What’s Up With Lesbian Marriage: Romanticism, Lesbian Love, and Radical Possibilities

By Tamara Gorin

In Rain and Thunder Summer Solstice 2002

There is a beginning story of a moment that changes a life forever. A girl-child decides she wants something better. Something that radiates happiness not angst. Something that acknowledges other people’s joy. She decides that something is not marriage.

In deciding never to commit forever to a man, she allows for herself a small version of freedom and begins rewriting the script handed to her at birth.

When she gets a little older, she decides she is a lesbian. That’s imagining a different life, even at this late date of 2002. It is still a daring and dangerous decision for most women, and once she makes it, everything changes again.

Except she grew up a girl under patriarchy, and she’s particularly susceptible to romantic notions of love. She calls herself a “serial monogamist” — a woman who commits herself to one woman for long periods of time then starts all over again after some wound licking and then some dating fun. She is not actively looking to nest up and cocoon, but she does it, and changes her behaviour in relation to this lover to increase the chances of a successful marriage-like relationship.

When did the chances of a successful relationship get so much sway over lesbians? Some serious consciousness raising has to be done about how romantic lesbians are. The whole culture is romantic, we’re steeped in it, and lesbians can’t single-handedly take it on. But we are supposed to be on a radical feminist project of getting to the root of women’s oppression, so that we can transform women’s lives. This requires examining how we convince ourselves that two women getting married is okay when most of us understand that heterosexual marriage is not in women’s best interests.

The whole story of romanticism is long and complicated. It has roots in many cultures around the world, usually starting with the nobility reinforcing women’s roles in relation to men. Stories, songs, mythic tales evolved over time to become part of the fabric of everyday life. As the middle and lower classes became more affluent, in the last century in particular, they adopted the codes into their own moral ethics and conduct. On the surface about love and devotion, charity and good deeds, romanticism is in fact a whole worldview, which now touches on most women’s lives. From nursery rhymes to prom night, girls are rehearsed for the inevitability of falling in love with a man, their child and women’s roles intact under patriarchy.

While romanticism in the European and some Asian traditions can be traced to tales of men’s deeds, it is now identified as female and womanly. The imagination is invoked, the home sphere, women waiting and doing things that will aid others and please them. Romantic is intensely personal, which is the sphere of women, charming. The tales of men’s deeds were exaggerations, but now to be romantic is to be not only displaying of affection, but to act in impractical and idealistic ways. This is sexism of course, but it doesn’t stop most women from acting in this way.

Romanticism is a commodity in its own right as well as one of the main tools for selling goods. Whole industries are built upon the foundation of romantic love and its accompanying notions. These are not the resource industries, but the industries of the insatiable leisure-class. Movies, sports, tourism, shopping, cleaning and menstrual products are all built upon and sell themselves on romantic notions.

Romantic ideas change over time, but for those girls born since the end of WW2, the heavy sell remains consistent. Our female bodies are bought and sold and used to buy and sell products. It is implicitly understood that we are empty of mind, body and soul without a man and/or his stand-in: Mr. Clean, a trip to Mazatlan or a “romantic dumbedy” starring Julia Roberts.

Romanticism is completely self-involved and works best by isolating two individuals into a force against the world, while keeping them alienated from themselves and each other. Romanticism prevents us from dealing with real issues of how our oppression impacts our sex, sexuality, friendships, what we spend our money on, where we live in the world, our decisions about raising children. Romanticism makes us afraid and we miss opportunities or hold onto women, pain, past and things for too long. Romanticism makes us behave badly when we’re angry, fight too hard for too little, settle for less than we want, nurse resentments. It is somehow more meaningful that we suffer. Romanticism reinforces men first, way ahead of women, and away from feminist support, alliances, love. Romanticism would have us quit our political work when either the work itself or relations with other women get too hard, slag feminism and feminist process, say the ‘women’s liberation movement is dead.’

When we embrace romanticism, we are effectively turning our backs on other women. Including the women we love, friends and lovers alike. It does not move us any closer to an idea of what liberation may look like to allow ourselves to fall into the exaggerated and unrealistic world of high romance with another woman. Setting high expectations before we know each other, loving the falling more than the loving, playing “setting up house” games, keeping nostalgia of old lovers and the beginning of the relationship a constant emotional thread, talking about sex but never having any are all ways we set ourselves up with romanticism.

Marriage does not work for heterosexual women who love men and commit to men forever. Why? Because we live under patriarchy and most men are in agreement with continuing to do so, even if they consider themselves decent men. And the men who made and who continue to make the laws made them in the interest of men and men’s property rights. Very little has changed about that.

