Sing a Joyful Song 

California's gay-marriage ruling gives us the opportunity for collective ecstacy.

The joyful sound in the gay community over the recent decision by the California Supreme Court to sanction same-sex marriage is still echoing. And that may be the most important thing about it.

There is much to be said about the decision. My favorite line came from our governor, who thinks the decision will benefit the state's economy by engendering a slew of marriage tourists. But the legal issues are quite interesting. The only other state that allows same-sex marriage, Massachusetts, has a residency requirement; California does not. Will other states give "full faith and credit" to these marriages? The prospect of a rural court in the South dealing with a divorce between two men is fascinating. Though groups that oppose the decision requested unsuccessfully for the California Supreme Court to delay the implementation of the decision, there is a chance that voters could overturn the ruling this November.

In an important election year, the political ramifications on the presidential race are being weighed. I doubt if gay marriage will be as big an issue as guns or abortion in the crucial states between the coasts. Too many families have a loved one who might consider having their same-sex love legally acknowledged. While coming out is still a major issue in the town in which I grew up, Little Rock, the city recently elected its first openly gay state representative. But it also has the highest percentage of divorce of any city in the country. Having gay lovers now be the foremost advocates of the "institution" of marriage, supplanting the leading role of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, is one of the delicious ironies of our time.

In addition, we should acknowledge that the pro-gay-marriage legal teams here and throughout the country have done a masterful job of outfoxing their opponents through a savvy display of forum shopping and legal argumentation. In the court's decision, both sides acknowledged that the Domestic Partners Act of 2003 and its amendments give same-sex couples all the basic and important rights that opposite-sex couples enjoy from marriage. Still, the legal team was able to get the court, which is dominated by Republican appointees, to find that "the failure to designate the official relationship of same-sex couples as marriage violates the California Constitution."

But for me the most important matter in the marriage debate is not of these mundane though not unimportant issues; the real issue is joy. Not my joy for the decision but the joy of those who will be able to do something to affirm their love for their partner and the affirmation that the state recognizes their love. When the decision was announced, Dave Chandler, a plaintiff who was outside the court awaiting the decision said, "I'm just cheering the joy. I'm feeling the joy all over." Whatever one thinks about the institution of marriage and the right of gay men and lesbians to marry, we all must recognize and appreciate this outpouring of happiness.

Several years ago I attended the victory party for the organization that strategized and brought the legal case that resulted in the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts. I was overcome by the emotion in the crowd. People were hugging and crying and whooping it up. It was intense, and made me cry. Frankly, anything that gives people this much pleasure and does not harm others should be saluted. There is way too little merriment in our world today.

I am a big fan of collective joy. I love watching kids running around the playground screaming and yelling. I also love the religious ecstasy of evangelicals, the delirium of those who speak in tongues, and the elated crowds of church revivals. I like to watch feverish fans salute their winning sports teams even if they beat my team. I even watch the spelling bees on ESPN to see the parents jumping up and down when their child correctly spells some ridiculously difficult word. Some of the most important experiences in my life have come in communal victory meetings in social struggles in which I have been part.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her latest book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, gives a popular and political account of the history of the origins of ecstatic celebration in human biology and culture. Joy and ecstasy are the kinds of "liminal" experiences that connect us to something in our nature that is difficult to otherwise access. Communal activities of happiness, such as festive dancing, allow us to crucially interact with others, according to anthropologist Victor Turner. Those who came before us understood this better than we do today. Most early religions and cults participated in ecstatic dance and many had specific gods of ecstasy. The Greek god Dionysus presided over ecstatic rites called orgeia, from which our word "orgy" comes. Looking at the recent past, Ehrenreich argues that the "rock rebellion" of the '60s and '70s produced "the possibility of ecstasy, or at least a joy beyond anything ... consumer culture had to offer." Ehrenreich wonders, if collective ecstasy is part of the human condition, why do we so seldom put it to use? Part of the reason can be found in the attempts over time by church officials and elites to quash them. Collective outpourings of joy are often subversive to those in control. While many repressive regimes have tried to harness and sometimes promote collective ecstasy for their own purposes, attempts to limit it are usually efforts in social regimentation.

So, on the day when same-sex marriages begin this month, I am going to be thinking about those things that we all share as humans, including our capacity for joy and ecstasy. I am going to be listening and enjoying that joyful sound.


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