A year-old prose fart on Slate perfectly illustrates the difference between marriage equality and “gay marriage,” and exactly why it’s an important distinction.

One of the side effects of everything on the internet being archived indefinitely is that a blog post from a year ago can come out of nowhere and put you in a crappy mood for the rest of the day. In this case, the post is this steaming turd titled “The Dirty Little Secret: Most Gay Couples Aren’t Monogamous”, by Hanna Rosin on Slate’s “The XX Factor” blog.

Yes, Slate. As I was reading, I had to double-check the URL to make sure I hadn’t been spoof-linked onto Michelle Malkin’s site, because it’s full of the kind of equality-undermining language that made Malkin America’s sweetheart. (As in, “Sweetheart, go away and play by yourself. The grown-ups are trying to have a conversation here.”)

I should point out that on the “DoubleX Gabfest” podcast discussing the post, the discussion is less blatantly offensive and just more subtly gross. They celebrate the overturn of DOMA, and they acknowledge (somewhat) the distinction between an open relationship and infidelity. Still, the subtle grossness — treating gay relationships as equal but separate, combined with some old-school “Women Are From Venus” type BS — is worth drawing attention to. That’s the kind of attitude that will persist long after gay Americans — eventually, after an unnecessarily long legal process in state after state — have the freedom to marry.

But first, let’s go over again everything that’s awful about that original blog post.

Dirty Little Secret

To start with, the headline is a two-fer. First, the assertion that “Most gay couples aren’t monogamous,” which is based on “an old study from the 80s” (which is actually from the late 70s to early 80s, and which doesn’t mention sample size or diversity), and which makes no distinction between infidelity and open relationships. This gets the lede instead of the more recent and longer-term (but still “problematic,” for reasons I’ll get to in a second) study, which came to the conclusion that it wasn’t “most” but about half. That study also made the distinction between “sex outside of marriage” with the partner’s consent.

Which leads to the second problem with the headline, the “Dirty Little Secret” part:

In the fight for marriage equality, the gay rights movement has put forth couples that look like straight ones, together forever, loyal, sharing assets. But what no one wants to talk about is that they don’t necessarily represent the norm:
In writing about the subject, gay people emphasize the aspects of their relationships that sound most wholesome and straight-like, Steven Thrasher writes. They neglect to mention that, say, in Thrasher’s case, he met his partner for sex only once, and they ended up falling in love. The larger point being that gay couples are very different when it comes to sex, even if this is not the convenient moment to discuss that.

Again: not Bill O’Reilly; this was in Slate.

The idea is that in this bit of social justice theater that’s been given the politically-correct name “marriage equality” — earlier, Rosin calls it the “gay marriage experiment” — while the gay people have been asking straight people for permission to get “married,” we’ve been careful only to expose the relationships that’ll make us look normal and wholesome. That lesbian couple in their 80s who’ve been together for decades, the woman whose partner died before their relationship was ever sanctioned by the state. The shameful truth, of course, is that homos just can’t get enough of the d. A gay writer for Gawker, even, has to admit that his relationship was the result of a one-night stand. And no less than the intellectual progenitor of the gay marriage movement, Andrew Sullivan, met his husband at — gasp! — a “sex-and-drug filled circuit party”! [warning: Gawker link]

There’s so much wrong here, it’s difficult to know where to start. Do you go with the Gawker trademark of prudish scandal-mongering disguised as open-mindedness? (For example: we’re totally fine with the gay people, of course, but we’re still gonna out Tim Cook and pass it off as “why is he hiding?!”)

Or the idea that how a couple meets has anything to do with the quality or stability of their relationship?

Or the level of slut-shaming that’s required to assert that people must be hiding how sexually active they are, or how they met, because they’re ashamed of it?

Or the way Rosin casually treats open relationships and infidelity as if they were interchangeable? Which denies the entire concept of an open relationship, which sets up boundaries so that the commitment of the relationship is preserved without having to be looking for sex on the down-low?

Or the blithe ignorance/denial of the fact that these decades-long relationships started in an environment that treated homosexuality as if it were something shameful? That’s essentially the same “argument” that opponents of marriage equality have used since the beginning: of course it’s absurd that homosexuals should be allowed to “marry,” look at how immoral they are for having all that sex outside of marriage!

