[14 July 2014]
Sexual rights in America remain both provisional and cynical; we know everyone should have them, but we are beholden to cowardly, outmoded, theocratic institutions that are fearful of egalitarianism.
For those whose knowledge of the gay rights movement begins with Stonewall—or worse, with the fight for marriage equality—Ralf Dose’s short but well-researched monograph Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement (originally published in German as Magnus Hirschfeld: German, Jew, Citizen of the World, 2005) comes at a propitious moment, when the State grudgingly hallows the LGBTQ community with the dubious privilege of matrimony.
I use the term “community” as a lame convenience; since the time of Hirschfeld himself, the LGBTQ movement, always fractious, has often rejected the false coherences compelled by community or institutions. Marriage proposes, at once, the ultimate coherence, the ultimate temptation, and the ultimate corruption. As much as we desire the legal fiction of “rights”, we cannot romanticize an exclusionary institution historically predicated on the barter of women for patrilineal dowries, parcels of land, or collections of goats. That marriage is conferred by the arbitrary powers of magistrates, sheriffs, adjutant mayors, sea captains, and Internet clerics should reveal its historical tenuousness, its officious debasement of the myriad possibilities of human love.
This is not the 18th century: we no longer believe rights (that is, privileges) descend from God or arise from Nature. The pragmatist Jeremy Bentham rightly called the notion of natural rights “utter nonsense”—we should instead speak of utilitarian “advantages”. Obviously, non-revolutionary minorities are never in a position to grant themselves advantages; at best, minority classes receive the belated munificence of their own persecutors. The oxymoron of “natural rights” was a necessary pretense of French philosophers and American legalists who had to dilute and demote religion without negating its authoritarian convenience. When the guillotine blades fell, God suddenly believed in republicanism, not divine right, and a plurality of rights were distributed unnaturally by egotists smug with fleeting power.
Even Jefferson, as the American pragmatist and noted Jeffersonian Sidney Hook observed, remained skeptical of natural law. “‘Those who wrote treatises of natural law can only declare what their own moral sense and reason dictate in the several cases they state,” Jefferson insisted. (Sidney Hook, Paradoxes of Freedom, Buffalo: New York, Prometheus Books, 1987, 6). Alleged natural law and its attendant “freedom” are not only relativistic but casuistic. In 1961, Hook remarked, “‘Freedom’ has always been a fighting word. Today it is an honorific word. Fortunately, it has not yet fallen the short distance which separates the honorific from the soporific.” (2). Half a century later, with the Civil Rights Acts behind us and legal inequality still before us, sleepiness has long set in, our outrage supplanted by uncomprehending boredom.
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” said Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and the nightmare, our collective enslavement to the past, oppresses bourgeois and proletariat, reactionary and liberal alike. Yet true freedom frightens reactionaries more than their own hypocrisies do. Treating as Mosaic tablets the ten freedoms stressed by our slaveholding ancestors, conservatives find comfort in the exterior limitations placed on freedoms dutifully inherited. “Controlled” freedoms received historically or religiously are aesthetically more pleasing than self-created, potentially anarchic ones. Of course, freedom as a generalized or abstracted notion is nonexistent; freedoms exist only as experiential, performative pluralities. One is never generally free; insofar as freedom is a matter for the courts, one must be told when, where, and how one is free, and preferably by wigged authorities nestled in the grave.
Presently, the prospect of sexual rights in America remains both provisional and cynical; we know everyone should have them, but we also know, rather mordantly, that we are beholden to cowardly, outmoded, theocratic institutions that are fearful of egalitarianism. In our cynicism, we wait for generational upheavals to lay gradual waste to the bigotry. The average age of Rush Limbaugh’s audience is approximately 67—just 15 or so years and they’ll all be dead. When death overtakes the elders, we’ll sprinkle champagne on their graves and go about our merry ways. Generational fatigue becomes our only liberation. Perhaps in a few centuries we can even progress to the ancient, naked ways of Thebes.
Condemned to this “provisional cynicism”, this angry impatience, we wait for the masses to discard useless hypotheses of disciplinary divinities, for the sluggish wheel of history to turn yesterday’s crime into tomorrow’s banality. As courts try to disentangle themselves from the Constitutional straitjacket, the answer is always the same: “The Founding Lawyers couldn’t have imagined such a thing as non-heterosexual marriage.”
