NB: The German term “wilde Ehe” (wild marriage) refers to the situation of two persons who live together, possibly even have children together, without being legally married. (Perhaps something akin to today’s undocumented immigrants in the USA.) Previously this term applied only to heterosexual couples; the English “living in sin” is a rough equivalent. (Of course LGBTQ folks are still considered to be living in sin by many countries, cultures and religions, no matter whether single or partnered.) On June 30 the German Bundestag voted to legalize “marriage for all.” Luise’s comments follow:
I have always considered marriage to be an institution in which the age-old patriarchal power imbalance between the sexes is reinforced all the more by being cemented in law. As SPD leader Thomas Oppermann rightly commented on television host Maybrit Illner’s recent talk show: “In the past a wife could not sign a contract or practice a profession without her husband’s permission. In short, if marriage today were still like that no woman would consider it.” With same-sex couples no historically woven, socially determined power discrepancy exists, at most an individual one between partners. If now – thanks to the newly opened “marriage for all” declared by the Bundestag last Friday – ever increasing numbers of gay and lesbian couples marry, the old marital gender hierarchy will be undermined and, one hopes, soon leveled out.
When the debate around legalizing marriage for gays and lesbians began around 30 years ago I was – like many feminists of the Second Women’s Movement – strictly opposed to it. We were progressive and found marriage outdated. So we argued in favor of abolishing marriage: “marriage for no one” instead of “marriage for all.” Why should people who hadn’t found a marriage partner be disadvantaged legally, above all in their tax bracket? In our opinion “special consideration and protection” should be granted only to those who are responsible for raising children and caring for sick, disabled and/or elderly dependents. Such groups should be defined as “families,” and this type of family would be covered by the “Schutz der staatlichen Ordnung” (Protection under State Regulations; Article 6.1, German constitution).
Back then I could sympathize with the idea of marriage for gays and lesbians only because of the possibility that it would bring us closer to the goal of “abolishing marriage:” heterosexual couples would find the idea that lesbians and gays could join their marriage club so disgusting and dishonoring that they would decline to join themselves. “We don’t want any marriage that is also open to the dregs of humanity. No thanks! Count us out.” And the institution of marriage would gradually dissolve of its own accord. Or so we thought.
But in fact things have turned out quite differently. Everyone seems to be heading for the marriage bed, especially those who were previously excluded. Everyone – well, let’s say almost everyone – is happy about the social progress: champagne corks are popping, and it’s raining confetti in the Bundestag. We too rejoice and will most likely now – after 31 years of living in sin – get married ourselves before long. It’s high time that after our decades of dissolute “wild marriage” we put our relationship on a legally recognized basis. Actually, we could have done that 16 years ago, but we didn’t want to be “verpartnert” (“partnered up,” the German legal option, comparable to civil union). For one thing, we couldn’t stand the term, and also, we rejected an inferior, second-class marriage.
Actually our long-term relationship was not even a “wilde Ehe.” That too was limited to heterosexuals. But now we also qualify to live in a “wild marriage,” how wonderful.
And the linguistic contortions surrounding this development! First we had “Verpartnerung” (partnering up), an unusually nasty and stupid term about which I shared my outrage as early as 2001. Then there’s the “Homo-Ehe” (homo marriage), which I declared in 2013 to be the “Unwort” (ugliest, most dreadful and impossible word) of the decade (ibid.). The word is as discriminatory as the word “Mischehe” (mixed marriage), with which marriages between Jewish and “aryan” hetero couples used to be stigmatized in the Third Reich – or those between Blacks and Whites in the USA.
At the time I proposed speaking instead about “old” and “new” marriage. Applying that terminology, we could say that the Bundestag voted last Friday on the new marriage and gave its blessing.
But the expression “marriage for all” seems to have gained general acceptance, perhaps partially in order to preempt possible challenges from the BTTIQ (bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersexual, queer) segment of the LGBTTIQ community. The 50 sexual and/or gender identities that Facebook has discerned and provides space for can be included under “marriage for all.” From now on Paragraph 1353 of the German Civil Code will read: “Marriage is contracted for life between two persons of differing or the same gender(s).” What kind of gender is expressly left open here. No talk of “man” or “woman,” “husband” or “wife.”
Smart alecks proclaim they will now marry their guinea pig or their bicycle. Marriage “for all” exists “for all;” hence guinea pigs and bikes cannot be discriminated against. Of course these wiseacres overlook the fact that the only ones who are now allowed to marry are those who already qualified before “marriage for all” came into being. Guinea pigs and bicycles are not persons and thus do not belong to this group. A bike can transport you, but not the way a lover can. Even a battle-scarred old lesbian like myself always had the right to marry, and yes, even in Germany. The only hitch was: I had to marry a man. So naturally I preferred to remain single.
Many lesbians and gays entered into sham marriages to evade the often deadly homophobia of their society. In the Nazi era especially that was an obvious solution to life-threatening problems: lesbian lovers Erika Mann and Therese Giehse both married gay British authors (Wystan H. Auden, John Hampson-Simpson).
When we are married I can – officially and with no nonsense – call Joey “my wife.” No more embarrassed mumbling about “my life partner” or “my friend” (the version for repair-persons, hotel personnel and similar folk whom one didn’t necessarily want to involve in intimate revelations.) Recently the saleswoman in our bakery said cheerfully: “Say hello to your wife!” Well, that’s the younger generation for you. No concept of the wounds that we accumulated over decades in the closet, nor of the virtually paranoid caution with which we protected our “private life” from prying eyes. Which we continued to believe necessary even where danger no longer threatened. The friendly greeting “to my wife” seemed strange to me, almost a little too bold, even intrusive, yet at the same time: refreshingly direct and uncomplicated. I’ll soon have plenty of chances to practice and learn, and when I hear, “Say hello to your wife,” I won’t cringe as though outed involuntarily but react with “gay pride” and a smile. As though it’s simply quite normal. ;)
(trans. Joey Horsley)