Or do we talk about the hypocrisy of suggesting that straight couples are inherently wholesome? Two of the things that neither Rosin nor Thrasher mention about that long-running study of gay couples: 1) They were all gay men, 2) They were all in the San Francisco Bay Area. We can all gauge our own levels of how much we want to call bullshit on making wide extrapolations about all couples based solely on a study of gay men; I definitely don’t ascribe to the straight-from-the-50s stereotype of men as constant horndogs, but I do believe that on the whole, women tend to be a bit more relationship-focused. Regardless, it’s tough to accept as a representative sample when there are no lesbians involved.

I have a lot more reservations about the “San Francisco Bay Area” part. There’s just no denying that this place is a bubble, and things are different here. I’ve seen a lot more unconventional heterosexual relationships in the bay area than I ever saw back east, and I have to call foul on any study that doesn’t consider gay couples in more conservative parts of the country like, say, Minneapolis, or even Atlanta.

So Like Us

The easiest response to a post like Rosin’s is pfft, as if straight couples don’t have issues with divorce and infidelity. And that’s valid, but too easy. Among other things, it’s a race to the lowest common denominator: gay people are no worse than we are!

It’s why, in what passes for “debate” online, we’ve always heard about Leviticus and mixed fibers and homosexual penguins and Britney Spears’s quickie Vegas wedding. It’s why a lot of people scream about being “heteronormative” as if gay people were dropped into straight society from some kind of alien asexual breeding planet. And really, in terms of baseline equality-as-recognized-by-the-state, that’s fine. Years ago, I saw a good quote on a message board, paraphrased: “I want to see a gay couple go to Vegas, get drunk out of their minds, have a quickie wedding, and then get divorced the next day. Then they’ll be equal.”

Opponents of marriage equality have always tried to disguise their homophobia by pulling in talk about procreation, child-rearing, gender roles, religious freedom, and “traditional” marriage, and never mentioning their “dirty little secret,” which is that their laws and bans are invariably nothing but anti-gay. Because if they really wanted to assert that marriage is all about procreation, they’d have to ban marriage for heterosexual people who can’t or don’t want to bear children of their own. And that will never, ever happen.

So the tactic for opponents of marriage equality is the same as with every gay rights issue: spin it around to establish that gay people have something to be ashamed of. “Prove to us why we should allow your sex-and-drug-fueled debauchery to be called a ‘marriage.'” And for the proponents, it’s exactly what makes marriage equality a no-brainer of a non-argument: gay couples don’t have any more or less to prove than straight couples do.

As a baseline for legally mandated equality, it’s fine. As a model for long-term, societal equality, though, it’s a hell of a low bar to set. “They’re not any worse than we are.” It comes across as a too-literal interpretation of “tolerance:” we’ll put up with the gays because it’s the right thing to do. It leaves people like Ross Douthat feeling anxious and afraid, just biding his time until we make it through this Liberal Nightmare of a society, and we can all once again be free to say what we’re really thinking.

It also stresses diversity over inclusivity, tolerance over equality. Because for the half of gay men in that study who “admitted” to having sex outside of their relationship, there’s still half that didn’t. Because presenting the struggle for gay rights as a well-orchestrated show of public relations — for which, at the time of this writing, with a majority of the United States still having constitutional bans against marriage equality, Andrew Sullivan is very concerned about whom gets the proper credit — there’s still the fact that two women had been together for decades, and one died before her marriage was recognized by her country. Yes, of course we should account for Dan Savage’s self-described “monogamish” relationship. But not as the representative sample of all gay relationships, and not at the expense of the relationships that are overwhelmingly, boringly, “traditional.”

Rosin puts forward straight relationships as the ones by which gay relationships can and should be judged. The immediate objection is that nobody should be judged on the basis of how “normal” they are or aren’t. But the better objection is that the notion of “normal” is largely bullshit. There are gay couples that fell in love in high school and have been committed to each other for years; there are straight couples that met during a one-night stand and ended in divorce. And every permutation thereof, regardless of gender and genitalia.

Even if you’re looking for trends, and even if you’re accounting for the fact that gay couples of “marrying age” have spent a big part of their lives in a society that treats them as if they were suffering from a mental disorder, there are still plenty of relationships that defy convention by being completely conventional. And a huge number of relationships that prove that what we think of as “conventional” is mostly fiction. How many stories about “unconventional” marriages do we have to hear before we all finally accept that Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best weren’t ever really the overwhelming norm?

