Last year, a friend–gay and Muslim like myself–asked me when I was getting married. I was taken aback. I could have kept it a joke. A classic defense mechanism for uncomfortable conversations. But I realized at that moment that the many thoughts I had about the matter–brewing in my head for quite some time–insisted on, at minimum, an honest, serious answer.
I think the way I worded it was: “I don’t think I want to get married anymore.”
“Why? I thought that was your thing?”
In hindsight, I may have taken an apologetic turn. Taking on an addendum like: well, maybe one day. And keep bottling up my disenchantment with heteronormative models for relationships deep inside.
But my thoughts on marriage and monogamy had been shifting and I had never really worded these thoughts out loud. Tentative conversations were happening with the boyfriend–but only to the realization that my thoughts were actually merging with his. But at that moment, anything I would have said at that moment would have been an insufficient explanation.
Especially in response to a question that is, to me, so personally charged. to what was no longer a mere question but a pointed accusation. Not wanting marriage carried so much more weight than a personal preference. There were so many more questions lurking behind that weighty why: if you love him, why won’t you marry him? Aren’t you committed? Now how will you reconcile your relationship with your religion? How will you finally make sleeping with your boyfriend right before God? How do you plan on being a good Muslim now that marriage is off the table? And don’t you want to have a family one day? If you don’t get married, what will your family look like anyway?
I forgot my lame attempt at an answer. Maybe something like “it feels too straight to me” and then feeling terribly dismissive of the institution he clearly still valued. Or leaving me terribly tortured to explain why something that had constituted myself as a person–“I thought it was your thing”–was suddenly not so important to me anymore. While also feeling conflicted with my desire to possibility, maybe, perhaps one day be married one day anyway.
Luckily, our conversation moved on to other things.
More context: the recent memory of my mom and I at my high school classmate’s very Ashkenazi American Jewish wedding. A server dressed up as Cinderella has daintily handed my mom a glass of champagne and we are overlooking the festivities, the crowded ballroom. Mom says she wants this for me one day. I look at her. She is tearing up. I’m not sure what to say.
I don’t remember how I responded to her either. There was too much on my mind. The Disney-themed nostalgia creating a seamless narrative of fondly remembering childhood and the serious adult-ing of someone my age getting married. There was the dancing, the religious ritual of the marriage itself, and all the other involvements with “tradition.” There was the triggering of my longtime fantasies of slow dancing before the altar, crowns linked with a ribbon between me and my bride, the priest chanting. Ribbons, rings, dances, Byzantine chanting, all before the witness of family, friends, God, and all the saints linking myself to such a long line of ancestors before me, the transmission of heritage and this thing called “tradition.”
I was also thinking about the two inconveniences to following these norms: becoming Muslim and my sexuality. Adopting Islam meant adopting new rituals. And my homosexuality brought in the sexual rupture to tradition. The break from modern, normative expectations (from both American and Greek cultures) of (unmarked heterosexual) marriage and the participation in nuclear families.
And yes, as my mom expressed in her wishful sentiment, I could still get married. It would have never been in the capital “c” Church but yes, I could still do the thing. Could still ritually testify to a loving commitment before family and friends.
But even this has become complicated for me. I’m less sure about marriage and its associated value of monogamy; and more over, lost my faith in its gospel of representing true love.
It’s hard to explain this all to my friend and even more so to my mother without coming off as the unhappy queer or the feminist killjoy at the next wedding. Yes, even to a fellow queer person (“we can legally get married so you don’t have to be unhappy anymore!”). And–queue super gay eye-roll–not come off as the stereotypical American young man who’s merely afraid of commitment.
It is for all of these unhappy, killjoy feelings towards marriage and monogamy that cause this question of “but why?” particularly haunting. It remains for me an important ethical and theological demand to take account of where I’m at today, where I’ve been, and where I want to be when it comes to regulating relationships, sex, and romance.
