Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family
In a time when much of the country sees red whenever the subject of gay marriage comes up, Dan Savage—outspoken author of the column “Savage Love”— makes it personal.
Dan Savage’s mother wants him to get married. His boyfriend, Terry, says “no thanks” because he doesn’t want to act like a straight person. Their six-year-old son DJ says his two dads aren’t “allowed” to get married, but that he’d like to come to the reception and eat cake. Throw into the mix Dan’s straight siblings, whose varied choices form a microcosm of how Americans are approaching marriage these days, and you get a rollicking family memoir that will have everyone—gay or straight, right or left, single or married—howling with laughter and rethinking their notions of marriage and all it entails. BACKCOVER: “Hilarious, heartfelt.”
“As funny as David Sedaris’s essay collections, but bawdier and more thought-provoking.”
—Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
“Most of all, a book about creating and appreciating family.”
“I think America would be a better place if everyone on every side of the gay marriage debate would read this book.”
—Ira Glass, host of the public radio show This American Life
“The strongest argument here, which [Savage] brilliantly plays down, is that family means everything to these people: married, not married, blended, gay, straight, whatever.”
—The Washington Post
Ever since we became parents and Terry quit his job, we've joked about being "husband" and "wife."
While the roles we play in our family have traditional outlines, we don't feel oppressed by them. It helps that these are roles we play willingly, not roles we're obligated or expected to play because of our gender. Since he isn't actually a woman, Terry doesn't spend a lot of time wondering if being the stay-at-home "mom" is something he freely chose, or if he finally succumbed to cultural pressures beyond his control. And while my "daddy" role is more traditionally male, I'm not a traditional male, and I was never expected to play this role. We borrowed these roles from straight people first because they work—I don't know how single parents or couples who both work outside the home do it—but mostly because they work for us. We never neglect to put quotation marks around them, however, and we never stop mocking them, or ourselves for playing them, no matter how closely we hew to them.
We're not the only borrowers.
Think about the way many straight people live today. After college, straight men and women move to the big city. Their first orders of business are landing good jobs and finding cool apartments. Then the hunt for sex begins. Most young straights aren't interested in anything serious, so they avoid dating and look for "friends with benefits," or they just "hook up," AKA engage in no-strings-attached sex with anonymous or nearly anonymous partners. Some want to have relationships, but find it harder to make a commitment, so they engage in what's known as "serial monogamy," i.e., they have a series of sexually exclusive, short-term relationships. When they're not having sex, they're going to gyms, drinking, and dancing. And since they don't have kids, these young, hip, urban straight people have a lot of disposable income to spend on art, travel, clothes, restaurants, booze, and other recreational drugs.
And do you know what all of that hooking up, drinking, and partying used to be called? "The Gay Lifestyle." Substitute "trick" for "hook-up," and "fuck buddies" for "friends with benefits," and "unstable relationships" for "serial monogamy," and straight people all over the United States are living the Gay Lifestyle, circa 1978. The only difference is that social conservatives don't condemn straights as hedonists or attempt to legislate the straight version of the Gay Lifestyle.
What prompted so many young straights to run off and live like homos? I have a theory: A lot of the early opposition to the Gay Lifestyle was motivated by envy. Straight people resented gay people for giving themselves permission to do what a lot of straight people wanted to do but couldn't—have fun while you're young, sleep around while you're hot, and live someplace more interesting than the suburbs. When the first post-Stonewall generation of young straights came to adulthood, they decided they wanted to get in on the action. They could put off having kids and live a little before they settled down. They could be gay, too.
At the same time that young straights were coveting the Gay Lifestyle, a growing number of gays were coveting the Straight Lifestyle. While tricks and fuck buddies are fun, even hedonism can lose its appeal after a while—particularly after the AIDS crisis drove home the fact that hedonism can have consequences here on Earth, not just in some imagined afterlife. As individual gays and lesbians matured along with the gay and lesbian civil rights movement, many of us began to realize that we wanted more out of life than tea dances and club nights for fist-fuckers. Some of us wanted a commitment, a home, maybe some kids. We wanted the Straight Lifestyle.
