Editor's Letter: The Marrying Kind

8.17.2011

By Aaron Hicklin

Until very recently, British newspapers had a sly euphemism for known homosexuals who had resisted the kinds of sham marriages that were once par for the course. In the words of obituary writers, whose job it was to find substitute words for 'gay,' they were 'confirmed bachelors' -- an infinitely lonely construction. Reading those obituaries, you would never get the impression these men (there was no equivalent phrase for women) had ever loved, or been loved in return. These were not confirmed bachelors in the American sense (commitment-phobic straight men on the merry-go-round of short-term relationships). They were men who were never getting married because they couldn't. Worse, the reason they couldn't'being gay'was cloaked in ambiguity that suggested it was by personal choice. In fact, the option did not exist, was not even -- to tens of thousands of teenage kids growing up, like me, in the 1980s -- remotely conceivable. No wonder we came to believe that what we were fighting for was the right to choose whom we could have sex with'it was the only way we had been allowed to think of gay identity. All along, the fight was to choose who we loved.

Long before I told myself I was gay, I had told myself I would never get married. It was my way of groping toward understanding the life ahead of me. For millions of gay men and women, it has become so commonplace to shrug off questions of marriage with the hollow phrase 'I'm not the marrying kind' that we come to believe it, unwittingly colluding with those who are determined to ensure it stays that way. I spent years reinforcing gay stereotypes by telling straight friends that, while I was attracted to men, I couldn't be romantic with them. That was a heterosexual thing. It was also, clearly, a crippling lie. Writer Andrew Sullivan has been making this point for a long time -- longer than almost anyone -- but I'm not sure how fully I appreciated it until the New York State Assembly voted for marriage equality by a slim-but-binding margin. A Democratic governor, a formerly Republican mayor, and the work of thousands of activists made that possible. It was a seminal moment of affirmation, but also of reckoning for those of us long programmed to think of marriage as something unavailable. Now that it was, in a stroke, available (though still unrequited at the federal level), we had to reorient ourselves. A lifetime of persuading myself that marriage was neither necessary nor especially desirable was undone. I had a sudden desire to call my boyfriend and propose. I didn't, but for the first time it seemed like something I might do. And I realized that if I had, instead, grown up in a world in which marriage equality was an accepted part of life, I wouldn't have spent my adolescence adjusting myself to a second-class status.

As for the term 'confirmed bachelor,' it finally seems to be losing its luster. A cursory online search suggests that its usage in the British press today is largely arch and self-consciously archaic. I would pin the date of its demise to 2001 or thereabouts. In that year, under the nonsensical headline 'Have Men Become the New Women?,' a writer for London's conservative Daily Telegraph noted that 'an interest in manicures and anti-wrinkle creams used to be the preserve of confirmed bachelors,' while that September, the Independent ran an obituary for theater critic B.A. Young, describing him and his 'chums' as 'all defiantly confirmed bachelors.' There was, of course, no mention of whether Mr. Young had ever been in a loving relationship of any kind. That awful double standard has helped to define and limit the breadth of gay life for far too long. The victory in New York, like earlier victories in this country, is important for us today, but just as important for every teen in the future who no longer has to find self-justifying reasons for why he or she is not the marrying kind.

Aaron Hicklin, Editor in Chief

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