This question is, ultimately, one about ritual and the religious regulation of sexuality. It was Ramadan when my friend asked me this. I was also trying to get back to praying five times a day. My saying “no” to marriage, another kind of ritual and legal concern under the purview of Islamic law, therefore makes me look like a hypocrite. On the one hand I still value ritual when it comes to prayer and fasting but on the other it falls through when it requires me to assent to the ˁaqd al-nikāḥ (marriage contract). To be clear, my experiencing why as a calling out of my apparent hypocrisy says more about me than the intentions of my friend. And so it surfaces a question I have already asked myself: is it not contradictory to refuse the institution of marriage but continue to participate in the institution of other rituals such as prayer? Is it not religiously hypocritical to welcome the regulation of my spirituality but refuse the regulation of my sexuality?
Religious Law/Ritual vs. “Anything Goes”
Another recent experience has also prompted me to ask these questions. I was with some queer Muslim friends on the topic of building sacred spaces and communities for ourselves. I probably said something about how important tradition and ritual have always been to me. A gay white Christian with us shared some of his own thoughts. For him, it was difficult to find community because he was excluded from conservative churches. But he also felt excluded from liberal churches because, even though these were gay-affirming congregations, their religiosity was too laid back for him. If I remember his comments correctly, he thought these liberal churches lacked a commitment to tradition, ritual, and values. This included their seemingly no-rules position on the formation of sexual and romantic relationships.
Some context: at the time I had been writing a paper on Yasir Qadhi, a Pakistani-American Muslim celebrity preacher who has been obsessed with the topic of homosexuality. In his rhetoric are references to I Love Lucy that depict a committed wholesome marriage. He contrasts his romanticized image of heterosexual marriage and family life of the 1950s with an over-sexualized today. According to him, in the 21st century, American society is simply too explicitly sexual. Not only are straight couples on TV no longer depicted in separate beds but pornography is easily accessible and homosexuality is on the rise. We no longer know how to control our animal instincts. Marriage as an institution–and a control for our unwieldy desires–has fallen apart. We now live in a world of divorce, anonymous sex, uncommitted cohabitation, and homosexuality. To him, we’ve lost our values when it comes to love, sex, marriage, and relationships. And it’s destroying our families, communities, and our souls.
Now I was hearing Qadhi’s language echoing back from a gay Christian who was complaining about liberal churches where “anything goes.”
His language also sounded a lot like mine.
My own comments about needing ritual and, essentially, rules might have coincided with a comment about how strange of a space my dad’s family’s Baptist church was to me growing up as an Orthodox Christian. It’s walls were whitewashed (where we’re all the icons?). It smelled of moth balls (where’s the incense?). There was bad singing (where’s the chanting?), an empty space in the front with only a pulpit in the center (where’s the altar?), and people passing around grape juice and crackers (what happened to the Eucharist?!), and is the minister really going to stand up there and just read from the Bible like this is story time? And why aren’t they standing, bowing, kneeling, and crossing themselves? And later, as my spiritual wanderings crossed the boundaries of Christianity, I would be attracted to Islam not just for its theology but also for the ritual prayer, the fasting, the recitations of the Qur’an, the Shari’ah–that the tradition requires something of my body–and the sacredness I feel when I walk into a space dripping with color and calligraphy.
But different people have different definitions of what commitment to their religion looks like. If I had been raised in my father’s church, I would have probably experienced a sense of ritual and the sacred in a Protestant tradition. And most likely, I would have felt oddly displaced in a religious space that looked, sounded, and smelled different and, of course, had different rituals.
Just as I follow normative Sunni prescriptions for prayer, it follows that I ought to follow normative precepts on how to do relationships and have sex. Both regulations on prayer life and sex life are about dedicating myself to the specific things my religious commitment requires of my body. Both types of regulations also happen to be part of Islamic law. Upholding some aspects of Shari’ah while dismissing others appears hypocritical, taking on rules only when they are convenient and require the least amount of commitment.
