Celebrating Marriage; Mourning the Queer Revolution

Whatever happened to the queer utopia?

James Emmerman

There are a few places where the 1960s lasted well into the 1990s. My hippie college was one of them. At the turn of the millennium, our professors were still assigning us Marx and Lenin. We read manifestos and watched footage of Paris in May of 1968. We fought about socialist-feminism over brown lentil dinners. We worked at co-ops and lived in communes and debated about utopia in the bulk aisle of the small, independent health food store. We were all a little afraid of sex (hey, in some respects it was definitely the ’90s). But we wanted to talk about it, to theorize it, to celebrate its liberating potential, to imagine it otherwise. We wrote words like fucking and cunnilingus in the award-winning academic theses that got us into top grad schools. When we talked about politics, our favorite verb was lubricate.

Now, it all sounds a bit like caricature. But that’s now. Then, it was just our lives. And that was the biggest, most radical point we knew how to make. We were not just going to hold utopian beliefs—we were going to live them. We were going to change the world. In equal measure, we wanted to fight tyranny and to celebrate beauty. We sensed that beauty came in forms we couldn’t yet imagine, and we knew we needed each other to realize them. We went to sleep in our collective houses and dreamed in vivid colors.

In all those dreams, marriage never factored. We wanted to celebrate the queer people we were and loved. But we were queer, not gay. We didn’t fit into the world as we found it. We gravitated to the hope of something better. We dreamed that, come the revolution, there will be no identity. Come the revolution, there will be no marriage. Come the revolution, we will love without rules. We will love without fear. Many kinds of relationships will count as love. We will celebrate them all.

But the revolution didn’t come.

We still dreamed, and we still tried to live out our utopias. But it meant a lot less to die for your dreams during the Bush administration, when so many things were trying to kill you anyway. Meanwhile the ground shifted. Marriage equality gained momentum. Marriage became synonymous with equality more generally. Key attitudes, by their own admission, “evolved.” And, to make a long story short, here we are.

Even a killjoy like myself has a hard time not being happy. There’s a lot to celebrate. I’m so proud of the friends who spent years of their lives working for marriage equality. I’m so proud of friends who have long been living lives of quiet dignity in a homophobic world (no small feat). I have always wanted to live in a world that’s committed to queer people’s thriving, and today’s Supreme Court decision almost certainly will help. And that is wonderful.

But it’s not without ambivalence. The thriving I’m imagining for the future isn’t the same thriving we imagined when we were young. There is no Revolution. Property and identity aren’t abolished. The institution of marriage looks, to paraphrase Justice Kennedy, strengthened. Our love is recognized legally, but in that sense we love with more rules, not fewer.

None of this is entirely bad. None of this is entirely a loss. It’s hard to claim you had something you only dreamed about. It’s hard to lose something you never had.

But still. Anyone who has lingered over their morning coffee, savoring expired dreams, can recognize this kind of soft disappointment. Sometimes we wake to wonderful realities that aren’t as perfect as we could imagine them. This remains true, even though we all know that the price of getting to wake up in the morning is that our dreams end. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to wake. It just means there’s more to want.