Against Marriage

By Sharon Rose

From Bisexual Horizons: Politics Histories Lives edited by Sharon Rose, Cris Stevens et al. (London, Lawrence & Wishart), 1996, pp. 119-121

For three years after joining the Women’s Liberation Movement and calling myself a radical feminist, I lackadaisically thought that I would probably get married one day, if only to keep my parents happy…if only there were a suitable candidate, which there never was. Then gradually I began to realise that I couldn’t be against patriarchy, against the state, and against religion, and still be prepared to go through a ritual which represents the summit of patriarchal, religious and state interference in people’s lives.

I was brought up in a religious Jewish family where even the most commonplace actions — eating an apple, buying new shoes — are accompanied by religious ritual. I was confused about my sexuality as soon as I was aware of it. Perhaps as a result I developed, at an early age, a burning resentment of any demand for unquestioning obedience. And make no mistake, society’s demand that we should all be married is very heavy indeed. When my partner and I had our child ‘out of wedlock’, as it is so appropriately called, my 85-year-old uncle did not speak to my father (his 75-year-old brother) for a year, because, not only was he unable to ‘exert his influence on us’ to marry, he was also unwilling to do so.

I fail to understand how supporters of marriage can argue that marriage is no big deal, and does not make a difference anyway, when all I hear from them is the many benefits of marriage. Sorry folks, you can’t have it both ways. I know people who have got married to please their families (lots), to secure family inheritance (which is what it was all about in the first place), to keep a partner in the country (understandable, but in this case try and marry someone with whom you are not involved), or to prop up a fading relationship. (How many couples do you know who have been co-habiting happily for years, who suddenly announce they are getting married ‘to affirm our commitment to each other’, only to split up not long after? I know several — and they never send the presents back.) All of these reasons, and many others, illustrate the fact that marriage is a very significant institution in our society for keeping individuals in their place. If it were not, why would the state prosecute bigamists? It doesn’t prosecute the married man (they always seem to be men) who maintains a mistress, sometimes with children, in another abode, even though the situations are structurally identical.

Of course there are good human reasons for wishing to make a public statement of your love for another person, and though I have been thoroughly inoculated against ritual myself, it obviously plays an important role in many people’s lives. But in that case, why do almost all the pagans, humanists and secularists who organise their own ceremonies, also find it necessary to nip down to the registry office for a quick (average 8 minutes) rubber stamp from the state?

I don’t believe the answer lies in a desire to get entangled in a bureaucracy from which it takes a minimum of two years to get disentangled. Rather, I think that what motivates people to get married is their desire, however subconscious, to equip themselves with possibly the most important accessory of the modern marriage ceremony — a certificate of straightness. Getting married is a very public statement of your heterosexuality, and indeed of your intention to remain faithful to this one particular individual. Looking at the issue from this perspective was what finally allowed me to make the connection between my opposition to marriage and my bisexuality. For years I had been arguing the anti-patriarchal, anti-religious, basic radical feminist line against marriage, arguing also that it was a betrayal of my lesbian and gay comrades who had no such option of having the state acknowledging their unions, as they could never present themselves as heterosexual. (I understand why some lesbians and gay men sincerely believe that state recognition of their relationships would be a benefit, but I disagree politically and strategically with this position. Civil and legal rights should be available to everybody as autonomous individuals and members of society. And it is surely not wise, anyway, to seek legal status for oneself by reference to one’s relationship with somebody else. In seeking recognition for lesbian and gay relationships from religion and state, people are seeking dignity; but you cannot demand of others to grant you dignity, you must claim it for yourself from within your own heart and mind.)

Having argued the intellectual position for so long, I eventually realised that, in my heart, I could never make myself get married. The very thought of it made me feel ill, because, even though I currently live with a man, and look forward to doing so for many years, I do not, and never have, felt myself to be heterosexual. My first loyalty is to women, and the biggest betrayal of all would be to myself, if I were to publicly deny my deepest identity in favour of tying myself officially to a man, any man, even one so lovable and kind as my partner. We will stay together as long as it makes sense for us, not because of any artificially applied external circumstance. I appreciate the irony that to many people my lifestyle looks rather conventional (though this was certainly not of my choosing, but the result of 15 years of Thatcherism). All I can say is that I feel as if I am passing, anyway, which is not a situation I feel at all comfortable with. It would be so much worse if I were openly denying the most fundamental part of who I am.