As a Muslim–and perhaps with the same convert zeal my father has for his Orthodoxy–I have tried to commit myself to every precept, to live my daily life by every rule. And despite misalignments of my sexuality with the ritual demands of the mainstream Muslim community I had been a part of, I have tried to keep myself whole. Just as I was praying five times a day at the mosque with the other men I was planning on joining them in their pursuit of heterosexual marriage, to complete the other “half” of our din, our religion.
As these things tend to go, the critical questioning of these rules only happen when one reaches a kind of breaking point. Celibacy and hetero marriage no longer worked as viable options. However, moving forward with my spirituality meant I reconcile my own desires for a same-sex relationship with the legal norms around sex and marriage. So at the time, as an ideal, sex should only happen within the confines of a marriage contract.
And yes, as these things continue to go, I only become critical of the norm when it fails as a viable option for living a fulfilling life. I’ve only ever named the suffocation when I have finally come to the point of exhaustion. When I’ve come to the limit of the rule’s sustainability.
“Embodied Dissonance” in Prayer and the Standard of Marriage
My attraction to overtly ritualized forms of religiosity is complicated. Perhaps it’s complicated for most people of faith. The script of ṣalāt (ritual prayer) still does something for me. But marriage–the ritualized legitimization of intimate relationships–has become less meaningful. To some of my coreligionists–those in authoritative positions in the mainstream as well as those on the margins–this may read as an incomplete commitment to Islam. I want to insist on the opposite: that those of us with complicated relationships to rituals–and conceivably this category of believers includes most of us already–can actually be a reflection of our faith commitment.
Permissible sex and ritual prayer are linked for me here. To Yasir Qadhi or to my gay Muslim friend there appears to be a clear cut binary of submission (I pray five times a day) and rejection (I’m in a sexually intimate same-sex relationship outside of marriage and plan to keep it that way). The why addressed to my rejection also puts to question the sincerity of my faith: aren’t you saying “no” to marriage because this is the most convenient position to satisfy your desires? But a position made based on convenience is very different than one based on critical reflection. And despite the reading of a binary here, it is actually both the ritual prayer and the religious regulation of sexuality that I try to maintain this critical perspective.
Keeping up my ṣalāt doesn’t mean I accept it in precisely the same way as a mainstream American-Muslim community purportedly does as a community. There are aspects of its normative practice that marginalize myself and others due to the way they can re-inscribe patriarchal notions of personhood onto the bodies that perform them. I try to maintain an awareness of this, trying to embody a more liberating re-formulation of ṣalāt. Indeed, as Laury Silvers , feminist scholar of Islam and co-founder of el-Tawhid Juma Circle, a queer-affirming and gender-equitable mosque in Toronto, points out in a short essay, my beloved prayer ritual can be a means of maintaining patriarchy. In mainstream mosques, men pray in the front, take leadership roles in ritual, and man-spread their arms and feet in a space that ought to be a place of humble submission to God. Men relegate women to side entrances, the back of rooms and broom closets, and ritualized movements by which they minimize women’s presence in spaces that are supposedly sacred. Silvers writes:
For those of us who do not find spiritual health in these formations of faith and practice, one’s relationship with God becomes rooted in cognitive and embodied dissonance. It is safe to say that such dissonance affects straight men too, but women and the gender-queer are most at risk. Because we do not fit as others do, we may experience ourselves, our minds, and our bodies as unhealthy, sinful, even perhaps unacceptable to God. We may experience the voice of our conscience as the whispering of our lower souls or even satan. We learn that the pain of accepting dissonance is the mark of our struggle to transform ourselves into true servants of God.
What Silvers calls “embodied dissonance” helps me explain my own experience of ritual prayer. In trying to make sense of my queer difference from my straight siblings in Islam, ṣalāt has often times reinforced my shame around my sexuality. I experienced the dissonance between my commitment to God and my sexuality as part of my faith. That is, I experienced the struggle against my sexual urges as a sign of my commitment to God. My queerness was subsumed under a struggle against my lower self, a jihād al-nafs. At the end of the day, after coming home from the mosque, I would close my bedroom door and make additional prayers. As I kept my body oriented towards the qiblah, standing, bowing, and prostrating, I thought of myself as turning away from my lusts for the sake of God. And even in the company of other Muslims in congregation, the pious theme of continual repentance and return to God would animate my inner thoughts.
