefits, or because they trust the other person to pull the plug when the time comes. Wedding vows are poetry about loving, honoring, cherishing; they rarely offer much detail about health benefits or inheritances, or power of attorney, and nothing very clear to suggest that the beloved is necessarily even up to that kind of responsibility.

Gays complain that they don’t get the same benefits as married heteros. But say they did—and say all “domestic partners” also got equivalent benefits, too. Where does that leave the millions who aren’t in any sort of sexual relationship at all? Friends, siblings, and colleagues are sometimes de facto domestic partners, even if they’re not sleeping together. Are they an interest group? Do you have to be sexually attractive to somebody to have full civil rights in America?

Our society’s exaltation of sex as a core legal principal surely has origins in sex’s association with childbirth. But at present, a childless married couple has rights and privileges that unmarried adults, even those raising children, don’t. The old assumption that a woman without a man is helpless may also share some blame; a woman would have to be included under her husband’s medical plan because she doesn’t have a job of her own.

A lot of the tangled mess we made of marriage in the 20th century came about, I suspect, as the result of a kind of clerical shorthand devised by lazy bankers and lawyers and accountants to eliminate paperwork. (“He’s your husband? Why, naturally he’s included, so we’ll just skip that page.”)

Some marriages are wonderful compacts between two people who understand and respect each other, who know the other’s wishes better than anyone else in the world, and who are equivalent in terms of ability to raise children, discharge duties, or use property wisely.

Many marriages are not much like that. Some legal spouses don’t need health-insurance benefits. Some might prefer not to have power of attorney. Some spouses aren’t the wisest repository of an inheritance. (When a well-known Knoxville-born author died intestate, his literary estate went to his third wife, regardless of the fact that they had been estranged for some time—and later to a chum of hers, a woman who hardly knew the original guy, and didn’t like him much.)

A solution that’s fair to everybody isn’t clear to me. But you can’t blame gays for trying to marry. Twenty years ago, proponents of sodomy laws and workplace discrimination declared that homosexuality should not be tolerated because it was an inherently unstable promiscuous state: that monogamy did not exist in the homosexual community because gays don’t marry . That’s why, some social conservatives said in the ’80s, that gays “deserved” AIDS. Did social conservatives inadvertently spawn the gay-marriage movement?

It’s an irony wrapped in a paradox. With or without the anti-gay-marriage amendment, I’m willing to bet that none of us will see legal gay marriage in Tennessee in our lifetime. In fact, save this column. When gay marriage becomes legal here, bring it to me. It’ll be good for one Coke, or whatever yet-unknown synthetic beverage we may be drinking in the distant future.