But how many among us, when arriving at the age of self-consciousness, ever signed up to be the stooges of Adams, Hamilton, or some other 18th century bureaucrat? By the gauge of world history, our Founding Lawyers were awfully minor philosophers. Imagine if William James, John Dewey, or even Emerson had created our founding documents! But their ideas came a century too late, and we’ve instead deified, of all people, the likes of Alexander Hamilton—a banker.
Out of political necessity, organized religion becomes slightly more polite in its hysterias. The unassailable adjective “faith-based” has replaced the rightly vilified noun “religion”, and bigotry begins to smile a bit. We’d also best suppress those toxic memories of salivating Jerry Falwell, who, according to The Village Voice, once claimed that the average homosexual man consumes 17 pounds of excrement annually. But the hysteria, though tempered, hasn’t entirely subsided. Within my favorite zealous argument is a paradoxical fear for the species itself: though homosexuality is intrinsically revulsive, it’s also terribly tempting, and should it receive legitimation, birth rates will surely plunge as straights rush to enlist in Lucifer’s rear guard.
Stretching interminably, our wait turns into sourest comedy. Tender religious fanatics, their sexual panics growing unfashionable, now complain of their own, precious “persecution”. They’ve been “shut out of the discussion”, as if their feculent propaganda and monothematic hysteria ever constituted one half of an actual discussion. Against all odds, the farce becomes celebratory, as seemingly every mainstream media outlet features images of jubilant same-sex couples—apparently without a hint of bitterness—embracing on the Capitol steps of whichever state has deigned to abate American blasphemy laws. The Law, the great historical persecutor, is now our friend and savior—we just had to bide out time and not go mad in the interim.
Indeed, queers are at fault for their own exasperation. “Didn’t you know,” say the centrists, “that our Founding Lawyers would eventually get around to you? So don’t do anything to queer the deal. And be patient with your persecutors, who are far more delicate than you imagined. If you’re young enough, you might even still be alive by the time they relent.”
This cynicism has been the default position of the past decade or so, when de rigueur centrism has displaced the agitations of the two prior generations, from the anti-imperialist Gay Liberation Front to the vengeful ACT UP. Crusading did not always require the catalyst of an uprising or plague, however—it required only reason. Magnus Hirschfeld, usually considered the father of modern gay liberation, was not a clockwatching cynic but an adamant reformer. Unlike Wilhelm Reich or Walt Whitman, Hirschfeld was more pragmatist than idealist, yet he also believed that freedom resides in true democracy and consciousness-raising, not submission to municipal interests or state-sanctioned eros. Of course, he was not the first European sexologist to take up the cause of queer liberation.
He was preceded by gay rights pioneer Karl Ulrichs, whose series of pamphlets, “Researches on the Riddle of Love between Men” (1864-1880) advanced the quaint notion of “Urianianism”, a neoclassical allusion to Plato’s Symposium, in which Aphrodite (daughter of Uranus) favors rarefied, valorous homosexual love over the prosaic heterosexual sort. With the rise of 19th century medical science, some taxonomists posited homosexuality as only one pseudoscientific sexual category among many, as did Karl-Maria Kertbeny, who in 1869 coined the term “homosexual” (and “heterosexual”, for that matter) as a nonjudgmental alternative to “sodomite”.
Nevertheless, the era’s understanding of same-sex desire was rooted in passé, essentialized notions of gender confusion. Urianianism supposedly sprang from female psyches trapped in male bodies (or vice versa), an idea taken up by the German neurologist Westphal, whose 1870 article “Die Konträre Sexualempfindung” identified “contrary sexual feeling” as an irresistible pathological condition. In the 1880s, Krafft-Ebing would follow suit in Psychopathia Sexualis, as would Havelock Ellis and Freud near the turn of the century.