This was similar to my experiences of worship when I was Orthodox where ritual prayers were the places I would go to mitigate my shame for having sexual desires. Repetitions of the Jesus prayer on prayer ropes combined with prostration after prostration in the privacy of my bedroom were reiterations of the guilt and shame I felt about my sexuality. Ritual can have a lot of power to internalize this shame. When I went to confession, I admitted to my priest that I struggled with masturbation. I wanted to be purified of such vile acts. And this thinking came to me without a single sermon or Sunday school class about the apparent evils of autoeroticism. But I did grow up venerating saints who modeled a particular kind of righteousness that only included sexuality in order to deny it. Saints who, if they weren’t asexual, renounced their sexuality, living lives of self-denial. Conversion to Islam was not a dramatic shift from this kind of daily worship. I only became increasingly aware that ritual was a way for me to cope with having sexual desires. Desires that I was particularly ashamed of for their queerness. In a strange way, this embodied worship alienated myself from my own body. It reinforced the guilt and shame I had grown up with.
It took a while for me to admit that I’m gay. To identify as gay meant identifying with the very shame that animated much of my spirituality. I was embarrassed for having sexual desires and I didn’t know how to face that sexuality outside prayers that reinforced my shame. No matter the cleaned up images of gay men on television, “gay” was a sexualized term to me. Being gay meant I could not hide from my sexual self. I could not seek the comfort of marriage, have children, be praised for that in some normative religious community, and live the rest of my life never having to explain to myself or others that I am a sexual being. Because of my queerness, I don’t have an out through marriage. At least not until recently with the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Even after I started to identify as gay, I continued to downplay the sexuality in my homosexuality. Insisting that marriage can also include me was a way of insisting that I also had an unmarked sexuality like my straight coreligionists. That I could be normal, just like them. But marriage has become a suffocating ideal. Suffocating in ways that are oddly similar to my early conservative Christian and Muslim selves. Just as my former self experienced my sexual desires as whispers of my lower self and as temptations by which Shaitan tried to mislead me, marriage and monogamy have a similar effect of embodied dissonance.
Marriage and its associated ideal of monogamy are normative regulations of sexuality. It limits queerness to a heteronormative form. And for that, it probably never satisfied me. And yet it has such a hold on how I form relationships. I continue to experience my queer desires as imperfections of my soul. Despite having said “no” to marriage, it has hardly left me. It continues to haunt me so that any desires that exceed the bounds of marriage I experience as immoral, and at times even pathological. My impulse is to approach these desires as requiring the spiritual and social medicine of monogamy and marriage for me to finally feel a complete sense of repentance. To feel like I’m a good person and a good Muslim.
I continue to experience my desires as places of confession, moments when I need a father confessor (and, I admit, this essay is partly confessional). Desires that still feel that they require long days of fasting. It has lead me to experience my own commitment to my significant other as misaligned with my faith commitments because it is a relationships outside of marriage. And all of this “embodied dissonance” is accompanied by the anger I have built up for the religious orthodoxy that I have dedicated myself to not returning the dedication in kind and robbing me of pleasures that must remain fantasy. Allowing myself to experience pleasure, shame always pays a visit and I hate finding myself acting the hospitable host.
