If we zoom out to a perspective of one hundred years from now, what has the gay marriage debate of the early 21st century really been about?
I think that historians of the future will see an underlying issue that connects gay marriage in our culture with such things as debates over Darwin in the classroom, psychedelic experimentation, marijuana legalization, pornography, the Internet, boob jobs, weight reduction surgery, African American civil rights, cross-dressing, transgender operations, libertarianism, Second Life avatars, and the broad acceptance of tattooing, birth control, and abortion. All of these are about self-fashioning. They are about the malleability of life and the self.
In other words, gay marriage, as well as the above list of things, is prelude to the great debates in the near future over two monumental things:
- whether we will merge our biological selves with robotics, becoming a largely cyborg species; and
- whether we will manipulate the human genome, taking over our own biological evolution.
Indeed, when those debates get their historians telling those stories, they will include the early 21st century and the things that came to the fore in our time (such as gay marriage).
If the historian of the future seeks even deeper roots for the great cyborg and eugenics debates that are coming, she may well start with Shakespeare’s modernist-anticipating joy at meditating upon the metamorphoses of class and gender through the putting on and off of roles and clothes. From so simple a beginning–staged dramas surrounding self-fashioning and metamorphoses–a new and secular world was anticipated. One cannot help but recall, for example, Miranda’s famous exclamation in The Tempest:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
And who is President Obama but the archetypal Protean man–the symbol of our fast-changing era, the supporter of gay marriage, and the lightening rod of the traditionalist right? It’s no coincidence that New Yorker writer David Remnick titled his biography of Obama The Bridge. I mean, look at him:
Dream. What limits are there to the human imagination and why must that imagination ever be thwarted? To the right, Obama is Frankenstein; to the left, he is Prometheus. Both are correct. He represents the syncretistic future, and it will be complicated by lots of pleasant and unpleasant surprises. In any case, it will not be business as usual. It will be unfamiliar, uncomfortable. Strange. As are all contingent processes of evolution and history.
Like President Obama, gay marriage focuses the mind. Gay marriage is the Promethean ballgame. Shall we steal fire from heaven and engage in the remaking of ourselves from top to bottom in acts of total self-fashioning? Shall we redefine everything according to our whim or will, or shall we accept the traditional places at the table set for us by religion and habit?
Once you say yes to gay marriage, how do you say no to tattooing, transgender acceptance, women’s equality, cyborgs, or rich parents buying access to genetic engineering (designer babies)?
Obviously, you don’t. It’s why there’s such a freak-out on the traditionalist right in the West and the Muslim world elsewhere concerning gay marriage. Religion and nationalism are broken wheels, and they’re squeaking the loudest because the world is moving away from God, strong nationalist identity, and static and essentialist “givens,” and entering into an era of international techno-urbanism where 90% of human beings will live in cities. Within the constraints of their individual circumstances there, the people of the future will insist on being Protean–on choosing in each moment their lives and identities. Utterly.
That’s what the debate over gay marriage is about.