In the end, perhaps the only question that really matters is whether the new marriage employees are happier than the old units of marital exchange. It is of course difficult to take the measure of premodern happiness, but one thing of which we may be fairly sure is that no one of any social class nor, evidently, of any culture, ever placed any significant portion of their hopes for happiness in life in the work of marriage, for marriage was not yet work. Certainly, countless young people throughout the generations have hoped and prayed that fortune would shine on them and they would be blessed with a rich, strong husband, or with a buxom, fertile wife. But this was a question of fortune, not of work, and if one ended up with a lout or a hag for a spouse, this seems to have been interpreted mostly as a matter of fickle fortune, not the mark of an underdeveloped work ethic.
Where then was happiness? In lovers, in extended family, in nature, in God. Today, by contrast, there is an expectation that a stable partnership must be a sine qua non of happiness in general, that if happiness is not flowing from the work of marriage, a life cannot be said to be happy at all. But such happiness is never less precarious than a 401k, and in a world in which marriage is a sort of work, and in which work is conceived as something that we variously succeed or fail at depending on the strength of our characters and the rectitude of our choices—in such a world it is no wonder we find so many people who believe they have, themselves, failed to attain happiness.
And again, it is at just this stage that gay marriage comes to seem such a hopeful thing: marriage, that is, of the people whose very categorization derives from that state of the soul that seems constantly out of the reach of straight married couples. Perhaps, the thought seems to have been, the synecdoche can be transferred, and the advent of gay marriage will usher in a bright new era of happy marriage. But what this thought might miss is that it was precisely same-sex desire’s position outside of the marital work-unit—in a word, gay freedom—that made the label “gay” seem so fitting in the first place.
Gay love, gay sex, and gay relationships used to be countercultural, subversive, and explicitly noncapitalistic. Although not always the rebellious and even criminal act that it was for centuries, gay love has always stood on the margins of the economic contract that is heterosexual marriage. Gay love and sex force us to see another way of being, and history is ripe with examples. There is paiderastia, a fundamentally unequal relationship, a nonpartnership, in which a younger man played bottom to an older man’s top, in the classic pair of contrasting roles of erastes and eromenos, the lover and the beloved. There is the Byzantine institution of adelphopoiesis, literally, “brother making,” which was a sort of spiritual marriage between two men, though which gives us very little evidence of the thing our simultaneously prudish and prurient age takes to be the singular marker of the erotic. And outside of these and other complex institutions through which history leaves us traces, there is always, of course, that broad buffet of sexual activities that was long designated not by a Greek term but by a name deriving from an Old Testament city destroyed by God in his wrath: sodomy, which Michel Foucault famously argued was a mere form of behavior before it was medicalized and essentialized in the nineteenth century into a type of person—the sexual deviant. Without deprecation, we may qualify the forms of expression for gay desire that were available in the West from at least the late Middle Ages until the past few decades as decidedly sodomitical. The bathhouse, the nightclub, the urban park at night: all exist as social spaces where the ordinary bonds and long-term commitments of “real” lives are suspended.
Canadian subscribers add $10; All other international subscribers add $40.