Being Critical of Marriage and Monogamy
I am determined to challenge this religious impulse to constrict my sexuality and heteronormative regulations that place limitations to my queerness. Regulations that make me feel less a person worthy of his sexuality. This makes marriage less redeemable to me than ritual prayer. The ṣalāt does not have to be based on gendered dyadic difference of form. In those rare times I am privileged to be in a sacred space with fellow queer Muslims, I will pray in the back, participate in congregation lead by a woman, and pray next to genderqueer siblings in Islam. And in these spaces, my inner prayer life is not haunted by obsessive thoughts on repentance or guilt. Yet, in the same space, there are always those who opt out of the prayer ritual all together. I mention this because for many Muslims, ṣalāt remains a difficult thing. For many, that is not the site where it is possible to reclaim an Islamic spirituality. Marriage for me remains similarly difficult. I have celebrated weddings with my fellow queer Muslims, yet for me, I cannot find it spiritually empowering to re-appropriate it into my own life. With the regulatory nature of marriage, my queerness continues to find itself outside the realm of the permissible, the real, the possible.
This deserves some more explanation. Not because I feel compelled to answer to this why but because it is worth mentioning in what ways marriage continues to push queerness outside its normative regulations of sexuality and romance. As queer Muslims, we can certainly make attempts to expand the ritual formulae of Islamic marriage to include us. Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle dedicates a chapter of his Homosexuality in Islam on what a gay ˁaqd al-nikāḥ might look like as do Junaid Jahangir and Hussein Abdullatif in Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions. But for me, merely recreating normative formulations of piety and expanding it to be more inclusive of queer people (here, read: gay men and women) is not critical enough. Normative Islamic marriage is fundamentally gendered in ways that force queer folks into dyadic relations of husband and wife. For many, including cis and straight Muslims, the ˁaqd al-nikāḥ re-enforces patriarchal assumptions about how intimate relationships should and should not be formed. It continues to mark as legitimate and licit only those intimate relationships that fit this model.
The gendered inequalities that form the basis of Islamic marriage has been explained by Kecia Ali, a feminist scholar of Islamic law. In her book Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, she discusses throughout the basic formula of the ˁaqd al-nikāḥ as it was formulated by classical jurists, a form that continues to be the basis of the marriage contract. In this contractual relationship, the husband gives his wife a mahr (dower). The contract also stipulates that the husband financially support his wife. In return for dower and support, the wife is to remain sexually available to him. This availability is exclusive in contrast to the husband who, within normative Islamic law, can have up to four wives at one time as well as any number of female slaves. The slavery bit is important to Ali’s analysis of Islamic marriage because it surfaces a fundamental inequality in the legal permissibly of sexual relations between men and women. In a marriage–which, to be clear, is not a relationship of slave master and enslaved–the husband is, in ways not merely metaphorical, the “owner” of the marriage tie whereas his wife is the “owned” in the way her sexual availability is controlled by her husband.
Queer Muslims who want to be same-sex married run into problems here (see: Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam, p. 116). By accepting the terms of marriage, what else might we be assenting to? The ˁaqd al-nikāḥ is based on a patriarchal, heteronormative assumption that one spouse takes on the masculine role of “owner” and the other takes on the feminine role of “owned.”
Granted, an owner-owned relationship is not how most Muslims today think of their marriages. Just as much as any other 21st human, marriage for Muslims has been greatly influenced by modern notions of being based on mutual consent and love. However, the underlining inequality remains. A more western example can be seen in the ritual of the bride’s father giving away his daughter, as if marriage is a simple transference of ownership from father to groom. Most western Christians do not conceive of this ritual as patriarchal. The patriarchal assumptions that under-gird the ritual, however, remain.
Making Islamic marriage work for queer Muslims becomes a difficult challenge. If the contract is based on an essential binary relationship of dower-giver/owner and owned, then how do we decide which spouse will play which role? And is it really desirable to recreate these roles in our relationships? In Sexual Ethics and Islam, Ali probes this further by asking precisely what defines licit and illicit sex. Moreover, “What is God’s stake in marriage?” (p. 90). Is a sexual relationship only permissible when a couple takes on this owner-owned relationship? This gets uncomfortable when we accept that, within Islamic law, slavery is still conceivable. How is a sexual relationship between a male master and his female slave more ethical than one between two men or two women who love one another? And if the vast majority of Muslims today have reached the point of rejecting slavery as ethical, what makes it so difficult to bring same-sex relationships into the realm of the ethical?
