The pent-up demand for marriage

December 17,2013:  A little more than a year ago, lesbians and gays in Washington state, where I live, began to be able to marry. Now word comes that roughly one out of every six Washington marriages since that time are between men or women of the same sex.  The most recent info from the state Health Department actually only covers ten months from last December until this past September. In  that time 7,071 same-sex couples legally married.

One of the first same-sex couples to be married in Seattle leaves City Hall, wikicommons photo
One of the first same-sex couples to be married in Seattle leaves City Hall, wikicommons photo

Compare that to the 2010 census, in which final estimates were that 19,000 same-sex households existed in Washington state, with about 3,000 of the folks in those households already married (presumably in states where it had already been legalized, or in Canada). The figures on new Washington state marriages means that about half of same-sex couples here have now legally married.

Wow! That was fast.

A health department spokesman told local radio station KPLU that “it’s clear that there was a pent-up demand early on, because in December 2012, the numbers were the largest we’ve seen. People wanted to take advantage of the law, so the minute that they could, they did.” (Click here for the KPLU story.)

Now what does all this portend, as we move from a long-standing cultural imagination that romantic, heterosexual monogamy (enshrined in marriage) now also includes romantic homosexual monogamy (enshrined in marriage).

It’s worth recalling (as I point out in the preface to the new edition of my book Gay Seattle) that in the 1970s, when the lesbian and gay movement began to gather momentum, practically no one was promoting marriage as a goal. The most important gay male writers of that period  — the members of the literary circle that came to be known as the “Violet Quill”–insisted that one of the main undertakings needed to be challenging the conventional social imaginations. In their novels, luminaries such as Andrew Holleran and Edmund White acknowledged the lure of domesticity represented by heterosexual marriages, but then immediately savaged it, arguing that an essential part of the very reason for the gay and lesbian movement was to challenge the privileges of straight marriage. David Bergman, in his book The Violet Hour: The Violet Quill and the Making of Gay Culture, points out that whatever sense marriage might make for heterosexuals, writers like Holleran and White and many others considered marriage “a formula for disaster in homosexual ones.”

And lest you think that was just the position of supposedly promiscuous gay men, lesbians were also delivering harsh socialist critiques of the way in which marriage represented the values of capitalism and property — and even harsher feminist critiques of the way it supported paternalism. Laurie Morton, a member of Seattle’s Radical Women, declared in a mid-1970s speech, for example, that map-new-key-cc9she had come to understand that “we gays are not persecuted as social outcasts because we are sick, or perverse, or child molesters as our oppressors would have us believe. . . . No, the roots of oppression go much deeper. The truth is that homosexuality challenges the most basic social institution in this system of private property and profit: the unit upon which capitalism is built–the heterosexual monogamous family.”

In Seattle, that attitude was manifested in many ways. When the Gay Community Center opened in 1969 on Capitol Hill, it placed a large sign directly on its porch so it would be visible to every passerby. It showed three of the symbols for “male” with their arrows pointed upwards, and three symbols for female with their crosses pointed downward, all linked together. The number three was important: gays and lesbians would no longer be isolated; henceforth they would have groups they celebrated as families. But they would not couple into twos as heterosexuals had done. Even Faygele benMiriam and Paul Barwick, the two gay men who applied for the first gay marriage license in King County, admitted that they were not a couple in the traditional sense. “In the 1970s, you weren’t couples and lovers,” Barwick would say years later. We were collective. We weren’t a pair. We weren’t partners.” (Click here to read some excerpts from Gay Seattle about ben Miriam and Barwick. )

But here we are. Headed to the altars in record numbers…. and, as I put it in the preface to the new edition of Gay Seattle, waiting to see what happens, particularly amongst young lesbians and gays  as they try to fuse those older visions of queering relationships, of taking pride in not being the norm, of being “wrong,” with a romantic heterosexual legacy.