Lesbians fight for same sex-benefits and the right for the mayor or clergy-person to declare legal marriage but don’t understand that legally marrying your lover turns you into chattel. Lesbians turn to the state for validation instead of looking to ourselves and our own versions of what is possible between two women. Lesbians insist on state-sponsored equality for lesbians, when in Canada all women’s Charter rights are only 20 years old and American women don’t yet have an Equal Rights Amendment in the constitution. Lesbians want a pension check from the government or workplace in our dead lover’s names instead of building viable and vibrant economic supports for lesbians and our extended communities. And in our quest to make lesbian love declared legal by men, lesbians wipe out a history and tradition of women’s self-sufficiency, effectively make survival strategies of poorer and marginalized lesbians illegal. Our intention is not to criminalize our sisters, but we are doing so in the name of our personal ‘happiness.’ How exactly is that freedom?

Why do we want the government to know we’re dykes? It makes no sense. The US & Canada won’t sign onto the UN declarations that say anything about lesbians in them. The court cases about lesbian separations are humiliating laughing stocks in the media. Courts are deciding who is the “real mom.” Lesbians are jailed in alarming and increasing numbers, for longer periods of time, for more and more violent crimes. Police arrest more and more lesbians for “battering” their “spouses” while the violent men are allowed to keep hitting and killing their wives and children.

The government is not our friend.

It is not government business who we live with and whether we have sex with them. How we share our money, prepare for old age and who we see to after death is a matter to be decided in community, not by begging for a pittance from the government. We do not require the state to inform us our love and commitment to another woman means something in the world. It does. That’s all we need to know.

Discipline in our emotional lives with our lovers, such as recognizing we will likely not be together forever, helps us to get past all of our training and begin imagining how to love when we are not afraid to be alone. If we want to make long-term commitments to each other, we can make contracts that are binding to us in our communities. We can ask our friends and family to hold us close, expect the best behaviour from each other, ask those we love to help us succeed and if we can’t, help us part well, without acrimony. We are more likely to stay together longer if we help each other through the romantic longings and false vulnerability. We can follow the same model if we decide to take responsibility for raising children with each other.

We have to be on a project of providing a decommodified version of lesbian life. In the absence of a vibrant feminist-led lesbian community, many women have turned to gay community, identifying with men, freed up from the class, gender and race analysis feminists insist upon. It is a big emotional pull. For women who may be completely isolated from friends and family, a “rainbow family” sticker on her car bumper is a psychological reassurance, though a false one. Going dancing and drinking with the guys, watching “Will and Grace” or “Queer as Folk,” going to Pride events, are all ways women can be gay. We are not going to find ourselves though.

The glossy lesbian mags mimic gay culture, reinforce objectification, gossiping, cult of personality, body mutilation, uniformity, patriarchal beauty standards, romanticism. “Lesbian” porn does the same. The university Women’s Studies departments are no friends to feminists, the male establishment reinforces class and race hierarchies to the point that it is almost impossible to identify as a woman anymore, forget about as a radical dyke.

Rushing out to print up 25,000 double Venus or “feminist dyke and proud” bumper stickers with accompanying distribution plans is not the answer. Nor is denying that some of the achievements of the past 30 years are worth keeping. But without active and in your face feminism and feminist women presenting themselves as viable options for women to choose, women will continue to choose the comfort of commodified community over the comfort of fighting for their liberation.

It is hard work, in our heads, in our hearts, to keep trying to reimagine the future without patriarchy. Feminist dykes provided some of the best leadership and continue to do so. But we failed at providing women with safe haven from the backlash, we did not catch it when our leadership was not followed, until too late. We don’t re-examine the intersection of our theory and practice and change our tone or our approach. We stopped trying to convince women that the project was worthwhile. We don’t relent to give women room to breathe and then continue on. We went private and alone when we got afraid ourselves.

Examining these self-criticisms may give us some ideas about how to proceed. We’re romantic too, not immune from our oppression, and we sometimes choose against our principles and ideals. We live with our contradictions whatever way we can, and hope for better for other women and ourselves. Our enemies use our contradictions and cultural codes to undermine us, and undermine our movement as well. Choosing to continue on despite the attacks is our best weapon, learning from our mistakes and cherishing our accomplishments.

When we take the romantic out of love, and the rest of the way we live our lives, we start to trust ourselves, because our own desire takes precedence–how to spend a Sunday afternoon, imagine women’s freedom, as well as who seems like an interesting sexual partner. We honor the decision we made a long time ago to hope for something better. The best of feminism tells us we have to live that hope, in whatever way we can.

Tamara Gorin: born on the centennial of Emma Goldman’s birthday, radical dyke, reluctant parent but now proud mother of a rockin’ almost teenage boychild, story-teller, ass-kicker, chooses anti-violence against women work in a radical feminist collective to fight patriarchy, white working class. Published in Kinesis, Canadian Women’s Studies Journal and various small presses.