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the commitment

19 january 2012

The Commitment, by Dan Savage, is one of those personal essays that so intimately deals with every possible detail of a family's affairs that the reader has to continually wonder: where's the private life here? Can any group of people lead their existence so directly on the pages of a published book and still have a "private life," or is being one of the Dan-Savage/Terry-Miller extended clan akin to being on the Truman Show and knowing all about it?

Personal essays, I've always thought, are not interesting because they are about a person: nothing is duller than somebody telling you why you ought to be interested in them because they've hit home runs, been in space, or charted a few singles. Personal essays are interesting because their authors are typical: they've lived lives that people can relate to. In The Commitment, Savage talks about life with a young son, a partner he can't decide whether to marry, a mom who has made up her mind that they're going to marry, and various siblings in every possible permutation of marriage and parenthood (or not).

In other words, pretty much any middle-class American reader can relate to most of Savage's story. Although he's vehement about the one segment of his potential readership that can't or won't: the high-publicity homophobes who dominate conservative media and inveigh constantly against Savage and Miller having the exact kind of conservative family life that they relentlessly prescribe for heterosexuals.

Savage, whose brillant advice column Savage Love has set new standards for sex writing, describes himself as "an insufferable, judgmental libertine" (94). His morality, which he unloads on every advice-seeker who takes a moral tone of their own, consists of demanding complete integrity while being not just indifferent but positively positive about the way that integrity is expressed. In The Commitment he presents a life as formulaic as any Promise-Keeper could demand (setting aside the two-dads aspect of it): breadwinner, stay-at-home spouse, kid, summer family reunions on the beach. But if you aren't into diapers and remodeling and the marital bed, hey, Dan Savage is down with that. Just don't be hypocritical or manipulative about your own preferences, desires, and kinks: and don't prescribe for others.

Savage's libertinism demands relentless honesty and openness, as when he coined the term "monogamish" (though it doesn't appear in The Commitment) to describe relationships not as open as swinging but not as exclusive as the Mitt Romney ideal. He and Terry (how much I is TM?) have very occasionally been unfaithful and very occasionally invited a third party into their bedroom, and been the better for it as individuals and a couple. By confessing this, Savage undercuts a certain strain of pro-gay-marriage rhetoric that waxes rosy about monogamous couples and family values. He's got nothing against family values, but he doesn't share particular dogmas about them. For Savage, to defend gay marriage is part of unconditionally accepting all sorts of marital and non-marital arrangements.

Savage notes with exceptional keenness that much mainstream heterosexual morality in the 2000s looks exactly like the Castro in the 1970s.

After college, straight men and women move to the big city. . . . Then the hunt for sex begins. . . . When they're not haing sex, they're going to gyms, drinking, and dancing. And since they don't have kids, these young, hip, urban straight people have lots of disposable income to spend on art, travel, clothes, restaurants, booze and other recreational drugs.
And do you know what all of that hooking up, drinking, and partying used to be called? "The Gay Lifestyle." . . . When the first post-Stonewall generation of young straights came to adulthood, they decided they wanted to get in on the action. They could put off having kids and live a little before they settled down. They could be gay, too. (147-148)
And many of these straight youngsters leading gay lifestyles are totally accepting of others' sexualities, whether LGBT or conservative Catholic. The problem comes when the middle- and upper-middle-class right wing, comfortable with their own and their own children's serial monogamy, hooking up, quick divorces, and blended families, decides that the same behavior with slightly different alignments of genitals is beyond the pale of acceptable family values.

Though it's more than that. The problem is intolerance. Savage's father, a retired Chicago cop, insists that Republicans don't mean what they say when they rail against gay rights. They're just trying to get into office, whereupon they'll ignore the issue. Even if that were the case (and both the mid-2000s Defense of Marriage Act and the more recent battles over the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell suggest it's not), right-wing rhetoric in this country would be based on cultivating intolerance just for the sake of intolerance. As if we needed more intolerance in America. And by "tolerance" I don't just mean the weak form of holding your nose and putting up with something that you don't really think people should be doing – though compared to the behavior of somebody like Clint McCance, weak-form tolerance doesn't look all that bad. No, by "tolerance" I mean honestly accepting that other people's families are constructed like yours, around love, desire, change, hard work and failure. Like Dan Savage's family: and we owe a lot to their tolerance of his telling the world all about it.

Savage, Dan. The Commitment: Love, sex, marriage, and my family. 2005. New York: Plume [Penguin], 2006.