Queering the Marriage Plot

My little sister got married on Labor Day weekend.

When I teach introductory composition, one of the first things we talk about is how to write a successful lead, and my favorite strategy is to shock your reader (personal favorite first line? “Ah, menarche.”). To be clear, that’s what I’m trying to do with this opening line.

My little sister got married on Labor Day weekend. My sister, who once considered opening an S&M-themed Bed and Breakfast (gourmet kitchen upstairs, dungeon in the basement). Who turned down a spot on a reality TV show because it meant she would likely have to tone down her personal life. Who shut down my Republican parents’ endless questions about what she wanted to do with her life with the following plan: “I’d like to open a bondage and leather boutique. But you know, a nice place.” (For the record, this was in 1999–if only she’d gone for it!). So it’s safe to say that I’d just assumed that the dyadic, heteronormative vibe of marriage wouldn’t be part of her plan. She’s been in a committed relationship for almost exactly as long as my Lady and I have been, but she and her partner haven’t matched our progress toward suburban homeownership and baby-making, opting instead to host fabulous dinners and sprawling parties that have apparently become a Queer Minneapolis institution. My partner and I are lesbians, but my sister is seriously queer.

Part of what comes with this is a deep devotion to clear and honest communication. Since she spends so much time negotiating issues of consent, she’s extremely committed to expressing that consent (or lack thereof) as clearly as possible and making sure that she has yours. Negotiations over where to go for dinner often include a lot of “thanks for being so clear about what you want” and “So-and-so is vegan, while Otherperson is locavore, so we should be sure to consider their needs when we’re making this decision.” Etc. It’s a little exhausting to pay so much attention during every conversation, but it’s also kind of exhilarating, like emotional Crossfit.

So I didn’t know quite what to expect as we prepared for the weekend. Attendance from our side of the family was pretty thin–one group of cousins had a long long way to travel, and the others were stymied by their born-again status. She’d booked a family camp for the weekend–it reminded me of the place they stay in Dirty Dancing, complete with canoes and and old-fashioned pinball machine and a big lodge where everyone could eat together (if only we had a Borscht Belt comic to entertain us!). But once the guests started arriving, the vibe shifted pretty quickly to something between artists’ retreat, radical circus, and therapeutic retreat. Guests fell into one of several camps: fancy politician-types (my parents and my brother’s family), small-town het families (my sister’s new in-laws, who arrived in thickly accented droves), softball dykes, and super-tattooed-and-pierced Serious Queers. What almost everyone had in common (at least among the non-familial guests) was the emotional intensity that goes along with having experienced Great Suffering.

Which makes sense, since my sister knows from suffering. Middle school and high school are hard for everyone, but not like they were hard for her. Every school has a kid who’s the ultimate in abjection, about whom rumors swirl that get more and more unrealistic. I didn’t hear any of the rumors about her, but I can only imagine that they ranged from lesbianism (natch) to devil worship. I hope that the kind of bullying she experienced might be less common these days, but without an internet to find other freaks, my sister was profoundly isolated though her early teen years. Even her teachers seemed to be on board, allowing her to opt out of math class her junior year based on what I can only think was the assumption that she wasn’t college-bound. Suburban Minneapolis in the early nineties wasn’t kind to curvy girls who were obsessed with dragons. While her classmates were busy trying to out-Brenda-Walsh each other, she was hiding in the bathroom carving up her arms.

So contrast that girl with the version of my sister that emerged during the ceremony. When I got married, I was terrified. Not of being married–I was excited to link my life story with my Lady’s, and we’d already been living together for years–but of the scrutiny of the crowd, which felt unbearable. My sister, on the other hand, was positively schticky. From the moment she made it to the front of the crowd, she kept cutting up–winking at people, interrupting her own vows for a brief sidebar with the audience (because that’s what we were). Another couple, with whom she and her Broom (for bride/groom) have set up a kind of queer familial collective, performed the ceremony, and it was just the four of them on stage the whole time, reveling in the outpouring of love and positive attention.

It was incredible.

One of the big arguments against gay marriage is that it’s just part of an attempt to cover over the shame that comes with unrequited love and familial rejection, to say, “no, no, I was just like you all along! My sexual acts might be different, but my love for my family is just the same!” This is both true and untrue, I think–I mean, I don’t really know what the ins and outs (as it were) of a heterosexual relationship are like since I haven’t been in one since high school, but I know from my shared experience of parenting that the dynamics of my family are not all that different from those of my straight friends. Except that I’m not constantly second-guessing my own motives vis-a-vis patriarchy the way I have the few times I’ve attempted to date guys. A friend of mine described her lesbian marriage as being like “a slumber party every night,” and that’s pretty close to how I feel about it. Maybe this is how straight couples feel too, I don’t know. But the surface of my marriage is mainstream enough that it’s easy to project common experiences onto it. The further you get from the mainstream, the less true this is. My sister’s relationship, for instance, doesn’t have these square outlines that can be easily traced onto conventional marriage, what with her insistence on publicly prioritizing her sex life and maintaining such fluid boundaries around the definition of both family and coupledom. Married or not, they’ll never be mistaken for middle-of-the-road.

And the weekend reflected this. They made little booklets describing all the events (complete with mission statement), and my favorite part of this document was the description of the reception: “Family-friendly until 10:30.” This moment was a metonym for the whole weekend–they refused to hide who they were (pretty much immediately at 10:30, the party featured a lot more skin, burlesque, and lapdances), but they put the responsibility of facing difference squarely on the shoulders of the people who might be made uncomfortable by that difference. And the best part of it all (besides seeing about 30 super-hot butches serenading my little sister) was how surprised I was by the results. My parents and my older brother made a beeline for the door pretty much immediately (no surprise there), but my new in-laws, all of whom hail from the same tiny Minnesotan town, stayed for the duration. One brother-in-law had taken on the responsibility of videographer, and my favorite moment was when he checked in with the Broom to see if she wanted him to “edit out the raunchy stuff” for future generations. She laughed and said no, that people could fast-forward if they were uncomfortable. So he kept recording, and was this towering, affable, corn-fed presence the whole night, right in the middle of the action.

The seduction of assimilation, for me, is always in the interest of relationships. I don’t want to lose relationships, so I’ll “tone down” elements of my personality that I fear will alienate the people I love (usually, but not always, my family). But the further you get from the norm, the greater sacrifice is required by this toning-down process. The most heartbreaking effect of the experience of bullying and alienation (whether it’s abuse at home or the kind of systemic violence that characterized my sister’s experience of middle school) is how we can become convinced that if we were only a little thinner, a little funnier, a little quieter, a little better, then we would be out of danger. The wedding exposed the lie of that belief for me, more fully than it ever has been before. Instead of shifting her behavior so the weekend would be more recognizable as a “wedding,” she just changed the rules and lovingly assured people they we’re welcome to leave at any time. The whole thing left me with the hope that there’s a viable middle ground between the self-abandonment of assimilation and the interpersonal cost of going fully “off the grid” of mainstream culture. That, given a loving community and a commitment to radical honesty, it is possible to change an institution to make it truly your own.