You would think that after spending three decades arguing that the Gay Lifestyle was a threat to the traditional family because it was so appealingly hedonistic—yes, appealingly: The fear was that straights would be tempted to live like gays, a fear that was not entirely irrational, as it turned out—social conservatives would be delighted when huge numbers of gays and lesbians decided to embrace the Straight Lifestyle and marry. What a victory for traditional family values! So attractive was commitment, so appealing was the prospect of family life, that even gay men and lesbians were embracing them! But unlike all the good-looking straight guys out there who've come to see being lusted after by gay men as a compliment (hello there, Ashton Kutcher), social conservatives refuse to take the compliment. Gay people who want to settle down and live like straights are not an affirmation of the Straight Lifestyle, they insist, just another attack on it.
You would think conservatives would declare victory and take the freakin' compliment. But no. Instead, social conservatives moved the goal posts. From Anita Bryant through early Jerry Falwell, gay people were a threat because we didn't live like straight people. Now we've got Rick Santorum and late Jerry Falwell running around arguing that gay people are a threat because some of us do live like straight people. It's not on the hedonism charge that the religious right has attempted to move the goal posts. Anti-gay leaders used to argue that homosexuality was so disgusting a perversion that not even animals engaged in it. When researchers admitted that many other animals engage in homosexual sex acts and, in some instances, form lasting homosexual bonds, anti-gay leaders declared that gay sex was a disgusting perversion because animals engaged in it. I suspect that Kathleen Parker, the conservative commentator who accuses gay parents of being "selfish," would condemn me for being a selfish, self-indulgent gay man if I were childless and spending $1,000 a month on, say, male prostitutes in leather hot pants and not on D.J.'s school tuition.
The religious right still levels the hedonism charge when it suits them. Robert H. Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, a conservative Christian group, attempted to pin the blame for skyrocketing housing costs on gays and lesbians in an interview with a Christian news service. "The homosexual lifestyle is about pleasing oneself," Knight said, "not planning for the future, not setting aside money for the kids, not creating a situation where the generations come together. It's about having fun. It's about indulging in whatever desire you want at any given time." With no kids or generations to worry about, we have more money to spend on housing, and drive up home prices.
And all those straight people living the Gay Lifestyle in cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Seattle, and Portland—basically any city with a population over 250,000? Social conservatives don't have much to say about their hedonism. They want to prevent gay people from acting like straight people (by banning same-sex marriage, gay adoptions, civil unions, and domestic partnerships), but there's no concurrent effort to ban straight people from acting like gay people. This hardly seems fair. If we can't get married, at the very least, all the straight people who've moved into gay neighborhoods should have to go back to the 'burbs, where they should be forced to marry young and make babies. Oh, and let's not forget about sex. When a straight girl fucks her boyfriend in the ass with a strap-on dildo, a gay angel gets his wings—but I don't think straight people should get to enjoy sex acts pioneered and popularized by gays if we can't get married. Fair's fair, breeders. Back to missionary-position sex for you.
If gays living like straights and straights living like gays proves anything, it's that there really is no such thing as "The Gay Lifestyle"—or "The Straight Lifestyle," for that matter. My life proves there's nothing inherently "straight" about making a commitment or starting a family. The Straight Lifestyle was only "straight" because gay people weren't allowed to form lasting relationships, or to have families, things we weren't allowed to do because for centuries straight people insisted we were incapable of it. And how did straight people know we couldn't form lasting relationships? Because we didn't form them. And why didn't we? Because discrimination, hatred, and bigotry warped our lives. Until very recently it was illegal for us to have relationships at all. You could be jailed for being openly gay, your family could have you committed, you could be lobotomized. And our relationships—all conducted under the threat of imprisonment, some conducted post-lobotomy—because these relationships weren't perfect in every possible way that imperfection used to justify the very persecution that warped our lives in the first place.
My relationship with Terry has always been our own creation, the product of a love some people believe isn't even supposed to exist. With state and church against us, there's a kind of dignity in loving each other anyway. Sometimes when we're introduced as a couple, straight couples will ask how long we've been together. Often they're shocked and delighted to learn that we've been together such a long time. At first, I assumed many were shocked because they believed that gay men weren't good at forming stable relationships. But when I've pried—and I tend to pry—I've found myself listening to straight people explain that it means something different to them when a gay couple hangs in there long enough to get into the double digits. We could walk away from each other at any time, but we don't. That can mean only one thing: We really, truly love each other. Married straight couples don't benefit from the same assumption. They might stay together for love or they might stay together because they take their vows seriously, because they do see themselves as "bound together in holy matrimony." They've tied the knot and the bitch in the house is stuck with the bastard on the couch.
