Sunday, July 7, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Behind a Beard

Here's a profoundly uncomfortable place to go for those who write books about relationships for grown-ups, and particularly those with an historical bent: The Beard Marriage.

I'm not sure how or when the term "beard," obviously with the connotation of the "fake beard" as an emblem of disguise, came to be referred to apparent heterosexual relationships adopted to hide one or both partners' homosexual identity. It can't be very old, since the concept of sexual identity is a modern one; but of course it's been done as long as societal pressure started tending to force adults into male/female procreative teams regardless of personal preference; i.e., as long as marriage has existed as an institution.

Marriage was invented, as near as I can tell, as an economic relationship, and in some societies (like classical Greece) the nature of marriage has been so fundamentally different from our modern Western norm as to be unrecognizable. In those cases, a bonding between people with incompatible gender preferences or identities would not be included in the category; but that still leaves huge swathes of time during which an irreducible minimum of people found themselves in married couples that were sexually irreconcilable and had to make the best of it. And if you stop and think about it, the situation is tailor-made for high-tension relationship drama.

Take the least problematical case: Both parties are gay, and the marriage is undertaken between friends as a mutual protection from the noxious societal nosiness directed at single people in general and people with nonstandard preferences in particular. Both understand the situation and they work together to protect each other's real love lives. That sounds workable, doesn't it?

Well, yes, but - what about the person each party could really fall in love with? If they both develop strong love relationships, but need to maintain the front of the happy married couple for purposes of passing with the community, what kind of juggling goes on? How do the lovers feel when they see the married couple playing their act at parties? What happens if the lover and the spouse don't get along? What if the married couple decide to have sex for reproductive purposes? What happens when crises arise in two interlocking relationships at once - if the lover gets sick and the spouse has to relocate for work? Would it even be possible to maintain permanent same-sex side relationships, or would they all break themselves against the rock of the Official Marriage?

And how do the bonds of friendship change, in the context of a formal, legal relationship? As anyone who's ever been around a divorce knows, marriage is a powerful closed system, even when it fails. No one outside it can safely interfere - no matter how toxic the couple, it will close ranks and turn as one against intruders. And if the couple isn't toxic, if it's companionate and compatible and a complete marriage except in the crucial area of sexual union - my goodness, how does that work?

Then there's the green card marriage. In times when getting out of one country and into another is urgently important and absurdly difficult, one way to facilitate the transfer is to marry a citizen of the country desired. During World War II, gay citizens of England and America were regarded by their friends, and to a certain extent by themselves, as especially appropriate providers of this sort of marriage of convenience. It might even come to feel like a duty, to someone who couldn't legally marry a romantic partner, to provide this escape route for an asylum seeker. W.H. Auden's marriage to Erika Mann was of this type, and to the best of my knowledge it succeeded in getting her out of Nazi Germany without causing much in the way of headache to either of them. But it can't always work that smoothly. What if the danger being escaped is more subtle than Nazis? What if the government is being particularly nosy? Many of these marriages were between relative strangers - what if the asylum-seeker, or the would-be economic immigrant, turned out to be someone who didn't merit the gesture? Someone, perhaps, who was willing to blackmail a putative husband who would lose his job if outed? That's a potential thriller plot, I think - especially if the husband is in a confidential government job.

Finally, let's consider the most common type of beard marriage during the twentieth century - the great deception. The one in which a homosexual raised in a homophobic environment lies to family, spouse, world, and frequently self in order to enter a heterosexual marriage. Such a union is doomed to failure, but is capable of looking like the neo-con ideal of nuclear family life. Given the prominence of claustrophobic marital traps in late 20th-century fiction, how is it we have so few explorations of this model?

I've always felt that "Would you want your daughter to marry one?" should be an effective slogan for gay rights. Because I'm positive that 90% of parents who pressure their gay children to enter heterosexual marriages would recoil from the prospect of their sons and daughters lying to the mothers and fathers of their grandchildren and raising their children in a dishonest household, if they could be made to see that this is what they're asking for. Because there aren't often any villains in this scenario. It's a case of everybody doing what they think they're supposed to do and trying to make the unworkable work. Mutual bearding at least provides a small space for honesty inside the disguised couple; one-sided use of a beard is cruel and corrupts the process from the git-go, even - maybe especially - when the gay member of the couple is marrying his or her straight best friend. Which, face it, is far the most common scenario when this sort of thing happens in real life.

It is even possible, given the screwed-up idealistic way sex, marriage, and family life have been treated in popular media and public education since the early 20th century (and to a certain extent before that) for a person to grow up with his or her romantic and erotic urges entirely separated, so that he (to obnoxiously pick a pronoun for ease of composition) is only capable of romantic feelings toward women, but only capable of erotic feelings toward men. What possible happy ending can he manage to extract from his life?

Enough nuances and possibilities exist here that I could go on all day. Honestly it makes the range of soul-searing dramatic possibilities open to purely heterosexual couples seem limited! Perhaps it's the excruciating pain without any viable villain to blame it on that keeps people from writing about it; perhaps it's fear of casting a villain and having that villain taken to represent all wives, or all husbands, or all women, or all men, or all heterosexuals, or all homosexuals, or all parents.

The time to write books about this is now, when the practice still exists but its causes are dying; when we can finally talk frankly about such topics without being automatically labeled "obscene," and minds are in the process of changing.

Perhaps, because I hardly ever read a grown-up book, the subject is addressed more commonly and more intelligently than I think it is.

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