Weird or Wonderful?
This past week I met with Vancouver’s queer seniors writing collective Quirk-e to talk about a draft of an article I recently completed with the title: “Freak Wedding! Marriage as Postwar Lesbian Pleasure Practice.” The article was inspired by the headline of a 1957 tabloid story about a butch and fem lesbian wedding in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
The question I ask in the article is simple enough: how can we make sense of butch and fem lesbians’ highly conventional marriage practices when everything else about them was highly unconventional? There are extraordinary parallels between working-class butch and fem lesbian bar culture and the culture of early twentieth century circus freaks, so I use the critical studies understanding of late 19th and early 20th century circus “freaks” to deepen our understanding of butch and fem culture in the 1950s and 1960s.
Margot Dunn, a Quirk-e collective member, made a brilliant comment during our discussion. “There is nothing freakier than a wedding ceremony,” she said. People dress completely out of the ordinary, they say things that are out of the ordinary, and the day is spent in a very unordinary way.
Everyone agreed, myself included. Margot could see something so obviously freaky, but made so ordinary by its status in our culture as “normal,” that no one else could see.
The wonderful thing about the word “freaky” is that it can mean different things. Something can be freakishly weird or freakishly wonderful. The challenge in writing Outlaws to In-Laws is to make the story of same-sex marriage in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s as interesting to people who see marriage (gay, straight, or otherwise) as freakishly weird as we might expect it to be for those who see it as wonderful.
I am one of many who see same-sex marriage as weird and wonderful. Since the late 1800s marriage in Western culture has increasingly come to be a public celebration of love, intimacy, and commitment between two people. In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, mainstream American society insisted lesbians and gays were incapable of authentic love, intimacy, or commitment. That same-sex couples married each other anyhow makes these weddings freakishly wonderful. On the other hand, as a cultural institution marriage typically reinforces gender stereotypes. When Daisy de Jesus performed wedding ceremonies in New York’s Broadway Central bar in the late ’60s, she asked: “Do you take so-and-so to be your butch, to love and protect you? Do you take so-and-so to be your fem, to love you and to be faithful?” Daisy would come to reject this kind of gender differentiation as she became more and more involved in the women’s liberation movement in the early 1970s.
What guides my exploration of this topic is the largely forgotten gay liberationist argument that love outside the bounds of society’s prescriptive norms is a radical action. To truly embrace other human beings as having a value, a dignity, and a humanity equal to you and everyone else, they claimed, is the most direct path to uprooting of social and political inequality.
People do not always marry for love, and it is certainly not the only way to express love, but the couples I am writing about loved radically. At the time, most Americans thought such love to be so freakishly weird it was perverted; in this context how can it be anything other than freakishly wonderful?
What do you think?