Promises, Promises

by Julia Steinmetz

Toxic Titties. Toxic Union, 2002. California Institute of the Arts

Back in 2002, long before I got gay married, I got queer married to my feminist art collective Toxic Titties. At that time, same sex marriage was still very much on the horizon: it would be another two years before Mayor Gavin Newsome would direct the clerks of San Francisco county to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, resulting in roughly 4,000 same-sex marriages taking place before the California Supreme Court invalidated them on the grounds that a mayor does not have the power to contravene state law.[1] It would be another four years before that decision was overturned in a short-lived victory swiftly dampened by the passage of the infamous Proposition 8. In 2002, the question of whether or not marriage was an appropriate goal for LGBT politics was still in play, with all of the attendant conflicts concerning what might be lost in the respectability politics of assimilation.

At the same time a striking number of queers in our broader community were entering into Green Card marriages, some in exchange for cash payments ($6000 was the going rate), reciprocal agreements for accessing the benefits of EU citizenship, or as acts of political solidarity. The feeling was that you might as well use your right to marry for something, since tying it to romantic love was foreclosed. As the Toxic Titties we were interested in marriage as the act of entering a contract formalizing an important relationship, as well as in the aesthetics and collective performativity of the wedding ceremony. We effectively got engaged to one another as a collaborative group, and in the exhibition Promise, we installed a video of the process of negotiating a contract agreement with one another alongside the finalized text of that agreement and a trio of engagement rings engraved with the word “promise.” We imagined this would speak both to the promise we were making to one another in the commitment to our collaborative art practice, and the sense of “having promise” as young artists. In the same breath we staged a critique of the limited range of relationships that marriage was designed to support and a ritual validation of our collaboration as a vital form of relationality. In Toxic Union we staged an elaborate wedding ceremony for the Toxic Titties, complete with roller skating “flower girls,” radical “mothers” of the brides, maids of dishonor, custom hand-sewn gowns and an Elvis inspired jumpsuit, a lesbo synth-rock wedding band (Radio Vago), multiple cakes, stylists and costumes for the attendees as well as the ceremony participants, an officiant, and a faux INS officer. In its messy excess and punk extravagance, Toxic Union was our attempt to enact what Andrea Fraser describes as the difficult work of critical experience:

“What is particular about art, inseparably from its institutional modes of presentation and reception, is that art and its frame enable and encourage a reflection on the experiences and structures activated in and around us. But thinking and feeling, reflecting and experiencing at the same time, is extraordinarily difficult, especially when the experience is intense, complex, and not entirely pleasurable. For me, a work is critical only when it activates and enables a reflection on immediate experience in a way that allows unthought structures in that experience to be recognized—hopefully with some complexity.”[2]

Collaborating with the Gay Divorcees has been another such pleasureable, intense, and complex form of critical experience. Together we’ve mined our collective unthought known for the often conflicting desires, fears, hope, dread, regret, and emerging self-knowledge that undergirded the impulse to get gay married as well as the necessity of gay divorce. In the process we have forged another kind of union, and turned some of the trauma of our forays into homonormativity into the promising material of a new set of queer bonds and an album full of songs laced with pathos, humor, loss, and joy.

1. Rona Marech, "The Battle Over Same-Sex Marriage: One Year Later / both Sides Claim Victory, but Courts Will Decide," SFGate February 12, 2005.

2. "Conversation with Andrea Fraser," last modified May 12, accessed Mar 15, 2017,