- Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays
No activist movement arises from a rational, naturally occurring consensus; instead, movements mask contradictory emotions within the social groups they represent, channeling some political feelings while restraining others, as organizers determine what is politically possible and desirable for their constituents. Sometimes, usually in private and counter-public spaces, feelings with no place in a movement's narrative are spontaneously given voice, and the mechanics of compromise and participation become visible. Last June, Standing on Ceremony, a one-night-only theatrical event and fundraiser in support of same-sex marriage, provided a cross-section of the varied, often conflicting attitudes toward gay marriage among contemporary American queers. What emerged was an instructive picture of ambivalence and compromise.
The centerpiece of the evening was a series of staged readings of thirteen short plays, each commissioned for the event. Performed in a former synagogue, the performers (including Matthew Broderick, B. D. Wong, Lola Pashalinksi, and Debra Monk) stood, somewhat ironically, where a couple might stand at their wedding. While fundamentally committed to marriage equality, several plays included a critical perspective on its consequences for queer life, particularly the preservation of what Michael Warner has called a "queer ethos," marked by alternative sexual and political practices. Indeed, two of the first plays presented gay couples squirming toward social transformation. "When gay men move in together, they stop having sex," protested the male couple in Constance Congdon's Something Blue; "maybe it's fear … that we'll lose something." Similarly, in Holly Hughes, Megan Carney, and Moe Angelos's Let Them Eat Cake, a militant, unnamed Femme cried to her Butch: "Everything I've done in my life has been against this moment."
Nonetheless, both plays participated in the narrative of inevitability made popular by gay marriage proponents. The couple in Something Blue put on wedding tuxedos. The Butch and the Femme, who played their scene in the aisle, sat and participated as spectators in the rest of the evening. These complementary plot structures illustrated how ambivalence is "resolved" by the push for marriage equality. What was left behind—in the back room of a function hall, in the aisle of a theatre—was pride in the legacy of sexual liberation.
Discussions of sex were notably absent in the more celebratory plays. The soon-to-be-married grooms in Jordan Harrison's The Revision adjusted their vows to reflect the reality of disenfranchised married couples: "Do you promise, in the eyes of God and the ever-shifting whims of state and federal constitutional law …" Their sense of injustice was politically fermentable, framing the movement as a struggle to render the wedding vow efficacious. Kira Obolensky's Brave New Words, in which a wordsmith tried to convince her colleagues to make their dictionary's definition of marriage gender-neutral, bracketed the issue of romantic and sexual politics altogether. When she argued that, "polyamory got in" to an earlier edition, the wordsmith was rebuffed: "That's love, though. Not marriage."
Behind this discourse stood a tangible need for personal affirmation. Both in Obolensky's play and Marcus Gardley's One Last March to Rome, in which [End Page 120] a pair of black civil rights veterans argue over the marriage movement's controversial lineage with their struggle, love between a same-sex couple was affirmed by the endorsement of gay marriage. These moments, represented in quiet and barely acknowledged asides, may be read either as the "real" argument for same-sex marriage or as the inscription of sex as an act affirmed within marriage's confines—indeed, these two readings may not be incompatible.
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Complementing these more personal expressions of the issue...