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Wed-Locked: Marriage Equality and the Normalcy Trap

This fight for marriage equality has been bolstered by certain representations of gays and lesbians in mainstream media. Still, they look very similar to our nation's 60-year monogamous love affair with the 1950s idealized family -- except take out Donna Reed and insert Neil Patrick Harris.
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As announced last week, the Supreme Court has decided to hear two constitutional challenges to state and federal laws dealing with the recognition of same-sex marriage. In the 20 years this fight has existed, various slogans have sprung forth to get to this point. Everything from physical protests to Facebook "likes" are plastered with posts ranging from "Love Deserves Equal Rights" to "Civil Rights are Family Values." Such slogans suggest a fight on multiple fronts -- a fight, not just for rights, but for validation and love. Another less talked-about explanation, though, is that we're fighting to be like heterosexuals -- to be "normal." But what will that attainment of normalcy cost us?

"Normal," according to our society, has been the image of a heterosexual, two-parented, typically white monogamous upper-middle-class couple with (around two) loving children. However, married families resembling this idealized nuclear family were only the norm during one decade of our history -- the 1950s -- when the families of TV moms June Cleaver and Donna Reed served as models everyone aspired to. But marriage historian and sociologist Stephanie Coontz points out that this 1950s Norman Rockwell painting was a creation of whites and often built on the backs of the poor who worked for them. During the 1950s postwar period of seeming prosperity, 25 percent of Americans were poor. Forty percent of black women who had small children worked outside their homes -- many, no doubt, for the white traditional families we've consistently looked up to as normal. By the end of the 1950s, a third of our children were poor. The normalcy of the perfect nuclear family we have aggrandized was not "natural" as the fundamentalist Christian right often states. It had to be constructed through dominance.

Nevertheless, marriage is important in the United States. In addition to our laws' incestuous nature with marriage (and the notion of the traditional family), the act holds important social significance. Marriage, for western heterosexuals, has been seen as the pinnacle, the ideal of all social relationships. Marriage -- and coupling, in general -- is rewarded with everything from tax breaks to restaurant specials. People's lives are viewed as less-serious and less-legitimate if there has been no marriage or, worse, if a marriage has ended. The latest CDC data shows divorce rates hovering around 40 percent, while sociologist Eric Klinenberg states the amount of singles -- both who choose to be and those who are marrying later in life -- is at an all-time high of near 30 percent. Though both are sizable portions of our population, such life choices pale into insignificance against the eternal social candle we keep lit for marriage. If one gets divorced, then they're urged with the old adage, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." And if one chooses to be single, well, then you're somehow denying yourself a "real" life. If marriage were only about the laws and did not hold such legitimacy on the part of how friends, family, and government view our lives, the gay community would not be fighting for it so hard.

This fight, and the swellings of support for marriage equality, has been bolstered by certain recent representations of gays and lesbians in mainstream media. As Daily Beast political blogger Andrew Sullivan noted in his introduction to Anderson Cooper's eloquent coming out letter, "The visibility of gay people is one of the core means for our equality." Thus, we have Neil Patrick Harris and his husband David Burtka gushing about their incredibly cute twins everywhere from Oprah's Next Chapter on her OWN cable network to the February 2012 cover of Out magazine's "Love Issue" -- all the while looking every bit the sweet, seemingly monogamous non-threatening familial unit. For Out they were even photographed (sans the twins) in black and white. We also have continuous paparazzi coverage of Elton John and his husband David Furnish, who've now adopted a baby boy. Then you have Rosie O'Donnell, who married Kellie Carpenter and had four children (three through adoption and one through artificial insemination and bore by Carpenter). O'Donnell and Carpenter have since divorced and O'Donnell recently married Michelle Rounds. As far as fictional role models are concerned, the critically lauded TV ratings monster Modern Family depicts the antics of same-sex couple Cameron (played by Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson) as they raise their adopted daughter Lily. All of these relationships are fawned over, and they are hailed as trailblazers in addition to, as the title of the aforementioned sitcom suggests, "modern."

Still, they look strikingly similar to our nation's 60-year monogamous love affair with the white 1950s idealized family -- except you take out Donna Reed and insert Neil Patrick Harris. They exude "normalcy." But for the gay community, the lack of freedom to legally marry simultaneously freed us from the pressures of being "normal" that the tradition of marriage tends to fan. This freedom is admittedly murky. It comes with being disenfranchised in that the label forces a "since you're not going to let me be like you, then I'm going to have to make my own rules" attitude. As we were already deviants in the eyes of many, we didn't hesitate to explore what life would be like beyond 1950s heterosexual standards. Perhaps all we wanted was good sex -- not a romantic, hand-holding, fuzzy relationship, but raw, unabashed good sex. Or maybe we'd choose to have a polyamourous relationship where you have three or more consenting partners all of whom have relationships with each other. Or maybe (gasp!) we just wanted a relationship with ourselves -- no lovers, no boyfriends, no girlfriends, just a calm life of solitude. For the many who did choose to have a couple a la heterosexuals, the way the family unit interacted could be challenged. I can't help but think of the expert abnormalcy famed photographer Annie Liebovitz committed to with equally famed writer Susan Sontag where they each had apartments on the same Manhattan street, but across the street from each other. Such possibilities show that constructing the best possible life was based less on what society says and more on what worked for the individual or the individual relationship. None were held to any normalcy standard because we were already considered abnormal.

But as this arduous fight for "normalcy" has dragged out with multimillion-dollar ad campaigns, powerful lobbying groups and media -- both fiction and nonfiction -- eager to showcase that gays can create successful marriages, the mainstreaming and heterosexualizing of gays and lesbians has taken place. They serve a purpose to gain acceptance, but also serve as powerful agents of socialization: Namely that, even among the gay community, coupling is the ideal and marriage is now the social pinnacle. With this, anyone choosing any other option runs the risk of ridicule, feeling less-than and othered similar to how gay men and women were othered by heterosexuals before this fight began in earnest. One of our prominent coupled gays already went against the grain ever so slightly and headlines were made. Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi (the latter of whom took DeGeneres' last name, upholding a wonderful heterosexual tradition when women were considered property) publically stated that they were happy without kids. The results were headlines full of exclamation points because, really, how can they not want kids? How could two women not feel that maternal pull? How can they not want to imitate the heterosexual ideal of marriage and family? How can they not want to be "normal"?

No one can predict the future and how marriage equality -- when achieved --will impact the uniqueness of the gay community. Like the 1950s idealized family, will our aspirations to achieve it come at the price of other groups? Will married gays similarly marginalize those who do not have a marriage either by choice or creed? Will the gay community hold its new imitation of heterosexual marriage and family as the hierarchy of its social community? If the trend goes the way I think, gone will be the urge to rebel, to fight for acceptance of every lifestyle choice. And I worry that instead of saying "I do," we, as a community, should have said "I don't."