I saw a comment on a blog the other day calling marriage “high gender theater.” It was like someone had put the words right into my mouth. It was the best three-word explanation of how I’ve felt attending a mess of weddings over the last few months. Six couples that I am close to have gotten married between November 2009 to July 2010. One wedding was for a gay couple, and in another wedding, I was a bridesmaid (see: commitments I will never make again). And those are just the weddings I was invited to… that’s not taking into account the mess of high school and college acquaintances who have become engaged or hitched in the last few years of my life, whose relationships Facebook has now made me privy to.
I used to really like weddings. Ok, I still do. I love getting dressed up. I like watching two people who care about each other celebrate their love. I like cake and dancing, I like free food and open bars. I like the spectacle of flowers. I like meeting up with people I haven’t seen in awhile. I like the joy of celebrating love.
But there is a lot about weddings that has made me increasingly uncomfortable. Where to start? Well, there are a lot of fucking dichotomies in weddings. Do you catch the bouquet or the garter? Do you sit on the side of the bride or groom? Are you there to pick up a bridesmaid or go home with a groomsman? Are you bringing a date – and if so, is your date going to be acceptable to the Catholic brides’ parents?
I realize that there’s no fun in dancing if your partner can’t come and dance with you – because who wants to watches queer dance at a wedding? (Besides me.) I realize that, especially as a bridesmaid, I have no interest in catching the bouquet. I don’t want to find a hubby. I would rather be caught pulling a girl’s panties down in the closet than chasing after a potential new husband.
I’ve begun to see that most weddings I attend are a series of rituals, shoved back-to-back, and put on fast-forward. Cue music. Cue attendants. Cue bride. Parents give her away. Vows. Possibly some churchy blessing stuff. Walk out. Photos of everyone. Cue eating. Cut cake. Smash it in someone’s face. Toast. First dance. Father-daughter dance. Groom-mother dance. Everyone dances for a minute, or stands around awkwardly staring at each other. Garter toss. Bouquet toss. Then… either everyone gets drunk and has a great time, or everyone gets bored. Inevitably, someone asks when the bride will get pregnant, if she isn’t already… just in case the couple forgot that the next step is to reproduce. Then there are bubbles or rice or whatever. Someone has decorated the car so that it looks like a mess. Then goodbyes. Cue honeymoon.
And when they get back, cue a whole lot of when-we-have-kids or we-plan-to-have-kids-soon conversations.
There are some variations on this, of course. And what I described is pretty reminiscent of my own white, middle-to-upper-middle-class upbringing in the deep South. But though there are variations, this is the “ideal” – the ritual most begin with, and many mimic to the detail.
I am an outsider at these events. As I see when I look at photos of many of my queer friends – there we are, posing as bridesmaids or groomsmen, friends or family. We are stuffed into a dress or a suit befitting our sex, but often not our gender identity or expression. We are expected to keep our partners in the closet (metaphorically and/or physically), or at least not “flaunt it” too much. We are expected to talk politely about the couple’s history, their love, their deep spiritual/emotional/metaphysical/legal bond through marriage (and often, a church), and their future reproducing more little breeder brats. (Just kidding)
Often I find myself getting drunk, pulling out my camera, and documenting these events to keep myself from having to actually participate in them. My camera is a safe shield which protects me from explaining my lack of a male date, why I don’t plan to get married soon, or why I don’t really want a marriage and 2.2 kids. I might have on a dress, but I don’t fit into the smattering of women chasing their own brood, fingering their diamond engagement rings, silently coveting the bride’s dress/shoes/man, or dreaming about their chance to be the life of the party. I fit into the camp of radical feminist queers who probably aren’t present at this wedding, but spread across hundreds of weddings, all thinking the same. I think parties don’t need rituals – just a whole lot of really great people coming together from my life, drinking, eating, dancing, and celebrating for no good reason at all. I don’t think love needs social legitimacy, or that marriage is “the logical next step” in every relationship lasting over 2 years and taking place between my 19th year and my 30th year on this planet. I don’t think commitments are between men and women only. I don’t want my parents giving me to anyone, and the thought of my deserted father walking me anywhere or trying to dance with me is horrifying.
But that’s gender theater, folks. It’s the compelling notion that a) gender is a biological phenomenon we can’t change, and b) gender is the reason we are compelled to be attracted to the opposite sex/gender, and c) straight folks meet each other, get hitched, and have kids. There are roles we are expected to play, and these roles are defined by the genitalia we were born with (or should have been born with, according to doctors who try to "fix" intersex children). And weddings are ALL ABOUT gender, gender rituals and roles, and legitimizing a straight relationship so that your kids don’t end up as bastards and your property can pass onto them without being taxed. Yep.
Don’t get me wrong. I think love can be an important part of a marriage. Love doesn’t factor into every marriage license, but love factors into many of the marriages I’ve witnessed. I think many people do now get married because they love each other… and I think many feel that BECAUSE they love each other, the only way to show that love is to get married. In other words, I think we conflate love with marriage, even though we’ve all see love-less marriages and loving relationships without a piece of paper.
We’ve all seen kids whose parents weren’t married, but did a great job raising them. Or marriages for convenience, for money, for green cards, for Pell grants, for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Marriages for pregnancies. But we still idealize marriage as a ceremony ultimately about Love.
I’m sure when countries and states began letting queers marry, the same things happened – some queers got married for love, others because they felt it was the logical next step in their journey of life. Some got married because they didn’t know what else to do. Some got married for privilege or money or kids. Queers are no different, after all. We grew up in the same society – a society which prioritizes couples, state-sanctioned marriage, and procreation as important life steps. We grew up exchanging wedding “bands” with our neighbors in private, childish play in the backyard. We grew up knowing that Barbie and Ken are together (even though, secretly, we might have thought differently about Ken). We saw Princess Di’s dress and galloped our way down an aisle as a junior bridesmaid (I thought I was a horse at the point in my life that my aunt and uncle married). We grew up with heterosexual ideals and gender theater.
But now, in my 20’s, with my gender identity firmly entrenched in confusion and my sexuality bordering on messy and radical, I wear my grandmother’s (first) wedding ring as a reminder of my family’s history. My history, though I remember carefully that she and my grandfather had a miserable, Catholics-don’t-divorce-but-just-drink-and-yell, kind of marriage. I watch my friends walk down the aisle, and I wonder what their lives will be like in twenty years. I see my best friends becoming pregnant, popping out squirmy toddlers who grab onto my heart as I rock them in circles, and creating new families. They reconnect with their blood relatives, while mine push me further away. They fit their names neatly into wedding albums and baby books, under “husband” and “wife,” “mother” and “father.” They go to weddings and don’t explain why their date isn’t the same sex. They walk down the aisle as a bridesmaid without feeling like an imposter stuffed into a bright orange dress, blessing a couple who will have a house and a dog and a marital bed and a kid as I’m going out on Tuesday nights and taking girls home from the club. I realize these couples will have social legitimacy in a way that I will probably never have in my relationships.
I don’t want to trade. Not for a minute.
But I do remember, most acutely at weddings, what it means to be queer. What it means to realize my dreams and my reality will always (legal gay marriage or not) be different, because I grew up in a society that says I’m an outsider. Real women get married. Real women have children. Real women have dinner on the table at 6pm. Real women juggle their career and familial responsibilities. Even gothic women, women with tattoos, women with Ph.D.’s, women who have shattered glass ceilings, women who adopt, women who marry late in life… they’re still women in a way I can’t be, because at the end of the day, I live in a society that conflates “female” and “male” with heterosexual roles… not a society which respects that gender, sex, and sexuality are fundamentally different.