Past is Prologue
Tying the Knot makes a passionate plea for same-sex marriage rights. While some activists decry the pro-marriage message, insisting it’s better to fight against the very institution of marriage, the documentary makes its case with conviction and imagination. Through a range of interviews, fly on the wall footage, news coverage, and statistics, the film argues that no one should be denied the right to marry. A kid in New York puts it this way: “People should be able to do what they want to do. What’s the big deal?”
Most citizens are well aware of the debates that have only intensified since Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law in 1996. But Tying the Knot digs into a much longer history. It opens with footage of gay hippies storming the Manhattan marriage bureau in 1971. Long-haired activists of both sexes say they’re just fighting for the legal rights of marriage, plus the social sanction to love whom they want to love. They’re met with incredulity and resistance. As a bureaucrat looks at them like they’re from Mars, the film captures how radical such a demand was and remains.
In the ‘90s, the documentary contends, the same old homophobia stifled and necessitated progress. Highlights include Hawaii’s Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage in 1993, then the 1998 legislation there that outlawed it. Footage of supporters and agitated opponents echoes the earlier ‘70s dynamic, though the pro- and anti- positions have become more familiar and more vehement.
As it traces political and social contexts, the film also lets people speak for themselves. In key images of the struggle in Massachusetts, activists celebrate the 2003 State Supreme Court decision calling it unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the right to marry. News footage shows a stone-faced Governor Mitt Romney intoning, “I agree with 3000 years of recorded history. Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman. I will support an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution to make that expressly clear.” Sure enough, the 2004 election saw Massachusetts pass legislation against same-sex marriage, and the documentary notes the issue will likely go to voters in 2006.
But the film submits that Romney has his history wrong. E.J. Graff, author of What is Marriage For?, argues that the modern view of marriage as a love match stems from specific economic and social developments. Early Christian marriage was secular, in 1215, the Catholic Church declared it a sacrament, and the early modern period saw couples marrying in order to consolidate property and labor (as Graff helpfully points out, people weren’t greedy, they just didn’t want to starve). The Industrial Revolution changed that (as people could earn their livings), and marriage was defined as a bond of love and sex.
But as the form and function of marriage changed, related moral panics recurred. Graff notes that two debates that moved the justification for same-sex marriage forward include the legalization of contraception (sex can be for love, not reproduction), and divorce (marriage is about love being present or not).
The film makes one of its strongest points in an analogy between racism and homophobia. It draws parallels between anti-miscegenation laws (the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the last one in 1967) and anti-gay-marriage laws. In footage from the 1996 DOMA debate, Representative John Lewis (D-GA) actually quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. on interracial marriage: “Races do not fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.”
The documentary includes footage of the 1967 federal case that repealed state anti-miscegenation laws as well as a 1996 Showtime dramatization, Mr. and Mrs. Loving. In an illuminating Q&A with director de Sève at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival (included in the DVD extras), he says that he tried to contact Mrs. Loving, but she prefers to live privately. Personal stories bring socio-political struggles home, but when people open up their lives to public scrutiny, they’re taking risks. De Sève explains that he was originally going to include his own story of being in a binational gay relationship in which marriage would secure his partner’s immigration status. But he decided that filming himself would put too much strain on his relationship.
Instead, the film focuses on two stories of other people willing to go public: when Tampa cop Lois Marrero dies, her wife Mickie’s (also a cop) attempts to sue for her pension, and elderly Oklahoma farmer Sam tries to keep his home after the death of his husband of 25 years. In both cases, relatives of the deceased fight for assets, and as neither marriage is recognized legally, both survivors face traumatic uphill battles. The surviving partners, and their families and friends, testify that their unions were respected by co-workers and community members. Crew-cut Florida cops sob while testifying in Mickie’s case, encapsulating the cost of discriminatory laws. Mickie says, “The law has to change” because “this is not a gay issue, this is everyone’s issue.” In the DVD extras, we learn that both Mickie and Sam lost their cases and face huge legal bills.
As Tying the Knot frames same-sex marriage as a universal right, it underlines that point with global coverage. We see celebrations in Canada (with one reveler saying, “If you don’t like same sex marriage, don’t have one”), and the first same-sex couples legally married in Holland. Scholar Kees Waaldjik, from the University of Leiden, declares, “There has been a trend that less people wanted to marry, they just wanted to cohabit. And marriage therefore became less important. Um, you would think that people in support of marriage would be happy that now other couples wanted to join the institution of marriage. If more people join marriage, marriage would be stronger and probably last longer and be a more important social phenomenon.”
Tying the Knot makes many such arguments, compellingly. In an extra, we see a panel at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival, during which several filmmakers insist that such cultural representation can help advance social movements. Indeed. When asked why he included such extensive historical and political footage, de Sève explains, “I’m a firm believer that the past is prologue.”