Yes, yes: The quiet dignity of a long-term gay relationship isn't worth the stigma of being treated as second-class citizens. The inability of stable, long-term gay couples to tie the knot is discriminatory and unfair. A straight couple could meet and marry in one drunken evening in Las Vegas (how about a constitutional amendment to stop that?), and their relationship has more legal standing than, say, the 51-year relationship of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, the first same-sex couple to marry in San Francisco. Then there's Julie and Hillary Goodridge, one of the same-sex couples who successfully sued the State of Massachusetts for the right to marry. They'd been together 17 years on their wedding day. If a groom in Las Vegas were to be hit by a car leaving the chapel with his bride, his new wife—not his parents, not his siblings—would have the legal right to direct his medical care and, if necessary, pull the plug. But after 51 years, Phyllis and Del may not be able to make those end-of-life decisions for each other. Distant cousins who might be hostile to the surviving partner could blow into town and make all the medical decisions. While the arrival of gay marriage will correct this injustice, something else will be lost, something intangible, something that used to be uniquely our own.
In bed at night, Terry was reading a mystery novel by a Swedish writer and I was reading about—what else?—marriage.
When a Christian is in trouble, he'll often pick up a Bible and start flipping around. If he finds a passage or a psalm or a parable that speaks to his predicament, he'll take it as a sign from God. Of course, if the Christian picked up some other book—The Origin of Species, for instance, or Dr. Phil's Weight Loss Solution—he might chance upon a passage that might seem equally relevant, but he would never take that as a sign that Darwin was right about evolution or that he should take weight-loss advice from a man who appears to be overweight.
Anyway, I was reading E.J. Graff's excellent book What is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution when Terry amended his previous objection to marriage. "I love you, honey, I really do, but I can't do it," he said. "I don't want to wear matching tuxes and I don't want to listen to your father offer us a toast and I don't want to shove cake in each other's faces. If getting married means making an ass out of myself in front of everyone I know, then tell your mother I'm sorry. I can't do it."
He went back to his book, I went back to mine. I was reading Graff's chapter about the moment the Catholic Church stepped in to regulate marriage in the 13th century. Early Christians rejected marriage, sex, and children, Graff writes, as a way of turning their backs on Roman and Jewish society and, they hoped, destroying the social order and bringing about the second coming of Christ. Then when Christ didn't show, the Roman Empire collapsed, and the church inherited Europe, and with it the responsibility to run the very society it had hoped to destroy.
"It wasn't until 1215 that the church finally decreed marriage a sacrament," Graff writes, "...and according to the church, what turned two individuals into a married couple? It was—drum roll, please—the couple's private vows. Why a drum roll? Because the church insisted that a private promise was an unbreakable sacrament... After a great many theological volleys and debates, theologians decided that a marriage was made and permanently sealed the moment that the pair knowingly and willingly said 'I marry you.' Even if they said their vows in absolute secrecy, with no witnesses."
The emphasis is mine.
I grabbed the Henning Mankell novel out of Terry's hands and handed him Graff's book.
"You have to read this," I said.
Here was a marriage ceremony we could get behind. It had the added benefit of being a more traditional, ancient, and sacred marriage ceremony, a marriage ceremony that predated cake toppers and florists and obviated the need for seating charts. If marriage was a promise two people made to each other, and if you didn't have to make it in front of anyone else, then here was a marriage ceremony infused with quiet dignity. All we had to do to turn our anniversary party into our wedding reception was mutter "I marry you" to each other before we walked in the door.
We wouldn't even have to tell anyone we did it.
“Hilarious, heartfelt.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“As funny as David Sedaris’s essay collections, but bawdier and more thought-provoking.” —Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
“Most of all, a book about creating and appreciating family.” —Seattle Times
“I think America would be a better place if everyone on every side of the gay marriage debate would read this book.” —Ira Glass, host of the public radio show This American Life
“The strongest argument here, which [Savage] brilliantly plays down, is that family means everything to these people: married, not married, blended, gay, straight, whatever.” —The Washington Post
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