Monday, January 12, 2009

"What's My Name? Is It Marriage? What's My Name, Fool?""

The New York Sun critic who reviewed The Children's Hour in 1934 was right in his commonsense response to Martha's lament that, because she and Karen had been accused of lesbianism, "There is not anywhere we can go!"

"You immediately think of half a dozen places," he said, "including the city of New York."

Scott Payne gathered a couple of worthies for a nice jaw about gay marriage, and I have a couple things to add, the first being an apology for making my "last post on gay marriage" merely penultimate. Sorry, Culture11, for making a liar out of you.

Freddie points out that the Catholic Church will continue to decide its own house rules, no matter how the law shakes out: "John, when you say that there will be cultural consequences for the government accepting same-sex unions, I would say 'Only if culturally conservative people let it.' It will be up to culturally and socially conservative people to decide whether or not same-sex marriage is actually normalized beyond the legal codification of it."

Not exactly. Everybody remembers Ali taunting Ernie Terrell in 1967: "What's my name, fool?" Whether or not you sympathize with Terrell's reluctance to legitimize Ali's conversion, I think it's clear that the gentlemanly thing to do, given the situation, is to bite the bullet and call the man whatever he wants.

Legal recognition of same-sex unions is the equivalent of putting "Muhammad Ali" on the fight card. It won't force conservative churches to recognize gay marriages, but it will make every reference to a man's "partner" sound hostile. If the government calls him a husband, I can't refuse to call him one without putting myself in a class with the people who say "freedom fries."

As for Schwenk's contribution to the podcast, I have only one thing to add. He talked at length about marriage as vocabulary—Andrew Sullivan, for instance, has pointed out that referring to his "husband" gives the world a consistent way to talk about the man he intends to spend his life with, thereby avoiding the uncomfortable pause that tends to precede terms like "roommate," "partner," and "boyfriend."

After citing this argument of Sullivan's, John brought up the deep friendship of John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John as evidence that the Victorians did have the vocabulary to describe same-sex commitments, a vocabulary that has since disappeared. He admitted to having no idea who to blame for its disintegration, but seemed to imply that moral opposition to homosexuality makes it harder to develop helpful ways of describing gay relationships. There I disagree, and would point him first to Florence King's explanation of the Southern way to deal with men who are "a little funny" (being good to your momma covers a multitude of sins), then to the Faderman quote above. If widespread condemnation of homosexuality can coexist with a substantial amount of general knowledge about it, then we can only assume that gay marriage is not a necessary precondition for developing the kind of vocabulary John wants.

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