With what seems like marriage around the corner in New York for same-sex couples, some of us have been thinking about how to Queer the politics of full legal recognition. Reform of the marriage law is most certainly a good thing – particularly given how many lesbian and gay New Yorkers see marriage equality as an important aspect of citizenship. I recently gave a talk to a group of undergrads at Columbia about marriage, and when I asked for a show of hands about how many in the room hoped to marry one day, everyone, everyone, raised their hands.
For those of us who will welcome marriage rights for same sex couples with a fair dose of ambivalence, we ought to do better than just poo-poo the whole thing. It’s time we started to Queer marriage. I’ve got a bunch of ideas about how we might go about this which I’ll save for another post, but one that’s worth highlighting now takes aim at the enduring, yet unfounded, myth of marriage: “til death do us part.” One of the reasons marriage is granted a privileged social, economic and legal status is this myth – that the couple is making a life-long commitment to one another. The implication, of course, is that non-marital relationships are more transient, short-lived and superficial. As such they are not entitled to the social, legal and economic support that we shower on those who wed (pun intended). “Til death do us part” remains a powerful and widely held delusion that effectively sidelines the well-known fact that the majority of marriages survive only for a term. Best understood, “til death do us part” functions more as a metaphor for expressing some other kind of emotion or commitment, such as “I really love you,” or “I’ll do my best to make this work long term,” than as a rational expectation that the couple will stay together forever.
The fantasmatic work that “til death do us part” does in privileging marriage above all other forms of human attachment is ripe for a Queer intervention. So here’s one: just as the wedding is a big, wonderful party celebrating the launch of a marriage, divorce should be celebrated with its own kind of party as well. You can imagine the toasts: Time to move on. We gave it good shot. Good riddans. Don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out. Now starts the rest of my life …
It’s time that queers who richly critique the institution of marriage take up a campaign of this sort – in fact, the idea has been circulating in non-queer circles for some time. California writer Christine Gallagher has got divorcepartyplanner.com, and even the New York Times is now on board.
Take last Sunday’s New York Times Weddings/Commitments Section in which they printed a divorce announcement by Charles and Bonnie Bronfman. The Bronfmans get this week’s Queers in the News Award!!! The article described the divorce party (un-wedding, anti-wedding, de-wedding?) thusly:
Charles Bronfman and his wife, Bonnie, are inviting 100 of their friends to an elegant evening of cocktails for what they hope will be a once-in-a-lifetime event.
The occasion? Their pending divorce.
The event isn’t likely to approach the extravagance of their wedding party less than three years ago, when they invited 200 guests to a seated dinner at the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. The first-time bride wore an off-white, long silk gown by Angel Sanchez, and guests danced to the music of Peter Duchin.
Still, the party has engraved invitations with a request for business attire and an effusive statement about the couple’s affection for each other. It is signed, “Fondly, Bonnie and Charles.”
Some of those invited have found the whole idea odd.
Mr. Bronfman, the former chairman of the Seagram Company, and Mrs. Bronfman, an architect, explained that their “friendship is stronger without being married” and that they wanted to thank their friends for the support. On the invitation, they wrote that they looked forward “to continuing these relationships with everyone.”
Mr. Bronfman’s lawyer, William Zabel of Schulte Roth & Zabel, said, “Many people would consider this a very civilized divorce.”
But a divorce party does raise some interesting questions of etiquette and logistics.
Whom do you invite?
Friends and family from the New York area. Traveling may be expected for a wedding but not necessary for a divorce.
What about gifts?
Not necessary. Even for their wedding they suggested that guests make charitable donations in lieu of gifts (a move that discounts any whisperings about whether wedding presents might be returned).
If everything is so harmonious, why the divorce? (Mr. Bronfman is a billionaire whose wealth Forbes put at $2 billion. “She must have had a great prenuptial,” said one socialite, who requested anonymity since she was not familiar with the financials.)
Mr. Bronfman and Bonnie Roche were introduced by Michael Steinhardt, the former hedge fund manager and a longtime Bronfman family friend, after Mr. Bronfman’s second wife, Andrea, was hit by a taxi and killed when she went out to walk their dog. (His previous marriage had ended in divorce.) “It was love at first sight,” Mr. Steinhardt recalled. They wed six months after meeting.
But in a joint phone interview last week, Mr. Bronfman, 79, said: “Our differences were in everything we do. We thought those differences could mesh, but we found out the opposite. So we thought, why not tell our friends and thank them for helping us out?”
He continued: “Bonnie is an intellectual. I am anything but. I like Florida in the winter. I like golf. I play some tennis. I don’t want to go to lectures. Our lifestyles are totally different. I thought she could show me areas of New York, and my world will be expanded,” he added.
“Guess what?” he said. “It didn’t work.”
What crystallized the decision to divorce was a Fifth Avenue apartment they bought six months ago. Many couples argue about decorating their homes, but these two never even started work on theirs.
“We decided not to renovate until we decided whether to stay together,” Mr. Bronfman said. “About five weeks ago, we made that decision.”
Mrs. Bronfman, 65, said that she had recently gone back into designing and that “it showed both of us how deeply happy I was in that environment.” She plans to keep her married name socially because, she said, she’s part of the family.
As they wrote on their invitations: “As we change the parameters of our relationship, our mutual admiration and caring is constant.”