There are no easy answers. Queer Muslims will continue to justify our re-appropriation of marriage. And of course, conservative Muslims will engage in their own interpretive gymnastics to uphold normative Islamic conceptions of marriage. I agree with Ali that we cannot simply cut and paste or pick and choose how to apply ˁaqd al-nikāḥ to legitimize our relationships today. If we want gender equality and queer inclusivity then “we need, instead, a serious consideration of what makes sex lawful in the sight of God” (p. 193).
“Plurality of norms and forms, of orientations and identities, both within communities and across the globe, will likely only increase. Whatever forms of relationship Muslims engage in, the task is to ensure that long-term partnerships, erotic entanglements of shorter duration, and loving relationships both sexual and platonic contribute to, rather than detract from, human flourishing. For that flourishing to be not just worldly but afterworldly as well, those relationships must be acceptable in the sight of God; what I and others propose is that in thinking about God’s guidance for human interactions, we think less about the who and more about the how of ethical relations” (pp. 124-125).
Here, being critical of our tradition is absolutely necessary. After all, Islam is a living tradition. Its continuity relies on Muslims who keep its air breathable and nourishing. Part of what I like about Ali’s critical and nuanced thinking is the acknowledgment of an undefined multiplicity of forms of relationships we will and are already forming. These are lived realities worthy of thinking through within an Islamic framework. She also foregrounds this concept of “human flourishing” which may help us chart a path for determining “the how” of ethical relations. This is very different than making the patriarchal formulation of marriage the basis for determining the morality of our intimate relationships.
Marriage brings our relationships into a heteronormative standard that perpetuates inequalities. This is the case of the ˁaqd al-nikāḥ as well as marriage as it is conceptualized within American law and social norms. But I’m also concerned about the social aspects of marriage that put limits on our queerness as well. Some queer folks imagine that our liberation will only happen when we’ve been able to assimilate into normative society. When we have been accepted as normal as everyone else. But what value does this assimilation have for the rest of us when it often means sidelining our differences? Zaynab Shahar, a co-founder of Masjid al-Rabia (a Chicago mosque dedicated to the spiritual care of marginalized Muslims), speaks about this very problem when she writes that our liberation need not rest on our acceptance into mainstream mosques:
I know there are queer Muslims who believe once we’ve assimilated into mainstream mosques then we’ll have broken through. I also think there’s something to be said for the totality of liberation’s horizon not being assimilation into mainstream mosques, but really disrupting what is mainstream and what is written off as “fringe” or third space.
Why do some of us imagine our liberation to be found in assimilation into normative society? Are we looking for the approval of mainstream communities? To say it quite frankly, I’m tired of the centrality marriage tends to take whenever queer Muslims such as myself talk fiqh (jurisprudence) and theology. As if we need to justify our right to the marriage contract in order to prove that we are good, pious Muslims. And that our goodness and our piety rests on the approval of the mainstream. But the mainstream has already rejected us. To come close to their acceptance means to fit into whatever heteronormative ideal that was never meant for us.
I don’t mean to suggest we evacuate ourselves from mainstream mosques all together. Some of us don’t have that privilege. And if for anyone, we owe it to our past selves to do work there when we are able. I see this engagement most useful in demanding our safety in these mosques. We simply want to be able to pray someplace without worrying about facing homophobia, transphobia, and haram-policing. We want to be loved by our families and our communities. But our liberation does not depend on whether or not we convince Imam So-And-So to gay marry us. Or whether or not we have finally been able to interpret Islamic marriage to include us too. This parallels the struggles of other queer folks for whom gay marriage activism does very little.