And I don’t even want to get into the whole question of “sex outside of marriage.” People have been so intrusive and vulgar when talking about marriages of gay couples, that I’m wondering if I’ve been going to the wrong straight weddings all these years. Is it normal for the married couple to flash their genitals at the audience for verification? Is everyone else in the audience listening to all the jibber-jabber about “love, honor, and devotion” and thinking, “those two are totally doin’ it?” Have I just been missing the part where the couple parades the wedding sheets in front of the village, as proof of the bride’s maidenhead?

It betrays an almost Victorian prudishness, and a peculiar obsession with sex, to treat infidelity and open relationships as casually interchangeable as Rosin and Thrasher do, as lumped-together signs of changing moral standards and our diminishing desire for monogamy. An open relationship is almost the opposite of infidelity; it acknowledges that the relationship is entirely about trust, honesty, and commitment, and not just about sex.

PINO Egregious

Again, while I maintain that Rosin’s blog post is straight-up bullshit, the accompanying podcast is less objectionable. However, it trades the blatantly gross “gay people are lying to the country about their sordid sex-filled ‘relationships'” for the more delicately gross “aren’t gay couples just fascinating to us normal couples?”

The article that sparked the whole business was one in The Atlantic which asked, unironically as far as I can tell, what can gay couples teach us about relationships? On the podcast, they’re very pro-gay, and they’re celebrating the (very recent, at the time) overturn of DOMA. But they seem to be unaware that the tone of the entire discussion is distressingly similar to, “What can all of these talented African Americans teach us about rhythm?” or “We have so much to learn from the Asians about math and the martial arts.”

The tone of the podcast is that open marriages are fine for them — you go, gays! — but let’s keep straight marriages traditional. I’m not exactly paraphrasing, either: around the 13 minute mark in the “gabfest”, there’s the assertion that straight men would be happier with open relationships than straight women would be. (“Not all men,” because of course someone said “not all men.”) And then the thought that maybe this discussion opens up the opportunity for everyone to think about their relationships, an idea that one of the women shuts right down: “I kind of hope that gay marriages can function as gay marriages function, and that’s perfectly fine if it works for them, and I’m also okay with straight marriages being traditional. […] If there are no boundaries, it sort of makes me feel lost.”

This kind of thinking alarms me, because this is the kind of thinking that ends up with someone telling me, “We just want you to know how happy we are about your gayness. We got you this leather harness to wear at your foam parties!” It’s why I make a distinction between diversity and actual inclusiveness — thinking solely about “diversity” reduces individuals to demographics, assuming homogeneity based on one trait that may or may not define them.

It’s “Progressive In Name Only,” more concerned about a baseline level of tolerance than about actual equality, or the progress that comes from actual understanding. I don’t have any interest in casting aspersions on Dan Savage’s or Andrew Sullivan’s relationships, nor am I interested in looking down on people who wear leather harnesses or go to foam parties. I don’t even know if a leather harness is something a person would wear to a foam party. All I know is that it all gets lumped together as “gay stuff.”

A while ago, there was a motion in San Francisco to ban public nudity except for during special events (like the Folsom Street Fair, for instance). Even though it was about as reasonable as you can possibly get, there was a sizable outcry, with a lot of people insisting that such a ban would be anti-gay. As I’ve often wondered since I moved to the Bay Area and suddenly found myself a “moderate” instead of the “flaming liberal” I’d been in the southeast, I wondered if I was the only person who was having problems calling this a “gay issue.” I mentioned it to my barber — a man who’s been with the same man for 20 years and has chosen not to get married, incidentally — and was surprised that he was even more conservative about it than I was: ban it outright, none of this “special events” or “put a towel down before you sit your naked ass on a public surface” compromise. Two lessons learned: 1) Calling public nudity a “gay issue” assumes that gay people are all about looking at each other’s junk; and 2) There are lots of different types of gay people.

If you support “gay marriage” because you want the gays to be able to take their party drugs and meet each other at sex parties and then get tax breaks, then… well, good. You pass the baseline requirement for not being a bigot and understanding how America works. But I sure hope you like talking about social justice issues, because there’s going to be another few hundred years of it. We’ll keep having new decades-long debates on how these special interest groups fit into normal society without stopping to consider that we’re all special interest groups.