Though Hirschfeld assumed in-born traits—he used the term “inversion” to denote same-sex love arising from gender-inverted object choices—his notion of “sexual intermediacy” assumed that no individual was absolutely masculine or feminine. Admittedly, Hirschfeld was a product of his era and envisioned gender conventionally: masculinity was “active, creative, and adventuresome” and femininity “passive, receptive, [and] expectant.” (Bose, 69) For Hirschfeld, however, the existence of a “total” masculine or feminine type is infinitely improbable; presaging some aspects of postmodernism, Hirschfeld believed masculinity and femininity are idealized and thus nonexistent poles between which we all must slide, to varying degrees. It therefore becomes irrational to persecute those who fail to conform to gendered expectations, since everyone naturally falls short of ideals both chimerical and narrowly historicized.
By the end of the 19th century, Hirschfeld had parted with German psychiatry and its insistence on equating anomaly with pathology. He also abandoned Ulrich’s tendency to meekly plead for acceptance of homosexuality—the same regressive, irresolute tendency that now informs our post-revolutionary, post-AIDS civil rights ethos. Using the slogan “justice through science”, Hirschfeld instead exploited post-Enlightenment rationality to argue directly against Paragraph 175, which had criminalized homosexuality in 1871, the year modern Germany was incorporated. Hirschfeld began a failed petition to repeal Paragraph 175 as early as 1898; he would mount a second unsuccessful petition in 1930, by which time Freud would add his name.
Given the ubiquity of Christian prejudice, there was nothing remarkably new in Paragraph 175, whose parochialism descended in a direct line from Constantinian law, the Theodosian Code, and England’s 1533 Buggery Act, which prescribed death by hanging (a punishment commuted to possible life imprisonment in 1861). Yet the 19th century did witness a transitory, mostly forgotten moment that attempted radical sexual reform based on post-Enlightenment freethinking. In its attempt to weaken theocracy and undo the ancient regime’s crimes of superstition, the revised Napoleonic Code of 1810 granted legal recognition to adult same-sex male couples (while ignoring lesbianism and criminalizing pedophilia).
Following Napoleon’s anticlerical zeal, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Brazil, Portugal, and Spain all decriminalized homosexuality at certain points during the 19th century, as did the Ottoman Empire during the Tanzimat era (1839-1876), a period of modernization and growing constitutionality. Likewise, after 1917, antireligious Bolsheviks repealed Tsarist law’s Article 995 (an anti-sodomy statute) and even sent delegates to Hirschfeld’s Institute, as if to affirm his maxim “justice through science”.
Notably, even in pre-unification Prussia, definitions of sex and gender were more fluid—or at least less draconian—than one might expect. According to Bose, Prussian provincial laws allowed hermaphrodites or those born with unformed genitalia to choose their own gender identities at 18. The new German Civil Code of 1900, enforcing the necessary cohesions of the new nation-state and indirectly informed by Paragraph 175, mandated that midwives or gynecologists immediately decide ambiguous sexes at birth, presumably leading to impromptu castrations or surgeries. (Bose, 70) The state-mandated butchery certainly supports Reich’s notion that the State’s forceful interference with (not mere repression of) the libido is the ultimate way to shape egos and lodge believers in the ordered quagmire of tradition.
As the modern-nation state intensified its means of forced cohesion, ascendant medical science gave increasing attention to erotic outliers as objects of inquiry. As Hirschfeld observed in The Homosexuality of Men and Women, “just within the decade from 1898 to 1908, more than one thousand shorter and longer original essays, brochures, and monographs on this subject [of homosexuality] have been published in Germany and Austria.” (Bose, 23) Hirschfeld, however, wanted liberation, not sterile inquiry. Between 1899 and 1923, Hirschfeld published his own “Yearbook for Sexual Intermediacy” and financed at his own expense the world’s first sexological organization, the Institute for Sexual Science, which gangs of Nazi youth would happily demolish in 1933.
Until the end of Weimar years, Hirschfeld was the world’s leading expert on sexual emancipation, in all its legal, ethical, and medical forms. As he remarked in the 1913 preface to The Homosexuality of Men and Women, “They came to me in every situation while I was occupied as a physician and researcher, as an expert witness in court, and as chair of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee”—the activist, anti-175 organization Hirschfeld founded in 1897. “I visited them in prisons and stood by their deathbeds,” he recounted, “I saw hundreds of them in the hands of blackmailers, many on the witness stands, and also many before they prepared to commit suicide; but I saw just as many also under more favorable circumstances, at their evening gatherings, when they put aside the masks worn during the day, for numerous consultations about in events in life, theirs, suffering, and concerns at their social functions and festivities.”