To focus our activism on marriage does an injustice to our queerness. It is a form of respectability politics that I no longer want to participate in. Besides Shahar, there are a few queer theorists that come to mind while criticizing our attempts at normalizing our queerness. Judith Butler, José Muñoz, and Michael Warner have all addressed concerns about the centrality marriage has taken in the gay rights movement. In her essay on kinship and gay marriage, Butler writes that the “sexual field has become foreclosed” and “the lost horizon of radical sexual politics” has become unnameable, unthinkable, even ungrievable (Butler, Undoing Gender, p. 130). When marriage does seem to be unsatisfying to our queerness, there is a certain unnameability to what we are missing. If anything, we have lost the more radical strain of the gay rights movement. It also means it excludes queer folks whose sex lives and gendered selves do not fit in. When the image of the white, middle class, de-sexualized gay couple becomes the standard, other queer people, other relationships, other sex lives, and other genders end up being excluded, illegitimate, and read as failures to the cause of gay liberation. Both points about the exclusion of radical sexual politics and the exclusion of other queer people is brought up by Michael Warner in The Trouble with Normal. There’s a paragraph that deserves to be quoted in full:
Those whose sex is least threatening, along with those whose gender profiles seem least queer, are put forward as the good and acceptable face of the movement. These, inevitably, are the ones who are staying home, making dinner for their boyfriends, for whom being gay means reading Newsweek. The others, the queers who have sex in public toilets, who don’t ‘come out’ as happily gay, the sex workers, the lesbians who are too vocal about a taste for dildos or S/M, the boys who flaunt it as pansies or as leathermen, the androgynes, the trannies or transgendered whose gender deviance makes them unassimilable to the menu of sexual orientations, the clones in the so-called gay ghetto, the fist-fuckers and popper-snorters, the ones who actually like pornography–all these flaming creatures are told, in an earnestness that betrays no glimmer of its own grotesque comedy, that their great moment of liberation and acceptance will come late, when we ‘no longer see our lives solely in terms of struggle,’ when we get to be about ‘more than sexuality’–when, say, gay marriage is given the force of law. Free at last! (Warner, p. 66)
Warner’s complaint is also centered on the shame of sexuality. The acceptable image of queerness is a gay man or woman who are well-adjusted to society, who buy homes in the WASPy suburbs–ideally in McMansion Hell–get married, and have families.
Emphasizing that we are “more than our sexuality” is a method of doing respectability politics. Because respectability politics is about assimilating into the mainstream, that assimilation is contingent upon us keeping our sexualities in line. It’s about being well-behaved according to a heteronormative standard of acceptable sex lives. I do not mean to say gay marriage isn’t right or something none of us should ever want; rather, it should not be the defining cause. As Butler and Warner remind us, centering marriage commits several acts of injustice: it perpetuates the shame queer people often experience, it erases the radical sexual politics of queer life, and excludes queer folks who do not fit the image of the middle-class, white, monogamous, de-sexualized gay couple.
Imagining Queer Possibilities
I’ve become increasingly frustrated by activists–both speaking within and without religious discourses–who privilege the place of marriage and monogamy. Frustrated only after I’ve become tired of trying to bring myself into compliance with the ideal. Frustrated only after realizing how my own desires have been foreclosed by the very privileging of monogamous, well-behaved, hetero-inspired relationships based on the myth of finding prince-charming and living happily ever after in suburbia.
Trying to assimilate into “normal” always sets one up for being abnormal, even pathological. This is what lies behind a queer person asking another queer person why they aren’t married yet. “You two have been together for five years! Don’t you love each other? What’s wrong?” Insinuated in this question “what’s wrong?” is that the questioned is abnormal in some disturbing, perhaps even pathological way. It’s asking: What went wrong that makes it so hard for you to comply with heteronormative standards for an intimate relationship? Perhaps one assumption operating here is that there is something immature about someone to have feelings that don’t read into the norm. That is, one should feel ashamed about these feelings, realize the error of one’s ways, and repent.
