Gay Marriage and the Shackles of Matrimony

By Alexander Cockburn

May 18, 2012 6 min read

I think gay marriage is an incredibly boring subject; though, I do like to hear right-wingers say that it will bring the whole edifice of Western civilization crashing down. It's hard, these days, to find such messages of good cheer. I don't yearn for such a union, so I have no personal stake in the issue. Occasionally, my gay friends tell me they've got married. They never seem especially exuberant.

So the liberal progressives glory in Obama's "courage" and many a doubting heart is lighter and more forgiving about the president's betrayals. Trashing the Constitution, green lighting torture, and claiming the unilateral right to order the execution of anyone, anywhere on the planet ... wiped clean off the windscreen.

It started with lesbian couples in Vermont in the mid-1990s, freaked out they'd lose their babies. Vermont Freedom to Marry was born, and it is now the most powerful democratic organization in the state. It is most certainly responsible for the victory of Gov. Peter Shumlin, who was elected in Nov. 2010 and who, nine months later, was the first sitting governor in the United States to preside over a same-sex wedding ceremony.

Fairly early on, gay-marriage lobbying groups realized that whatever else, they had a gigantic money-raising machine on their hands. Not long thereafter, the right wing realized the same thing. John Scagliotti, maker of "Before Stonewall," a famous movie about the birth of the gay movement, says he reckons gay marriage is so potent a fundraising tool because whereas it's hard to visualize anti-discrimination, it's not at all hard to visualize two men or two women saying, "We do."

So Obama didn't really have too much of a choice. Though, it wasn't risk free, since there are a lot of straight voters out there, as in the state of North Carolina, which recently voted overwhelmingly against gay marriage. North Carolina voters simply don't like same-sexers getting hitched. But many of Obama's key organizers felt he was selling out on the issue. "Obama's gay marriage stance sets off money rush" was the headline in the Chicago Tribune. According to MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, 1 out of 6 of the "bundlers" in Obama's fundraising machine is gay. (Bundlers are fundraisers whose success at bringing in specific amounts of money is tracked by the candidate they are supporting. Often, they receive honorific titles for surpassing certain thresholds.) Now they'll be toiling with tripled ardor, and the recent huge Hollywood fundraiser hosted by George Clooney probably saw a last-minute surge in big contributions. Cynics suggest that the timing of Obama's announcement that, " I've just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married" might of had something to do with that event.

There are many tricky questions, particularly now that morals and the surgeon's knife have deepened their own relationship. What happens when someone who's had a sex change and who is already receiving domestic-partner benefits at work for his male partner, goes through sex reassignment surgery and acquires the physical impedimenta of the opposite sex? Should the couple lose their benefits until they get legally married?

Many gays don't see marriage as a great step forward. Like Obama only two years ago, they say civil unions would have been enough.

"The pursuit of marriage in the name of equality," says Bill Dobbs, radical gay organizer, "shows how the gay imagination is shriveling." Judith Butler, professor at University of California, Berkeley, has exhibited similar disquiet. "It's very hard to speak freely right now, but many gay people are uncomfortable with all this, because they feel their sense of an alternative movement is dying. Sexual politics was supposed to be about finding alternatives to marriage."

As Jim Eigo, a writer and gay activist put it, what's the use of being queer if you can't be different? "So why are current mainstream gay organizations working to strike a bargain with straight society that will make some queers less equal than others? Under its terms, gays who are willing to mimic heterosexual relations and enter into a legally-enforced lifetime sexual bond with one other person will be granted special benefits and status to be withheld from those who refuse such domestication. ... Marriage has no more place in efforts to achieve equality than slavery or the divine right of kings. ... At this juncture in history, wouldn't it make more sense for us to try to figure out how to relieve heterosexuals of the outdated shackles of matrimony?"

And why marriage to just one person? Why this endless replication of the Noah's-ark principle?

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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