Hirschfeld also produced and co-wrote cinema’s first political gay film, Anders Als Die Andern (Different from the Others, 1919), whose story of a wealthy gay man blackmailed by his lover argues that Paragraph 175 unintentionally promotes criminal plots. (The statues of Paragraph 175 were commonly used as tools of both blackmail and political defamation.) He was also called as an expert witness in the Harden-Eulenberg affair (mentioned but not discussed by Bose), a series of then-scandalous trials (1907-1909) that disclosed the homosexuality of high-ranking members in Wilhelm II’s ministry. By the ‘20s, an emboldened Hirschfeld and his Institute had embarked on a “broader canon of sexual reform—reform of marriage and divorce laws, laws governing abortion, procurement, prostitution, and pornography,” and he joined forces with women’s movements to advocate for government-sponsored birth control. (Bose, 42)
His notoriety in the ‘10s and ‘20s led to celebrity overseas. Billed as “Europe’s Greatest Sex Authority”, he lectured at the Sorbonne and appeared at Chicago’s “Dill Pickle Club”, a bohemian retreat frequented by the likes of Djuna Barnes and William Carlos Williams. During the Weimar Republic, as Bose notes, the Institute’s exotic sexological library became a popular tourist attraction, and its guest rooms welcomed Walter Benjamin, Christopher Isherwood, and Ernst Bloch.
Of course, Hirschfeld also courted violent controversy in more reactionary quarters. A local Bavarian paper published this stern warning in 1921: “The Apostle of Sodomy, the spinach specialist Hirschfeld, has called for a swine convention in Berlin this September… This old Galician bastard has been pushing for public acceptance of sodomy as though it were for the public good… That damned swine won’t show up here again, because he can intuit that the next time his skull might be crushed.” (Bose, 35) He was indeed subjected to numerous homophobic assaults; he once received so harsh a beating after a Munich lecture that he was left for dead and later was able to read his own obituary.
Though Hirschfeld was an avid Darwinist and abjured his Jewish heritage, the Nazis predictably linked his erotic subversions to the bestial or parasitical dangers posed by empowered Jewry. Typical was a comment by Hans Biebow, notorious as the executor of the Lodz Ghetto: “Professor Magnus Hirschfeld…even his physical appearance is certainly the most repulsive of all Jewish monsters.” (Bose, 13) But the animus was not limited to obvious villains; as Bose’s introduction emphasizes, none of Hirschfeld’s major works—The Natural Laws of Love, The Homosexuality of Men and Women, Transvestites, Sexual Pathology (in three volumes) or Sexology (in five volumes)—were translated into English during his lifetime. Only his 1938 tract Racism was published in English—but only in English (a rather unfortunate comment).
Although the 21st century’s legal discourse has (more or less) replaced the medicalized discourse of the late 19th and 20th centuries, the conditional granting of sexual “rights” by State hierarchies only surrenders the libido—or eros itself—to national interests. Unfortunately, rights are most readily won through nationalistic appeals, such as marriage equality, which engages the predominant political-economic model of the nuclear family to channel queer pollutions and close anal offenses. Even televised talking heads, yellow journalists, and prime ministers now realize gay marriage only bolsters the forces of conservatism, which, under the capitalist model, must colonize and sterilize impending oppositions.
At the same time, most oppressed classes are uninterested in complete insurrection and new constitutions. The most successful revolutions are half- or quarter-revolutions, which are no revolutions at all. As Hook says, “Antigone disobeyed the law without wishing to destroy the rule of Creon in behalf of another political order,” (ibid, 108) and probably most abused sons would let live their overbearing fathers if they’d just grow blind in one eye.
It was no great coup for gays and lesbians to win the right to militarize themselves and die in Dick Cheney’s private wars. But one cannot claim the right to exist as a voyeuristic, cross-dressing, crack-smoking, morbidly obese anarchist; one deserves rights only as a short-haired, tax-paying, cubicle-dwelling loyalist who fights and dies when commanded by his betters. And if one dies married, surely there is no greater honor.
