The Gay Divorcees
by Ethan Philbrick
The Gay Divorcee, the movie, is a musical comedy of remarriage from 1934 starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with music by Cole Porter. It is a film about a woman courting a divorce that is hard to get—both her husband and the law won’t let her—but there is a trip to a hotel and hijinks, reversals, and substitutions, and she is eventually happily delivered from her unhappy marriage. It is a movie full of chase scenes, thwarted refusals, revolving automated platforms, hand puppets, people getting confused about the difference between being an actor and a sex worker, and partner dances that seem to go on forever. My gay marriage was full of chase scenes, thwarted refusals, revolving repetitions, feeling like a hand puppet, getting confused about the difference between acting and sex, and a partner dance that had always felt violent but I couldn’t seem to stop doing the steps to. While Ginger Rogers as the gay divorcee is distinctly gay as in happy, not gay as in homosexual, my marriage, at least publicly, was doubly gay—both homosexual and happy—and doubly not-so-gay in private—full of silence and pain, and also rather heterosexual, me as the housewife planning parties for the busy physician husband. The misery of my marriage was publicly comedic—my contradictions providing the perfect butt for every one of my jokes and constantly spewing stories of the messy hijinks of my polyamorous marriage—but my divorce has been resolutely serious—full of anger and tears and breaks and ruptures and reckoning with injury. Now I’m a gay divorcee and I’m very grateful for it. I’m not so interested in moving from being a gay divorcee to proposing gay divorce as some sort of redemptive concept for reimaging queer resistance in times of gay marriage but I am definitely interested in people breaking up from what isn’t working and leaving the dance even as it’s spinning.
Marriage and divorce aren’t polarized entities sealed off from each other but instead two sides of the same coin: coming together is filled with the fear of breaking apart; the marriage plot is driven by the threat or the scandal of the divorce plot; there is always the possibility of some “I Don’t” in an “I Do” even if everyone loves to forget this. The so-called “marriage equality” movement was also always a movement for “divorce equality” even if part of its guiding political fantasy was the ideological elision of miserable marriages, intimate partner violence, and the reality of divorce.
When I was 22 and had just gotten married to an emotionally abusive partner and I didn’t know how to tell anyone (and wouldn’t know for another eight years), I was grasping for things to keep myself afloat. I found myself at a community garden center’s composting workshop. It was me and a bunch of sweet retirees and we ripped newspaper up and put it with piles of squirming worms in the bottom of plastic containers to make “worm bins.” When I got home I loaded my bin up with vegetables and eggshells and forgot about it in my basement for over a year. When I finally wandered upon the bin and opened it expecting to find a stack of books I thought I had stored away, I found it full of deep brown soil, rich and teeming with dirty life.
When people ask me about the difference between being a gay divorcee and a straight divorcee at this particular historical juncture, two contradictory strains of thought open up: first, for gay divorcees who got married because they believe in the institution of marriage and wanted the state to recognize and support their intimate life, there is an intense social and psychic pressure to stay married and operate under the delusion that your marriage is a good marriage because the capacity to marry was something recently granted to you (“We fought for the right to marry, how could it be bad!? How could I not want it anymore!?”). Second, for gay divorcees who never consciously believed in the institution of marriage, or perhaps even explicitly critiqued marriage as a privileged form of intimacy protected by the state, and yet got married for bureaucratic reasons (i.e. immigration, citizenship, health insurance, financial support), or for playful or ironic reasons (“We want to have a wedding, but we’re not ‘married’ married! We are going to ‘queer’ the institution of marriage!”), a divorce can be equally hard won but for different reasons. It’s hard to get out of something that you never thought you were in. It’s hard to recognize that even if you don’t feel married, if you want out of your situation, you're going to have to get divorced. It’s hard to go from a critique of marriage in general to a critique of the marriage you are in. It’s hard to realize that it’s not just that the institution of marriage is feeling constrictive and you just need to find a more non-conventional way to inhabit it, it’s that your partner is controlling and manipulative and you are in a toxic situation and you need to figure out how to leave them.
And yet other times when people ask me about the difference between being gay divorced and straight divorced, I reply, “almost nothing.” That’s part of what is so confusing about it: you’ve spent a gay lifetime feeling like the intimacy you wanted was impossible or unimaginable and then all of a sudden, you’re married and it’s bad and you want out and it turns out that it’s been a lot like everyone else’s all along.