Or one simply hasn’t grown up yet. This is not far from the homophobic father’s advice to his confused son: “yeah, it’s normal for boys to mess around with each other. It happens sometimes. But one day you’ll grow up and marry a woman.” Where and when straight boys were messing around with each other I do not know. It is a myth–maybe partly based on reality–that keeps the queer in the realm of the childish, as an unimaginable place for a proper adult to inhabit.
I’m worried that marriage as the symbol of commitment means other relationships carry the burden of having to explain themselves. Is marriage the only path for ethical intimate relationships? Is this institution really worth it when it requires us to fit into problematic gendered roles, clean up our sex lives, and make white suburban families? I don’t think so. Gay marriage has come. It has not liberated us. Instead, it can limit the very politics we need to make queer lives livable. We become limited by the very norms we seek acceptance in. To me, questioning the legal, social, and religious norms of marriage no longer looks like “anything goes” but rather a necessary critical location where we seek the humanization of our queerness.
To learn about the radical politics of our trans, queer, gay, and lesbian activist–our ancestors, predecessors, as well as our contemporary siblings–always enacts a kind of mourning for me. A desire for that “fuck you” middle finger to the norms that fail us, that send us into exile, that harm us, that traumatize us, that murder us, that fail to recognize our desirous bodies as worthy enough to be called human. Marriage forecloses the queer possibilities of a more radical political life. Instead of marriage, I want to reclaim that radicalness instead. Queer people have always been creative artists, involved in the imaginative work of making new ways of relating to one another possible. Of imagining new forms of community, notions of family, and romantic and erotic relationships.
There is an anxiety from the mainstream that fears a world where “anything goes.” This is misunderstanding as to what saying “no” to marriage actually means. Without marriage, queer people have and always will be creating new rules and new norms for their relationships and communities. That is, new rituals will always be involved here.
This anxiety over “anything goes” also betrays a fear of multiplicity. It is the fear of losing a standard. But for me, queerness is about challenging these anxieties, especially as they appear within our ownselves. It means forgoing easy answers for better questions. It means opening up to possibilities. Saying marriage is the answer pushes the possibilities aside. It is, for me, to invoke José Muñoz in Cruising Utopia, to live a life without dreaming of a better horizon. “Being ordinary and being married are both antiutopian wishes, desires that automatically rein themselves in, never daring to see or imagine the not-yet-conscious” (p. 21). For Muñoz, queerness is a horizon that we may never reach but it is absolutely necessary for imagining the possibility of our lives in a world that was never meant for us.
Our fantasies give us life. They help us imagine and work towards lives of human flourishing. This is not mere fantasy. Actually, fantasy is not merely fantasy anyway (Butler, Undoing Gender, p. 29). For many of us, imagination is the means of survival in societies that already mark us as unrealities, persons undeserving of a fulfilling, nourishing life. Where the heteronormative everyday can be poisonous, we rely on our queerness to keep breathing. And where the mainstream is mundane and limiting, our queerness offers us endless possibilities of being human.
My religiosity has always been defined by its reliance on a certain kind of orthodoxy. Clear cut rules and demands on my body to perform a certain way. The embodied dissonance that I have experienced as a result has been dehumanizing. But we are ever more than the mathematics used by scholars to determine what is haram (forbidden), what is halal (permissible), what is detestable, what is liked, what is required. As Butler repeats in her own theorizing, we always exceed the norms that define us. This “queer remainder” has always been with us (Madhavi Menon, “Universalism and Partition”, p. 121). And it animates our lives. A remainder that reminds us that, though we may be illegible to the norms that try to bend us into compliance, we have always been legible to God. That our worth is not limited to the exclusionary nature of normative regulations. And in response to the limitations imposed on us, we are critical of our inherited traditions. This is as much a work of love as it is to insist upon the worth of our queerness and our fellow queers. This might mean re-interpreting certain parts of the tradition while opting out of others. Because in our everyday lives, we not only seek to make our lives more livable but more nourishing. To insist our queerness be included in everyday possibilities and workings-out of being in relation to others. And we are not less human nor less committed to our faith traditions for doing so.