My wedding is four months away, and so far I have seen no sign of my promised assimilation. I was expecting invites to GOP fundraisers and loads of money. Instead, my mother offered lukewarm congratulations; my fiancé had to read about his home state attempting to outlaw our union, potentially complicating our status as a couple if we visit his family; and my rent went up a little.
So far, this assimilation blows. I thought getting married was joyful, but some gay blogs seem down on it. They’re worried that marriage will bring assimilation and with it the end of gay culture, a concern captured by J. Bryan Lowder here in Outward: “Minimizing gayness has been the linchpin of assimilation, the central tactic in obtaining access to conservative institutions like military service and marriage,” he wrote.
It’s true that this fight has sometimes felt like a quest for respectability, but in describing both military service and marriage as “conservative,” we also underestimate their impact. The poor find opportunity in military service, and what’s left of the middle class finds legal, financial, and health-care protections in marriage. We have a dwindling pool of economic advantages, so why have we decided to attach a stigma to something that offers us even a slight institutional gain?
It doesn’t seem crazy to suggest that marriage has had the opposite effect of assimilation so far. The growing number of bills designed to allow businesses to deny gay people service only became a fad after gay marriage victories. For me, getting engaged was just about the most visibly gay act I’ve been involved in. Calling family members to announce my engagement sometimes felt like a political challenge to stand with me. A relative can say they love you, but you can sometimes hear the limits of their love in their response to your announcement. Speaking to my family about my marriage made the experience of being gay more real to me, moving it farther away from something hidden and inert.
The view that assimilation means the death of gay culture relies on one specific and pernicious white, middle-class reading of what it meant to be gay, a reading of gay that’s associated with big city gay clubs, piano bars, and cruising. Let me tell you, those places and concepts aren’t always so welcoming to gays who aren’t white and middle class. Gay sexuality is not divorced completely from discrimination, and so gay sexual liberation, in practice, can be something we gays of color don’t find comforting. It isn’t out of the ordinary to see Grindr profiles bluntly asking for “no blacks, azns, or latinos,” so the arguments supporting utopian radical gay love don’t move me too much.
Nevertheless, I love gay culture because it allowed me to dream of a happy life. With every new gay marriage victory comes a treasure trove of photos of couples, of all colors and ages, embarking on that dream with each other. Gay men rarely imagine our own unions because we live in a society that may be willing to accept our existence but does little to teach us how to value ourselves.
Some marriage equality ads would like for straight people to think that gay couples are the same as straight couples, but I don’t believe that. For one thing, gay people don’t have the problem of expectations; we have the opposite problem, a lack of expectations. It’s a joke with a kernel of truth that when you come out, mom immediately loses hope of being a grandmother. I always envisioned this lack of expectation as an opportunity to have my life mean more than just one inherited script. We don’t have to choose between assimilation or rebellion when we take charge and learn the value of our lives. Gay marriage is just one of many ways we can announce the value of our love to the world.
Gay will survive marriage equality, just as it survived world wars and AIDS. But it is changing into something you might not recognize, as people around the world come out and incorporate their traditions into their sexuality. That anxiety you feel about this change is a good thing. Witness it.