I once listened to a presentation by a gay man who, in the early 2000s, had undergone ex-gay brainwashing at the hands of Christian lunatics, only to discover their sexual philosophy had nationalistic prerequisites. Arriving at the reeducation camp, he underwent a body search to ferret out any contraband—that is, materials that might culturally interfere with his erotic straightening.
After a few moments, the reeducation master confiscated his CDs of baroque music. “But Bach was a Christian!” he protested. The master was unfazed by the irony. Anything redolent of European effeteness—from listening to the harpsichord to enjoying espresso—was deemed perilous and antithetical to American masculinity. Believing heteronormativity and cultural literacy mutually exclusive, the Christian master had little choice but to impound Bach’s soulless counterpoint.
Suffering from a noxious mixture of vain certainty and witlessness, such dogmatists are immune to honest dialectic because they can’t admit to the ignorance that necessarily prefigures illumination. How can you argue with someone who’s yet to engage the Enlightenment, let alone critique its Panglossianism? Such people are not simply irrational—convinced of their own infallibility, they cannot understand their own humanity. Corrupted by the idea of original sin, they fear fallibility even more than homosexuality, but invented an ingenious way to negate that fear: because all children of Eden are a priori fallen (and fallible), all is forgiven, and fallibility becomes meaningless.
Conservatism will be conquered by a contrary aesthetics, not by logic. Conservatism, like religion, is an aesthetic code masquerading as political ideology—it is grounded in moral indignation, delusions of purity and impurity, and unexamined feelings of truth. At fundamentalism’s core is a “personal” sensation so beautiful that it obviates the distinction between alienation and transcendence—what Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents, called an “oceanic feeling”, not a dogma of belief but a subjective sense of standing inches before eternity. But this perception, this “personal relationship” with the beyond, is so riotously subjective that it soon slips into narcissism and paranoia. Conservatives see the smallest infringement on their subjective fancies as an outrageous affront and interpret their inevitable loss of political power as unprecedented “persecution”. But only for them is a loss of power unprecedented.
The oceanic beyond also portends fearful profundities below its calming waves; the depths, impossible to explore, must be camouflaged or denied with a semblance of righteous knowledge. We cannot know God’s mysterious ways, but we can obstinately claim what is right when knowledge is unavailable. We thus witness antigay “religious conscience laws”, on the surface a pretext for religious lunatics to refuse commerce with demonized clienteles, but allegorically a way to deny knowledge of an anality as pitch-dark as an oceanic religion’s ineffable depths.
Even on a superficial level, these embarrassingly named “conscience laws” (such as the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act) hardly speak well of the faithful, for they (apparently) reveal the homosexuality stubbornly at the forefront of conservatives’ collective conscience. When imagining how to refuse customers, zealots never think to discriminate first and foremost against a thug brandishing a Nazi armband or a man violently maltreating his wife in a restaurant booth. The fundamentalist still derives his most cherished visceral and aesthetic pleasures from fixating on the homosexual’s moral treason. After all, without the catamite, Abrahamic religions’ most cherished villain, the fanatic’s easy Manicheanism would need a new whipping boy, or at least a new allegory. Starved of the lovers of Ganymede, the Church would have to settle for a second-rate villain, thus becoming a second-rate Church.
If conservatives receive aesthetic pleasures from their own fixations, they will only know emancipation when their own repressions grow tiresome, when their righteousness yields diminishing returns. Does morally erect Rick Santorum derive more psychic pleasure from his own alleged chastity than the pedophile derives from exploring tabooed regions? Did St. Augustine experience more satisfaction from self-denial and routing pagans than the coprophile draws from his own rank issuance?
We are so societally repressed, however, that such questions cannot be asked seriously. Anything that transcends strictest monogamy remains suspect or terrorized. The politest, tritest public displays of gay affection are labelled “excessive displays”, “gratuitous displays” or “vulgar displays”—the affixed adjective becomes an unsuspected bludgeon of repression. Meanwhile, our true desires remain unarticulated, unimagined, and freighted with unspeakable terror because our Constitution was written not by Frenchmen professing fraternité but by taciturn legalists dreaming of manly, under-articulated “freedom”.
