“Oh, the Divorcees”

by Tavia Nyong’o

Originally published in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume 18, Issue 1, January 2012

A decade and three and a half break-ups ago, I wrote the following short essay about gay divorce. I was suspicious of marriage then, and I remain so. But I could never keep the institution entirely cordoned off from my intimate life. My two major relationships prior to that time had ended with my exes finding someone else to gay marry. One set of nuptials even made the New York Times. I used to joke that I was an excellent trainer husband: work out the kinks of long-term commitment with me, and then find that extended bliss with someone a little more reliable. A subsequent relationship never fully recovered from the blow of the Obergefell decision in 2015. As soon as same-sex marriage obtained state recognition, my then boyfriend could not understand why I would have any hesitation about tying the knot. He scorned my explanation that I opposed the unequal licensing of some relationships (gay or straight) and not others, and that I also opposed tying all sorts of benefits — from health care to inheritance — to that license. He experienced my lofty sentiments as a personal rejection. Gay marriage, you could say, ruined that relationship. Ironically, but perhaps predictably, my stance towards marriage has softened as the prospects of my ever indulging in one has diminished over the years. At this point, having run short on arguments and shorter on time, I would probably succumb if the opportunity presented itself. An awareness of finitude, rather than an expectation of ‘forever,’ shapes this new susceptibility. At this point in my life, my good friendships have lasted longer, and proved more stable, than relationships, and they will probably be what sees me through to the end. Yet still, rather than therefore feeling like marriage has nothing to do with me, the state of my affairs more often feels like I get divorced over and over again. Each separation is a bit harder than the last, each leaves me a little less resilient. This is, I suppose, my personal angle of vision on gay divorce: one estranged from the normative conditions that are supposed to launch and ballast a life, but that hasn’t been able to relinquish the expectation, across some queer horizon, of a soft landing.

—Tavia Nyong’o
January 2021

Marriage equality can seem to take place on an entirely different plane from the tax revolt and survivalist politics of the Tea Party. The latter’s noxious social attitudes aside, might there not be a common adaptation to the rigors of a risk society? Both assume “personal responsibility,” managing the anxiogenic prospects of a looming future of greater insecurity, lower resilience, and flailing health. These are the “no futures” many of us ponder when we ponder capital- ism’s death drive. Rather than a “haven in the heartless world,” is marriage now woven into the fabric of the market’s magic carpet, taking us along for the same wild ride?

Against Love (Pantheon, 2003), Laura Kipnis’s brilliant and hilarious polemic, was written before the economic collapse. But her sharply observed demolition of our hypocritical attitudes toward fidelity remains prescient. Thinly disguised beneath magazine-friendly prose is a sound sociological treatise on how we govern ourselves through the very ideals and practices taken to comprise individuality and freedom. The problem with marriage is not the sexism, Kipnis insists, nor even the homophobia. The problem is the love, the nigh impossible impositions of which prep us for the masochistic demands of life under capital- ism. Much as it always seems, from within a financial bubble, that the laws of capitalism have been repealed and that this time wealth will just keep magically growing, so does it seem within the heady throes of a love affair or new marriage that human nature, or the law of averages, has been finally proved irrelevant, and this particular time, for this particular couple, everlasting fulfillment really is at hand. Shorn of these fantasies—of wealth without work, of reciprocity without end — what less compromising demands would we be impelled to make on society, the state, and indeed, ourselves?

The question of intimate politics—as many queer commentators have shown — resists an instant, rhetorical fix. We cannot simply reject the ideologies of romantic love and companionate marriage for their complicities with contemporary capitalism. It is this very relationship of complicity that makes capitalism (sometimes) survivable. This complicity relates to what Jodi Dean, after Slavoj Žižek, calls “the decline of symbolic efficiency” in contemporary capitalism.[1] Dean argues that the advanced industrial democracies are increasingly unable to support a stable set of terms for political debate, as those very terms become increasingly the subject of interminable contestation.

In the Lacanian analytic Dean adopts, a decline in symbolic efficiency is accompanied by a resurgence of the imaginary, aggressive dimension of politics. The public inquisitions into politicians’ marital infidelity are examples of such aggressive and hypocritical fantasy, as if the stability of our union depended on theirs. Kipnis turns the table on such moralism by daring to speculate that adulterous politicians might be living out the experiments in public intimacy we are too timid to embrace ourselves. And while the noxious men who champion homophobia in public — and privately surf over to rentboy.com to hire “baggage handlers” — are not secretly allies, wouldn’t the movement be weaker without their regular recurrence, and the delicious reminder of shared frailties and urgencies their exposure brings?

As much as many hope gays will change the institution of marriage for the better, may we not present the alternative reality that queers will probably do marriage no better than anyone else? We need new anthems for the gay divorcée, new tributes to the failures, mésalliance, and complicated legal entanglements we have already entered in our experiments with the public vow. Tracey Thorn’s tender lament, “Oh, the Divorces” (Love and Its Opposite, 2010), tracks the social and psychic cost not only of the decline of the symbolic efficiency of marriage but also of the excessive inflation of marriage as a public front behind which, it turns out, “we wanted more all along.” The song works as an immanent critique of the alienated sociality within which we negotiate other people’s lives as presentiments of our own fate, the personal becoming, as Lauren Berlant says, “juxtapolitical.” “No one gets off without paying the ride” is a line from Thorn’s song, but it could also be a graffiti scrawled on a wall in Athens, or anywhere else ordinary life has been turned upside down by the global slump and its bill past due. Which is everywhere.

1. Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009)