restricted access Extinction Anxieties: Same-Sex Marriage and Modes of Citizenship
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Extinction Anxieties:
Same-Sex Marriage and Modes of Citizenship

Apocalyptic scenarios dominate the rhetoric of those opposed to same-sex marriage. Straight opponents see the end of marriage, the nation and democracy on the horizon. George W. Bush wants to ban same-sex marriage because “the preservation of marriage rises to the level of national concern.” This is because “marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society.” National well-being depends on the vitality of “the most fundamental institution of civilization.” Finally, same-sex marriage must be resisted because it undermines democracy: “arbitrary court decisions” and renegade local officials are trumping “an overwhelming consensus in our country.”1 However, queer critics of marriage, too, are concerned about the effects of marriage — albeit on queer community and citizenship. For example, Judith Butler expresses her and others’ unease, namely that “their sense of an alternative movement is dying. Sexual politics was supposed to be about finding alternatives to marriage.”2 Same-sex marriage thus seems to spell the end of lesbian and gay community or politics. Their opposition to same-sex marriage puts queer marriage critics, as Michael Warner acknowledges, in the strange company of “homophobic dinosaurs.”3

Why this doomsday rhetoric, which outpaces and exceeds the likely consequences of same-sex marriage? Because same-sex marriage calls into question the perpetuation of community in the face of mortality. In one case, reproduction of community quite literally is understood as sexual reproduction of community; homosexuality in this instance is presented as lethal because it is non-reproductive. Queer opposition to marriage, on the other hand, presents marriage as a lethal force to a community that does not raise its succeeding generations. In this case, the fear is that an instrument of heteronormativity overwhelms precarious queer processes of socialization and regeneration. In short, both arguments are concerned with the perpetuation of community in light of the absence of gay sexual reproduction.4

Why are these anxieties about the preservation of existing modes of citizenship across time anxieties about mortality? Because citizenship — world-making of any kind — is always also about coping with human finitude, as Zygmunt Bauman points out:

Such a life — life forgetful of death, life lived as meaningful and worth living, life alive with purposes instead of being crushed and incapacitated by purposelessness — is a formidable human achievement. The totality of social organization, the whole of human culture (not certain functionally specialized institutions, nor certain functionally specialized cultural precepts) co-operate to make this achievement possible.5

Bauman emphasizes that concern with death and efforts to give meaning to life by transcending death are not to be understood as religious matters, i.e. as falling within the provenance of certain ethical dispositions or cultural institutions. Many aspects of culture, which apparently bear no relation to existential consolation, are very much concerned with it. Indeed, they become highly effective inasmuch the aspiration to transcend death remains unarticulated.6

Anything that appears to challenge the perpetuation of community evokes the fear of death. This is why both straight and gay opponents react so intensely to same-sex marriage — they fear the extinction of the form of community that provides them with existential consolation. For straight opponents, George Weinberg’s explanation is salient: “The notion that there are homosexuals distresses some people because the thought of persons without children reawakens their fear of death. Today in the larger population, vicarious immortality through having children and grandchildren assuages the spirit of millions and blunts the edge of mortality for them. Our great glorification of reproduction, with all the customs and modes that advance it, serves in part as a ceremony to circumvent death as if by magic.”7 My argument elaborates how Weinberg’s point applies to the debate on same-sex marriage, and expands it to include queer critiques of marriage. In the latter case, queer cultural practices and politics — chiefly, finding alternatives to marriage — function as the “children” who provide existential consolation, that is, allow for the conclusion: “He died, but his work lives on.”8

My argument, though based on a comparison, does not attribute equal ethical weight to...