Gay Marriage, Disgust, And Martha Nussbaum: Is Not Getting Hitched Really A Protest?

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum talks to The New York Times Magazine this week, and she has a lot to say about gay marriage, disgust, cockroaches, and leather.

Nussbaum's wearing some pretty kickass boots in the accompanying photo, and she mentions that the University of Chicago lesbian and gay alumni association thanked her for wearing leather to a speaking engagement. But the real meat of the interview is Nussbaum's take on relationships and marriage. She handily dispatches a classic Deborah Solomon underminer question, "Do you find it difficult being a single woman in her early 60s, in a culture that values youth over wisdom," thusly:

I think that's been overplayed. I'm just happy being myself. I sing for an hour before dinner, and right now I'm singing Cherubino's aria from "The Marriage of Figaro," and playing the part of a teenager is natural to me. I also go clothes shopping with my friends. It's one way I have fun.

Basically Solomon is saying "don't you hate being single, and also old?" And Nussbaum's like, "I'm busy singing opera, fuck you." But since marriage is just as important a subject for philosophy professors as it is for actors (as long as they're women), Solomon's gotta ask, "Do you think you will marry again?" Nussbaum says,

If I thought of getting married, I would worry that I was taking advantage of a privilege that I have that a same-sex couple wouldn't have.

The question of whether this makes sense as a political stance is a complicated one, especially in light of John Marcotte's statement that if gay Californians can't marry, straight ones shouldn't get to divorce. The 2010 California Marriage Protection Act that Marcotte's spearheading may not make it onto the ballot, and apparently not everyone understands that it's meant to be a form of protest against Prop. 8 (not against divorce). But the Meghan Daum of the LA Times writes that Marcotte is "fighting not just for the rights of gays and lesbians, who surely deserve to be feted as they parade down the street in post-wedding rapture, but also for the cause of irony itself, which — in this often painfully literal society — needs all the help it can get." I don't think the cause of irony needs fighting for — even talking about its death just makes it stronger — but gay marriage certainly does. So is forgoing marriage yourself the way to fight?

Nussbaum makes a lot of other interesting points about gay marriage, arguing that much opposition to it is really about "disgust." She reminds us that people are disgusted by many things that aren't actually harmful (like "a sterilized cockroach, as studies have found"), and that the most insidious kind of disgust "is the projective kind, meaning projecting smelliness, sliminess and stickiness onto a group of people who are then stigmatized and regarded as inferior." In a way chalking homophobia up to disgust almost seems to excuse homophobes, by attributing an immoral point of view to some kind of visceral impulse. On the other hand, it may be valid to examine whether those who say they just want to "protect traditional marriage" actually look at gay people the way they look at cockroaches.

But Nussbaum's rejection of marriage may actually be better as a defense against Solomon than as support for gay rights. Solomon's not-so-subtle hints that Nussbaum must be lonely are just one version of the kind of shit single women get every damn day, and to say, "I'm single for a cause" is a decent rejoinder (though maybe not as good as, "lalalala I'm singing!"). The truth is, to reject marriage as a straight woman is kind of empowering — but to straight women, not necessarily gay ones. And while challenging stereotypes about gender and relationships might have some effect on homophobia, that effect is still tangential. In order for gays to get the rights they deserve, lawmakers (looking at you, New York State Senate) need to think about simple equality rather than the complicated calculus of reelection. Voters (looking at you, my home state of California) need to get over their disgust or bigotry or whatever makes them think that anyone else's marriage could threaten theirs. And yes, straight allies need to stand up and speak out — but that doesn't necessarily mean not getting married.

Gross National Politics [NYT]
John Marcotte: Defending Marriage By Denying Divorce [LA Times]