November 2005

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

The Commitment

Somewhere out there is a gay marriage book just for you. It's nice to know: whether you think gay marriage is inevitable, immoral, revolutionary or impossible, someone has written a book that takes on the issue from that very particular perspective. The last year especially has seen an explosion of them, ranging from queer wedding planning manuals to legal guides, screeds and theoretical analyses. But like so many political books, their influence is unclear. As much as I'd like to think that people reading a book like E.J. Graff's excellent What is Marriage For? are actually looking for an answer to the title question, it's more likely that the book's rainbow-striped cover appeals to readers who are certain of what marriage should be, and are eager to see what evidence Graff offers to confirm their own truths. Dan Savage admits as much in his new book The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage and My Family, when he confesses that his job as an advice columnist often consists of supporting whatever conclusion the questioner has already come to.

Savage's life and work are caught up in both the traditional and less than conventional realms, and his awareness of this tension is part of what makes The Commitment such as honest book. Since 1991, Savage has made his living and his name writing "Savage Love," a weekly sex-advice column which appears in over 60 newspapers around the country. As a gay man who dispenses advice to both gays and straights, Savage has some scathing insights into heterosexual behavior. More than that, he has what is surely the surreal experience of counseling strangers about their sexual hang-ups while his own sexuality is under attack. Because he makes his living affirming other people's private appetites, Savage's perspective on the gay marriage debate - in which he has a very personal stake - is laced with a unique kind of frustration.

Savage and his boyfriend Terry have been together for ten years, and their son DJ, who they adopted at birth, is seven years old. "With the exception of all the homosexual sodomy," Savage writes, "most of what goes down under our roof is a social conservative's wet dream." So, what next? In theory, it might be nice to get married, but the difficulty and seeming pointlessness of doing so as a gay couple living in the United States makes them hesitate. As Dan and Terry wrestle with their complicated feelings about getting married, DJ, Dan's mother and various other family members are more than happy to offer up their own opinions on the subject. DJ, growing up in a culture that is in large part openly hostile to his parents' relationship, has his own ideas about what love and gender and sex are all about. It's obvious to him that boys don't marry other boys. Dan's Catholic mom is adamant that they be responsible adults and get married, while Terry is reluctant, not wanting to act like a straight person. In the face of such vocal opining from family and society, as well as their own rather profound and obsessive ambivalence, Dan and Terry struggle to figure out the ever-elusive Right Thing To Do. Every time they come close to a decision, they're reminded that in some ways it doesn't really matter whether they want to get married or not. Their choice won't be legally recognized in the place they call home.

Throughout the book, as in his column, Savage refuses to check his desires and more controversial ideas in an attempt to be taken seriously. He doesn't bother to avoid complexity, arguing for his and Terry's rights as parents, partners and people without downplaying the fact that they are gay (and – gasp! – have gay sex). Savage is smart, and reliably depraved. Even as he contemplates the deep meaning of lifelong partnership, he doesn't stop ogling Terry's ass or cursing Ann Coulter. But he's also a dedicated father. By demanding marriage, he insists, what gay people want is if anything more traditional than many heterosexual arrangements: "The problem for opponents of gay marriage isn't that gay people are trying to redefine marriage in some new, scary way, but that straight people have redefined marriage to a point that it no longer makes any logical sense to exclude same-sex couples."

Eventually, after many arguments and grouchy concessions, Terry and Dan drive up to Vancouver. The official marriage ceremony takes place following and including an appropriately chaotic sequence of events. When Dan cries, Terry laughs at him, and they exchange silver skull rings picked out at the last minute by DJ, already a death metal fan. If it wasn't obvious before, Dan and Terry’s legal commitment makes clear that marriage is valued largely because of what it symbolizes. It’s this deep, time-honored and totally fucked up symbolism that makes marriage both trivial and sincerely meaningful to those who choose to take part in it.