At thirty-one and in a long term relationship, I feel quite a bit of pressure these days to “take the next step”.
It irritates me partially because I’m a stubborn ass and hate being told what to do, but mostly because I hate that gay relationships are now subjected to the same expectations and norms that straight relationships have been trying to overcome for decades.
Gay marriage has dominated popular culture to such an extent in the last few years (ironically, it was legalised in South Africa long before it became such a defining issue for gay rights globally) that most people now consider it the only battle for gay equality.
When states in the US grant gay people the right to marry, it’s as if the whole liberal world lets out a self-congratulatory cheer. Gays have made it! They think. They have crossed the finish line! We are no longer considered outsiders in those states and can rejoice in the knowledge that society thinks we’re acceptable. Straight couples can invite their married gay friends to dinner parties without it being a scandal.
It’s a victory for sure, but it feels a little self-indulgent to celebrate. Gay people are still murdered for being gay in many countries. Gay sex is illegal and punishable with prison in some places. We have “corrective” rape of lesbians to “cure them” and religious camps that mentally and physically torture gay people to “cure them” as well.
Marriage equality is important, but it is not the defining gay rights issue of our time. That narrative ignores the millions of gay folk around the world who suffer much worse conditions than not being allowed to marry. And that narrative has also set up some pretty damaging social norms and pressures to keep gay people in line with old power structures. It’s like being gay has become acceptable – so long as we sign on the dotted line.
This pressure to get married has set up a hierarchy of relationships, with marriage right on top. It means that those of us who are unmarried or ambivalent about marriage are deemed to be not ready, not committed or not serious about our relationships. Not being married becomes just the temporary step before being married (which isn’t very Zen or living in the moment) or the failure to seal the deal (which isn’t very respectful), rather than a valid, conscious, personal choice.
That’s not liberation. It’s partial, conditional acceptance into a set of social rules that ultimately haven’t transformed much. Does it make society any more tolerant of difference?
Let me be clear that I absolutely believe that gay people should have the right to marry. Marriage should be a universal human right and I feel proud of – and happy for – my friends who have taken the plunge. It is a beautiful thing to do and long may it bring them happiness. My issue is not with gay marriage but with the social pressure that trails it. When people come to define their self-worth in relation to marriage, when they start to devalue non-married, non-mainstream relationships as a result, I think we have missed the point.
It is not healthy to think you have failed at life if you don’t get married. It’s just as unhealthy to put that burden on young boys as it is to do so with young girls. If your partner does not propose, it does not mean he doesn’t love you. It is okay to be in your thirties or forties and unmarried. It is okay to be in an open relationship or a polyamorous relationship or an undefined relationship or single.
That is the beauty of real equality and liberation – it’s about choice. The only thing that matters is whether you are happy. And I really hope that the happiness of gay couples does not become contingent on there being a wedding on the cards.
Marriage is not for everyone. We can believe in marriage equality without wanting to get married. We don’t owe it to society to conduct our relationships any other way than what feels right for us. And we do owe it to our gay brothers and sisters in oppressive countries not to let the world think the struggle for gay equality is over because there are a few gay wedding cards on the shelves in CNA.
Love is what keeps people together, not a piece of paper. Gay marriage is a victory on the path to liberation and equality, and it is a beautiful thing to celebrate when friends get married. But only when we throw off the shackles of social expectations and assumptions will we truly be free.
Stop asking your friends when they’re going to get married. Straight or gay, they – and their relationships – matter whether they get married or not.