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Gender Studied      January-February 2017

How the Supreme Court Sanctified Gay Sex

 

FROM THE STONEWALL INN to the public restroom—what a long, strange trip it has been. It was only a year ago that the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling was handed down. But the ruling did more than give of lesbians and gay men the right to marry; it tacitly condoned sexual practices that were considered illegal in several parts of the country until quite recently.

The victory for marriage equality was thus a victory for same-sex sexuality as well, since marriage is, among other things, a public sanctioning of a sexual relationship. Opponents condemned the ruling on religious grounds and feared for the institution of marriage itself, as they always do. Such reactions point to an implicit condemnation of same-sex love—biblical passages were trotted out—and of those who engage in it.

Americans have always had a Janus-faced relationship with carnality: Fifty Shades of Grey and a barely clad Calvin Klein pair can be displayed on a gigantic Manhattan billboard, but few nude beaches can be found in the U.S. Sex education in the classroom? With severe restrictions. Legalized prostitution? Only in Nevada. We eat at Hooters but call for abstinence-only programs in our schools. In true Protestant, capitalist fashion, Americans condone profiting from sex—the Internet is bankrolled by porn—but shrink from publicly celebrating its pleasures.

At one time LGBT sexuality was relegated to back alleys and hidden spaces, condemned but invisible. Not any more. Nationwide safe-sex campaigns, to say nothing of AIDS itself, brought LGBT sexuality into the public view. So, even if queer couples adopt babies or choose surrogates and buy furniture and baby strollers like other couples, it has become an open secret that we really do have sex. With each other. Perhaps often. As if that weren’t bad enough, while straight sex can always masquerade as procreation, ours can never enjoy that cover story; it’s just sex for its own sake.

The current restroom debacle is further evidence that all the same-sex couples in the world marrying and raising children or hoping to do so won’t mollify those who perceive queer people in purely squalid terms. A mere marriage license won’t fool anyone, opponents to LGBT civil rights say. We know what you are, so if we can’t stop you from marrying, we’ll still do our best to control your body and the sinful acts in which it engages.

Adam and Eve learned to be ashamed of their bodies, and current repressive measures seek the same for us. But our queer bodies need no fig leaves, thank you very much. One hopes that, just as the South’s Jim Crow laws eventually broke under the weight of justice, the current mood will bend to an acknowledgment of the human body as a place of pleasure and dignity. Marriage equality did not threaten the family home but simply expanded the domain of the bedroom. Now the fight has moved into the bathroom—and how ironic it is that public restrooms, once a site of furtive sexual activity for gay men, have become a battleground in the fight for LGBT visibility and equality.

 

Eric Gabriel Lehman writes fiction and teaches at Queens College.

 

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