Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book Review: The Commitment

I have recently been introduced to Dan Savage, and specifically his sex column. (Shy readers be VERY WARY of the link. His advice is nothing if not sexually graphic. Again, caution).

I am very intrigued by Dan Savage, in part because he is unabashedly opinionated. I also like him because we share left-leaning politics, and both believe in gay rights, and well, you know how I feel about seeing how different people live. Full disclosure: he is a gay man, in a long-term relationship with the other father of his child.

I reserved his book, The Commitment, from the library, and finished it in about three days. I have never laughed out loud during the course of a book before, but happily, that streak is now over.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit that there is a definite agenda to the book (which I think could be said for all non-fiction). The main agenda, if I may take the liberty to summarize, is threefold:
  1. People who are gay are just like people who are straight
  2. The gay-lifestyle really isn't inherently alternative
  3. Without the right to marry, we are treating people who are gay as second class citizens
Perhaps part of the reason that I so thoroughly enjoyed this book was because I agree on all three fronts.

Interestingly, a lot of the book is about what a good relationship consists of (or, should). Does a romantic relationship have to be a marriage to count? Does a marriage have to end in death (as in "til death do us part") to count as a success? Savage (summarizing something someone said to him) says, "Most women date with the hopes that it will 'end in something real', and by that they mean one thing and one thing only - marriage and kids. The implication is that the only 'real' or successful relationship is a marital one" (p68). It is an interesting thought. "Death parted my grandparents, not divorce, and death is the sole measure of a successful marriage. When a marriage ends in divorce, we say that it failed. The marriage was a failure. Why? Because both parties got out alive. It doesn't matter if the parting was amicable, it doesn't matter if the exes are happier apart, it doesn't matter if two happy marriages take the place of one unhappy marriage. A marriage that ends in divorce failed" (p 113).

This was the part of the book that I had the hardest time with. I can appreciate this line of thinking (and even agree with parts of it) yet I also believe in the Jenny Sanford train of thought, the whole "Love is a choice, not just a feeling". It seems to me that the whole point of relationships to learn about yourself, to grow, to develop as an individual. If that is true, then certainly those things can still be considered acheived, even if the relationship does ultimately end. Perhaps it is just marriage part of Savage's argument that I am objecting to, because, in my opinion, the whole point of marriage is permanence aspect. Even acknoledging this objection, I still am having a hard time saying that if your marriage ends, then it failed, because I don't necessarily think that to be true. (This just points out how torn I am about the whole thing, and how much Savage's opinions made me think!)

Another thing I want to comment on was the way that Savage talks about the "Gay Lifestyle" (his words) and how that is so similar to the "straight lifestyle" (my words). "You would think that after spending three decades arguing that the Gay Lifestyle was a threat to the traditional family because it was so appealingly hedonistic - yes, appealingly: the fear was that straights would be tempted to live like gays, a fear that was not entirely irrational, as it turns out - social conservatives would be delighted when huge numbers of gays and lesbians decided to embrace the Straight Lifestyle and marry. What a victory for traditional values! So attractive was commitment, so appealing was the prospect of family life, that even gay men and lesbians were embracing them! But... social conservatives refuse to take the compliment" (p149). This is interesting to me, because we (as a society) are always espousing on "family values" and yet we won't let people who are gay enjoy those same "family values" (namely, the value of creating a family). So really, it isn't the creation of the family we object to, but the actual relationship (the same-sex attraction).

Overall, this book was a hilarious comentary about one (perhaps typical) gay man's struggle for equal rights. As I mentioned, I literally laughed out loud in multiple parts. Sadly, the book was also tinged with overt sadness. Savage writes, "My relationship with Terry has always been our own creation, the product of a love some people believe isn't supposed to exist" (157). That broke my heart, as did: "Straight liberals are blue; gays and lesbians are black and blue" (163). Furthermore, several times Savage mentioned the threat of physical violence because of his sexual orientation. "Beautiful men that I have to interact with socially often get the impression that I don't like them, misreading my silence as hostility. But I'm frowning, looking at the ground, and mumbling because I'm afraid they'll beat the shit out of me" (227).

While those portions of the book broke my heart, there were other places that made me smile. The Canadian who issued Dan and his boyfriend their marriage liscense, their parents complete acceptance and love, Dan's description of his partner and his son, to name a few.

Someone asked me the other day why I care so much. I'm not gay, none of my brothers or close friends are gay. But here's the thing. I am a thinker, a feeler. I believe in equality, in justice. I believe the old saying "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". Equally important, I am getting married in thirteen months. I am entering in to this institution, this exclusive club, and other, equally worthy members are being denied entrance. My partner and I get to decide, and my state (and country) give us that right to make that decision. I wish that all adults had this privilege, this right, and I pray that this will soon happen.

(In the meantime, read this book!)

"If marriage was a promise to care for another person, Terry and I had been married for a long time. When he calls, I drop everything. When I'm sick, he takes care of me. I don't see how our commitment with each other threatens traditional marriage, but if it does, well, then traditional marriage will just have to tough it out".
-Dan Savage, The Commitment, P278

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