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From This Day Forward
Marriage in Gay and Lesbian Fiction
By CHRISTOPHER BRAM
Published: June 22, 2012
“When gay people everywhere can marry, will that mean the end of gay literature?” I was regularly asked this question last spring while on tour for my most recent book, an account of how novels and plays in the years after World War II shook up sexual attitudes. This was months before President Obama announced his support for gay marriage; the subject was already very much out there.
But the question confused me. Why would a valuable piece of social progress close a literary door? Nobody thought women would no longer be a good subject for fiction once they got the vote. Nobody argues that African-American literature ended when Obama was elected. I soon developed a handy response: “Oh, no — gay marriage is going to give us a whole new subject to write about.” But since then I’ve been thinking it over more closely, wondering just how same-sex marriage might affect literature, about what could change and what may have been there all along.
Marriage, of course, was the great subject for fiction in the 19th century. From Jane Austen to Anthony Trollope, novelists constantly wrote about the business of marriage. And it really was a business, full of tactics and strategies. Later, for authors like Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy and Edith Wharton, the great subject became adultery. And more recently, since the 1960s, the exciting topic has been divorce, especially in the United States. Where would Saul Bellow, John Updike and Philip Roth be without the bitter drama of a poisonous breakup?
In the matter of beginnings, middles and ends, novels are generally very good at beginnings (falling in love, getting married) and wonderful at endings (suicide, murder and divorce) but not so good at middles. Of course, marriage is all about that long continuity, the middle. There are world-class novels featuring bad marriages — “The Man Who Loved Children,” by Christina Stead, has a doozy — but not many about good marriages. The few that appear do so primarily as subplots, like Levin and Kitty’s in “Anna Karenina.” Marital happiness is difficult to make dramatically interesting.
Where do gay people fit in all this? Until 20 or so years ago, the chief subject for gay and lesbian fiction was doomed love. And why not? It’s a great subject for straight fiction, too. Not only does Anna Karenina herself end badly, but so do the lovers in “Ethan Frome,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Lolita” and “The English Patient,” to name just a few less than fortunate pairings. But in the late 1980s, writers began to explore plausible happy endings for their gay characters. This usually meant marriage, but what exactly was marriage for gay people? The writers looked at their own lives and the lives of their friends. Since we couldn’t legally marry, most of us invented our own couplings with their own rules, often more flexible and unconventional than traditional marriage. This ad hoc reality showed up in the fiction of Robert Ferro, David Leavitt, Stephen McCauley, Sarah Schulman and others. In a 1989 interview, Leavitt described “a new interest, particularly among writers, in the domestic gay experience.”
Of course, that domestic life had its differences. Gay men frequently had open marriages in which each partner was free to see other men, so long as it was just for sex. It’s not always as painless as it might seem. There’s a fine example of this in “Michael Tolliver Lives,” by Armistead Maupin, part of his “Tales of the City” series. Michael Tolliver, now 55, has not only survived the AIDS epidemic but has a new partner, a much younger man, Ben. Recognizing they have different sexual needs, Michael stays home once a week while Ben goes to the baths. They seem quite worldly and practical about it. But in an inspired twist, Michael can’t help fretting about Ben, imagining what his lover is and isn’t doing while he tries to distract himself with chores around the house. “It’s a tricky little dance sometimes,” Michael grumbles to himself before he cleans out the gutters, “but it’s preferable to the perils of endless monogamy or constant whoring.”
There may be women couples in open marriages, but it’s less common. The lesbian specialty in fictional married life is to remain best friends with exes. “The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For,” by Alison Bechdel, explores this territory nicely. A grand novel in comic-strip form, the book follows Mo and her friends as they find lovers, break up, recombine (one even marries a man) and raise children over more than two decades. Their marriage bonds are surprisingly flexible; what remains constant is the extended family of friends.
Children are less inevitable in same-sex families, but they do happen, whether from previous marriages, adoption or assisted reproduction. But even couples who don’t have children often find equivalents. In James Merrill’s book-length poem, “The Changing Light at Sandover,” Merrill and his partner, David Jackson, communicate with spirits through a Ouija board. In the first and best section, “The Book of Ephraim,” they discuss this with their psychiatrist, who rather than chastise them for creating a fantasy suggests their conversations with the dead are a kind of “folie à deux,” the gay couple’s substitute for children. (Unfortunately the spirits take over the book, just as children can sometimes take over a family.)
The novelist Carol Anshaw writes frequently about long-term same-sex couples, always finding a new slant. In “Seven Moves,” a woman disappears and her lover searches for her. In “Lucky in the Corner,” a straight daughter bonds with her lesbian mother over their disparate lives. But Anshaw’s most interesting take on gay marriage might be in her brilliant first novel, “Aquamarine,” which begins with a teenage swimmer, Jesse, competing in the Olympics in 1968. The night before the big race, she goes to bed with one of the other swimmers. Anshaw then imagines three different futures for Jesse 22 years later. In the first, she is unhappily married in Missouri. In the second, she is a college professor in New York living with a lover, an actress named Kit. In the third, she’s a happily divorced woman with her own teenage daughter in Florida. What remains the same from future to future is often as startling as what’s different. Lesbian Jesse is slightly happier than the other two Jesses, but not as radically as one might expect. And her “marriage” to Kit is important, but it doesn’t answer all her self-doubts, fears and concerns.
So marriage is already an important part of gay and lesbian fiction. Yet it is a provisional, homemade kind of marriage. Legal marriage will surely bring wedding planners and lawyers into the equation, but I don’t think it will change our stories as much as one might expect. Maybe we will finally see a couple of good, powerful, ugly gay divorce novels.
When people ask if gay marriage means the end of gay fiction, what they really want to know is whether gay people will now see themselves more easily in straight books and not need their own books anymore. But we’ve always been able to read straight books and see ourselves reflected there, even if from a slightly skewed angle. We are more like straight people than we are different, and we’ve known this all along. Yet we still want our own stories too.
Christopher Bram is the author of nine novels, including “Father of Frankenstein,” which was the basis of the movie “Gods and Monsters.” His most recent book is “Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America.”
A version of this article appeared in print on June 24, 2012, on page BR31 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: From This Day Forward.