“A great civilization can be judged by the way it treats its minority. If it treats minorities well, it is a civilized country.” This observation, made by a Dutch gay man of color in Jim de Sève’s Tying the Knot, indicates the documentary’s central interest: current restrictions against gay marriage evince that the U.S. remains a long way from equal rights for all citizens. Situating gay marriage squarely within Western marriage traditions, the film makes all sides uncomfortable: the staunchest right wing Christian might recognize the inequities between homosexual and heterosexual marriage, while viewers supporting equal marriage rights may feel further alienated by double standards.
The film opens with black and white footage from 1971: the Gay Activists Alliance takes over Manhattan’s marriage bureau, explaining to straight couples that they cannot be married, since they are not gay. Following, the movie takes up its two major narratives, both concerning the deaths of partners. In Tampa, Mickie’s 10-year partner Lois is a police officer killed in the line of duty, and Sam, an Oklahoma rancher, has lost Earl, his husband of 25 years. Mickie must fight to receive Lois’ pension payments, and Sam confronts property claims by Earl’s cousins. Their stories are typical: the 1,138 federal benefits (including inheritance, immigration, veteran’s benefits, health insurance, Medicare, and social security) have been denied to same-sex couples since the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) became law in 1996, effectively stripping them the right to marriage and its benefits.
Against such examples of inequality, the film offers a broader history of marriage, as well as successful gay marriage provisions in Holland and Canada. Historian E.J Graff, author of What is Marriage For?, reports that marriage, contrary to being a divine or “natural” right, has always been in flux with the wants and needs of both the laboring and ruling classes. Looking back to the Middle Ages, Tying the Knot depicts the secular roots of feudal marriage in kinship mandates, both concerning the exchange of property and labor, and consolidating the labor bonds that ensured survival. The documentary also notes conceptual shifts: dating, divorce, and miscegenation all, once upon a time, were thought to subvert marriage.
DOMA, the film implies, is the legislative residue of religious, moralistic, and racist anxieties. Under pressure following Hawaii’s 1993 legalization of same-sex marriage, Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law in 1996, causing the 1998 passing of a constitutional amendment in Hawaii that overturned the state’s 1993 rule in favor of same sex marriages. Even now, as the situation appears bleak (with President Bush’s call for a Constitutional Amendment against gay marriage) the film offers an alternative vision: in April 2001, supported by 85% of the Dutch voters, Amsterdam’s mayor became the first to legally wed a gay couple. Also juxtaposed against the tirades of conservative politicians is footage of lesbian and gay couples attempting to procure marriage licenses in New York City and Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day, 2003, and gay marriages attended by straight supporters in Canada. These images are effectively crosscut with those of moralistic politicians and religious leaders.
Tying the Knot‘s most powerful strategy lies in its comparisons between anti-gay marriage arguments and anti-miscegenation rhetoric, especially clear in the Loving v. Virginia segment. In this infamous 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case, a white man and his black wife crossed into the state of Virginia after marrying in the District of Columbia, only to be accosted by police and charged with breaking the state’s “racial integrity” law. The film shows black House Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., transposing his words in defense of marriage equality before the House of Representatives: “Races do not fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married. Why don’t you want your fellow men and women, your fellow Americans, to be happy? Why do you want to curse their hopes? We are talking about human beings, people like you!” In painful contradiction, the film shows demonstrators decrying “fudge-packing sodomites” with “anuses reddened with blood,” outside the Massachusetts State House, after the State Supreme Court ruled, in late 2003, that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional.
At times, the movie’s handheld camerawork is disorienting and its attention to irrelevant moments of Sam’s post-Earl life distracting. Nonetheless, it clarifies the stakes involved for all Americans in terms of what heterosexual marriage offers American citizens that queer citizens are denied through the institutionalization of DOMA. Countering the crude babblings of George W. Bush with images of gay marriage celebrations in Toronto and Cambridge, the film ends with a glimmer of hope: a black man and his white partner marry, facing the ocean in Provincetown, MA as they read their own vows. While many queers may not want their love relationships mediated by an “official” heterosexual superstructure, the film emphasizes that the campaign against gay marriage exposes injustice in ways that are pertinent for all Americans.