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A Defense of Marriage Act: Notes on the Social Performance of Queer Ambivalence


Tradition! Tradition! Tradition!

—“Tradition, Fiddler on the Roof (1964)

On television, people marvel at the change. Marriage, that privileged heterosexual union, that millennia-long social institution said to be sanctified by the Christian God and his analogues, now seems to be going the way of other revered cultural traditions like slavery and human sacrifice; its terms are no longer so clearly defined. In the spring of 2013, eleven full-fledged nation-states permit “same-sex marriage”; predictably, most are in Europe, though Argentina, South Africa, and Canada are on the list. In some countries, gay marriage is working its way through the system, and in some countries, the map is fractured, with some jurisdictions recognizing the legal coupling of two men or two women, and others not. Such is the case in my country, the United States of America, a prominent nation-state with a lot of attitude. Here, the highest judicial instrument, the Supreme Court, reviewed in the week prior to this writing two cases that test the legal definition of marriage. As it’s a court that in its current composition precariously balances an extreme right wing against a moderate social democratic wing, it’s somewhat surprising to many, and disturbingly telling to others, that these cases appear to be heading toward an expansion of gay civil rights.

As many readers will know, one of the cases under consideration challenges a law passed by the US Congress in 1996 and signed by then-president Clinton, ominously titled “The Defense of Marriage Act,” which anticipated this current moment by preemptively protecting the federal government from invasive gay marriages granted by states, which are the conventional custodians of marriage rights. The other case, the “Prop 8” case, covers a complex turn of events in California where this writer was among the 36,000 people (more frequently referred to as 18,000 couples) gay-married in 2008 inside of a narrow legal window between a court’s spring decision and an autumnal voter referendum. My semi-legal spouse and I were in Washington, DC on the day this case was argued and we visited the steps of the court, where activists, media, and onlookers gathered.

Most of those assembled were supporters, though detractors were there as well, from the normative mom + dad types, to the extremely paranoid and inflammatory, dressed as Jesus Christ, holding big books, bearing gigantic signs conflating sodomy, AIDS, a degraded Uncle Sam, and men kissing—a mélange of gay-hating and straight-marriage defending. Two nice women who work at the Library of Congress approached us on their lunch break, and though they were aware of the general contours of the discussion, they asked us to explain the ins and outs of the cases, which are both rather baroque.

Read the full article here.