“But surely society is liberalizing at unprecedented rates,” you reply. “There is now majority support for same-sex marriage, something unthinkable ten years ago.” True, but majority support only refutes the illusion of rights—if rights inhere in the individual, one should harbor them regardless of fickle majority opinions. Furthermore, even moderates now admit that the relatively innocuous discourse of marriage equality short-circuits investigations of polymorphous or deviant sexualities.
Most moderates would surely answer “no” when asked, “Do you have a problem with gay marriage?” or answer “yes” to “Do you support equality when it comes to marriage?” Surveys’ leading phraseology easily produces desired or biased responses. But if questions probed into the depths and challenged prevailing taboos, how much sexual enlightenment would surveyors really expose? Consider these questions:
Would you encourage your adolescent child to experiment with homosexual relations, just for the sake of gaining experience about the full spectrum of human behavior?
Would you mind if your little league coach were a proud sodomite?
Would you mind if your 11-year-old daughter’s lesbian best friend revealed her pent-up erotic longings?
Would you mind if your local clergyman sported a pink bra and frilly panties under his vestments?
Would you vote for a candidate who advocates lowering the age of consent?
Would you encourage gender-nonconforming behaviors in your elementary-age son or daughter?
Should public schools teach Foucauldian classes on the history of human sexuality, from ancient Greece to the present day?
Should pornography emporia be centrally located in suburban neighborhoods and not exiled to highways and industrial zones?
Do you believe public buildings should replace gender-segregated bathrooms with unisex ones?
Do you believe communal marriages are as morally or ethically legitimate as private marriages between two persons?
We can well imagine the typical responses. Questions concerned with legalizing prostitution or promoting public nudity would likewise elicit responses less sanguine than those about bloating the bounds of marital hygiene. It is truism that political correctness limits unfashionable conservatisms, but obviously it limits possibilities for true liberation more. In practice, the “sensitively” moderate positions of political correctness forestall radicalism, and we are implicitly told that marriage equality is as far the revolution can or should go. Anything further will endanger our delicately balanced repressions, arguably society’s greatest ethical accomplishment.
Though we cannot say whether same-sex marriage will ultimately intensify or relax the psychological and economic conditions of partnership, there is little evidence that reducing homophobia will automatically reduce America’s overarching state of erotophobia. If gay (as opposed to queer) erotics are colonized, our ever-present state of sexual emergency will continue. Adolescent victimization and bullying will not abate; straight men will still fear expressing deviant or unmasculine passions; teenage girls will be taught submissive roles; ephebophilia will remain more horrendous than high school massacres, and so on. Overall, erotic culture in America will continue to be governed by commercial interests and narrow ethics of privacy, as sexual relationships are ritualistically inaugurated in overpriced clubs, bars, and restaurants and then consummated behind shut doors.
It reveals much about American culture that everyone’s opinion carries equal weight on matters of sex but not on matters of economics, medicine, international affairs, military inventions, and so on. On those “technical” subjects, the law defers to experts, not to fringe propagandists, discredited shamans, or hysterical parents. But because sexuality is about feelings, it is suddenly everyone’s business—and no one’s.
In any event, those who command the American discourse about sex are not Hirschfelds or Foucaults. Generally, they are not even historians; somehow Americans reduced the history of sexuality to a subfield of journalism. Imagine a political discussion about American corruption in which the discussants had never heard of Watergate. Imagine a defender of Ronald Reagan who had never heard of Iran-Contra. Imagine a lecturer on the Great Depression who had never heard of the New Deal. This sort of willful ignorance, in fact, has always been the discussion of gay rights—a discussion in which the loudness of one’s voice exists in inverse proportion to one’s historical consciousness.
The substitution of middlebrow journalistic humanism for historicity sadly undermines what constitutes “liberal” argumentation. Consider, for instance, marriage equality advocate Jonathan Rauch’s article “Opposing Gay Marriage Doesn’t Make You a Crypto-Racist” (The Daily Beast, 24 April 2014), which ultimately amounts to a pained apologia for Christianity’s anachronisms. Because bigotries cannot be exorcised easily from minds insulated from the tortures of rationality, we must again indulge cynical patience. Unlike the civil rights movement of the ‘60s, Rauch argues, homophobia “is no political emergency”, nor do we contend with police dogs and fire hoses. We do know that suicide, attempted suicide, depression, and homelessness are epidemics among LGBTQ adolescents. But for the centrist, this invisible pain doesn’t constitute “political emergency”—perhaps suicide is merely an “individual emergency” magically unconnected to sociopolitical conditions at large. Meanwhile, the perpetual, national state of sexual emergency rages.
