Toasting to Armageddon with a gay-marriage expert

Elizabeth Freeman


With opposition to gay marriage toppling like dominoes (welcome to the wedding party, Rhode Island) and California’s homegrown bill, Proposition 8, teetering before the highest court in the land, the time is right to check in with an expert on the subject of marriage equality. But not just any expert. Sure, Elizabeth “Beth” Freeman easily fields questions on the legal knot of “judicial standing,” but go read a law review for that. The 46-year-old associate professor of English at UC Davis, who teaches courses on race, gender and sexuality, and lesbian literature, has also authored two related books, including The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture, and co-edits the Queer Temporalities journal. In other words, Freeman’s interests are as vast as her wit is sharp. The former Sarah Lawrence College professor chatted with SN&R about group marriage, butch-lesbian bachelor parties and just who, exactly, is the queerest Supreme Court judge.

UC Davis lists you as one of the university’s five gay-marriage experts. How did an English professor break that glass ceiling?

If you look at something for a long, long, long time, you become informed enough to bore anyone when you talk about it.

Do you and the four other experts ever argue about whose expertise is more expert?

No. We are group-married to one another, and we think that’s the next step in marriage rights.

You’re well-versed on gay and lesbian marriage, as well as the broader American wedding culture. I’m not going to ask something obvious, like whether you support gay marriage, but what do you think about marriage?

Oy vey. Here’s one serious, political answer: Marriage is a way of organizing property rights around inheritance and channeling publicly funded benefits through kinship. I’d rather see marriage disestablished from the state and returned to the churches, leftover accumulated property returned to the public from whence it was earned, and benefits distributed to individuals regardless of whether or not they belonged to families.

When it comes to gay and lesbian weddings, bachelor(ette) parties and bridal showers, what does the etiquette dictate?

Anything goes! I’ve seen butch-lesbian bachelor parties for one, femme-on-femme bridal showers for two, and forgoing the shower altogether for a Kickstarter fund for the honeymoon. Thankfully, straights are catching up and doing their own thing, too.

My parents’ neighbors think there are more gay people today than there were a generation ago and didn’t agree when I suggested they were wrong. Settle this dispute?

They are so right! The more opportunity people have to question the inevitability of heterosexuality, the more they might actually make other choices. This is why conservatives are so scared.

In your 2010 book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, you posit that we’re living in a post-gay world. What’s so post-gay about it?

Have you read my book? I so did not say that. We’ll be in a post-gay world when people stop being thrown out of their families for expressing same-sex desire. We’re in a queer world, though, where gays can affiliate with single moms, pregnant teenagers, S&M practitioners, Mormon polygamists—anyone who gets stigmatized for their sexual desires and practices—to form broad coalitions.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts suggested gay marriage is potentially too new a phenomenon for the court to weigh in on. What kind of temporality is he experiencing?

Only slightly post-premodern, I guess. See John Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. I imagine that Roberts would think that newfangled lute music was ruining the kids today, too.

Going back to the original definition of the words, who is the queerest Supreme Court justice and why? Who’s the gayest?

Sonia Sotomayor [is the queerest], because I like her the best. But Ruth Bader Ginsburg looks most adorably like the proto-lesbian spinsters of 19th-century women’s literature.

How long after gay marriage is legal will civilization crumble and the seas turn into fire? Like, six days?

Yes! Then we'll all go get mimosas on our day of rest.