Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 8, Feb. 17, 2005


Why Marriage?
The History Shaping Today's Debate Over Gay Equality

George Chauncey
Basic Books, Perseus Books Group, New York, 2004
189 Pages, $ 22.00

Click on cover to buy from Amazon for $14.96

Reviewed by David S. Hall

This book, by a University of Chicago Professor of American History, is a must read for anyone even a little bit interested in the current public furor over gay/lesbian equality and marriage. George Chauncey is also the author of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, which has won a number of literary prizes. He is also one of the authors of the Historians' Amicus Brief to the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark decision in 2003 overturning sodomy laws and restoring privacy in adult sexual behavior. This brief book is an outgrowth of that work and his research for the Gay New York book.

Are you aware that during the McCarthy era the government dismissed more homosexuals than communists from government jobs? Are you aware that 50 years ago there was a legal ban on plays with lesbian or gay characters? No Will and Grace! Did you know that Hollywood films were prohibited from even inferring the existance of homosexuality? Did you know that if you were suspected of being homosexual you could, in some states, be confined to a mental institution for an indefinite period?

And did you know that most of this history of the mid-1900s has been erased from the historical record, as part of the systematic work of anti-gay politics? Even today, young historians, and other academics, are often warned that research into gay issues will deny them tenure and destroy their careers. We cannot even show a cartoon that speaks briefly about lesbian mothers without the President's cabinet officers threatening loss of funding to PBS. How did the US get this way? Was it always like this before gay pride came marching out of the closet?

The answer is no, it was not always like the 1950s or like today. In fact, from the earliest days of this country to the late nineteenth century it was conduct that was criminalized, behavior that almost any person could do, at least any male person. These laws were rarely enforced. However, early in the 20th century, states began to discriminate against certain people based on their sexual identy as homosexuals. Why did this occur, and why are we now seeing a remarkable increase in acceptance of gay people in our society, in spite of the anti-gay Far Right?

This fine little book details the rise and now the slow dismantling of homosexual discrimination from the early 1900s to today. We are shown how the arguments against Civil Rights for Blacks were often about interracial marriage. Marriage is changing, and in the direction of more equality for women, as is much else in society. The anti-gays are afraid that their picture of gender roles will be lost, that men will no longer have "natural" authority over women, that it will no longer be "man and wife". In a similiar way that White men were afraid "their" women would marry Black men (which of course would destroy the family), we now see the argument that granting equal marriage rights to gays and lesbians would "destroy the family". But they are talking about their kind of family, where gender roles are well established, not a family where men and women have equality. Of course, I am oversimplifying the argument, which Chauncey states so well, but I hope you get the point.

In the final chapter, The Present as History, the arguments over civil rights in the 50s and 60s are compared to the present arguments against gay rights. Some of the same preachers (Falwell in particular) are using the same arguments, about what God intended, to fight this new battle. Clearly their God didn't want white girls to have sex with black men as much as He does not want men to have sex with men, and Heaven help us if we give Blacks or Gays (or women) equal rights with White men. This book should be required reading for anyone who studied (or didn't study) history in school, where this history was not taught. It is especially useful for ministers who find their congregations and denominations divided by the gay marriage issue.

This book has good end notes since it is based on a legal brief, but it is wonderful, educational reading without even looking at them. I cannot imagine going into this battle without knowing this history.

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