Understandably reluctant to engage a tired game of comparing scars, Rauch emphasizes the different legacies of homophobia and racism. “Marriage has always been gendered,” he says, “but marriage has not always been racist.” Of course, he means to say that marriage has always been oppositely gendered; without a wholesale rejection or redefinition of gender binaries, a same-sex marriage (or transgender marriage) will still be “gendered”. This seemingly minor slip reveals the lagging, implicit binary thinking about sex and gender that informs Rauch’s adverb of convenience, “always”. Supposedly, our sexual repression is not a modern crisis but the normative and eternal condition of world history; same-sex love, now reaching its anticlimax in legal matrimony, is so frightfully novel and its legitimacy so unprecedented that we should be grateful for each tentative step forward. But of course, none of this was entirely unprecedented.
In his Daily Beast article, Rauch is well-positioned to educate his wide readership, yet he never mentions the work of gay historian John Boswell, the sexual liberalizations that followed the Napoleonic Code, the antireligious victories of pro-gay Bolsheviks, or the nascent activism of the early medicalized era, from Ulrichs through Hirschfeld. Nor are readers reminded of classical Greece, the Han Dynasty, or Tokugawa Japan, all societies that cultivated, glorified, and legitimated aesthetics of same-sex love (albeit ones largely predicated on class structures). There is no effort to undo peoples’ historical ignorance, which inevitably trickles into the decisions of centrist politicians afraid to oppose an ignorant populace. Yet if courts claim that ignorance of the law cannot excuse law-breaking, why does ignorance of history excuse faulty law-making?
When we speak of marriage, we speak only of legitimation; we just happen to live in a repressed era that believes the postwar nuclear family signifies the perfected stages of our species’ prearranged socioeconomic evolution. The nuclear family’s finality is as much a myth as God, natural laws, or the blind deification of 18th century lawyers. Amidst these myths is the fantasy that gay marriage will redeem history, that every past brutality, wrongdoing, and stupidity can be automatically neutralized when queers are recruited into history’s linear march. Not only rebuffing assimilationism, many queers reject marriage for the same reason they’d reject Leibniz’s theodicy—eventual access to marriage’s alleged “holiness” (here writ as legality) cannot cosmically excuse history’s injustices. The very idea of such a redemption—which absolves the perpetrators of injustice—is immoral and unthinkable.
Certainly, the mass media do their best to emphasize the superficial jubilance of arbitrarily winning a prize long and irrationally denied. Consider a recent headline about a joyous same-sex couple granted lawful wholeness by a suddenly enlightened Arkansas judge: “We’ve been liberated!” I certainly wouldn’t deny their happiness—perhaps in their Panglossianism they really believe history has been redeemed. But “liberation” is obviously the wrong word—even those who devoutly believe in marriage wouldn’t call it a vessel of freedom. Nietzsche ultimately exchanged Wagner for Bizet because the German’s Parsifal rejected earthy willfulness in favor of Christian redemption and passivity. For Nietzsche, Wagner’s need for redemption exposed his decadence and, in a simpler sense, his need for approbation. Marriage may proffer Benthamian advantages, but it redeems nothing, and those former persecutors who now offer their approval haven’t the right to redeem anything.
Perhaps you are a not a Nietzschean. Perhaps you believe history does need some sort of redemption, which you call “closure”. But who is going to redeem you? Lawyers? Old men in robes? Local organizations? Your parents? Go through the entire list—you will discover there is no external authority worthy of redeeming you. You want to say that love will redeem, but this response is unjust, for not everyone has a lover. Rebellion, cheerful or bittersweet, will have to suffice.
Andrew Grossman is a regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, the editor of the anthology Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the Shade (2001), and a contributor to The New Dictionary of the History of Ideas.