Martin Manalansan is a professor of Asian American Studies and Anthropology.
Reading is a source of solitary pleasure for me because it conjures the magic of words and worlds. However these days, I am ashamed to say that most of my readings do not involve the pile of tomes by my side table in the bedroom. Earlier this year, I planned to peruse this stack of about a dozen books of fiction (with titles like A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and Mundo Cruel by Luis Negron) every night before going to sleep. I had hoped that these materials would give me an escape from the mundane and pave the way to a restful sleep in the midst of the summer heat. Alas, these plans were not meant to be. Hopefully, these books find their way to my hands, heart and head some other day. Instead of escaping, my reading habits at present emplace me on the terra firma of blunt-edged quotidian realities.
Since May, I have been reading what I NEED to read to finish my second book manuscript about undocumented queer immigrants living in dire circumstances or what most would perceive as lonely lives of desperation. Recently, some of my work-related perusings have unexpectedly found their way into a more personal space. While I initially steeled myself to suffering through months of examining turgid social science documents on immigration, things changed on the fateful day of June 26, 2015, the day the Supreme Court decided on the Obergefell v. Hodges case or what is now known as the gay marriage case. In writing the majority opinion and referring to the gay and lesbian petitioners, Justice Anthony Kennedy offered these final lines:
“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions…”
In one swoop, Justice Kennedy gathered together the unmarried, the unattached and the uncoupled then sequestered them in the prison house of despair and forlornness, unfulfilled, and not quite civilized or mature. I was aghast at his words originally written to exalt the gay and lesbian petitioners but unwittingly casting aside populations who fall outside the ideals and institutions of marriage and family. I could only go back to my work – fuming.
This historic event happened while I was plodding through two sociology trade books, Richard Sennett’s book Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation and Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. Both books grapple with the slow diminution and weakening of tribalism, collective ties and sociality in the modern world. Klinenberg, in particular, examines the increasing prevalence of people living alone in many parts of the United States. I was reading these books to understand the predicament of the people I was writing about – undocumented, immigrant, working class and queer individuals who were, at least in the time of my fieldwork were single or unattached in the legal and vernacular sense. They are in Klinenberg’s term, “singletons” who by choice or circumstance have found themselves without links to a significant other by love, marriage, and/or blood. To put it another way, these people were not in companionate forms of life.
In reflecting further about these issues, I turned to Michael Cobb, a literary scholar from the University of Toronto, and his book Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled. Cobb meticulously maps and trenchantly critiques the world that has been tailor-made for the coupled and the partnered. While these three authors would all agree that being uncoupled or a singleton is in fact the New Normal, it is still considered as peculiar if not anomalous. Cobb explains, “Part of the reason being single is terrible is that it’s been made into a mystifying condition, marked by failure, characterized by an almost unassimilable oddity despite its always threatening ubiquity.”
Cobb’s words reverberate with the cacophony brought about by the riotous celebration of gay marriage and its accouterments including rituals, costumes and the cake, oh yes…the cake! While the SCOTUS decision is widely considered as a watershed moment that opened up opportunities for queer singletons to enter into the binds and bonds of marriage, it is also enmeshed in many messy contradictions and tensions. At one party I attended last month, a gay man likened being single today as akin to wearing bell bottomed pants and hippie love beads (outside of Halloween, devoid of irony, camp, or any conscious intentions of going retro). Singlehood has become an anachrony for queers– a casualty of some temporal glitch. To be single in the post-Obergefell era is to fall into and be swallowed by the deep muddled quagmire of the partnered and the companioned as well as being forced to confront the stepped-up derision of the singleton, the soloist, and the unattached. The gay marriage decision is now being used to shame and bully the queer uncoupled and further buttress a world utterly devoted to the attached, the companioned and the married.
I can only think of our own campus as a prime example where the attractions used to lure many job candidates are amenities such as spousal hires, good elementary and high schools, and family style dwellings among others. I arrived at UIUC in 1999 which was a time when departmental and university phone directories would list staff and faculty with their respective spouses names in parenthesis. As a progressive campus, these names would include common law and same sex partners. However, such enticements and amenities for potential “tribal” members of our community were part of larger structural and emotional energies that propelled me out of my huge furnished apartment in Urbana to a smaller one bedroom in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. My reason for leaving is not because Chicago is more progressive or better than Urbana-Champaign since all these places consistently promote a valorized image of couples and families. I left because Chicago’s density allowed me to feel less alienated as a single gay man of color. To be in a throng of strangers in the city is more comforting to someone like me than the warm bucolic fictions of togetherness. I am perceived by other people to be less collegial, more aloof, and quite disaffected, and further imagined as someone either living a reckless debauched existence, an over-extended youth, or wallowing in mournful pitiful loneliness. None of it is accurate.
After reading Cobb’s work and many others, what remains to be true for the uncoupled in Gay Marriage America is that to be a singleton does not mean one is lonely, immoral, immature or pathetic. To be unmarried or uncoupled is not a prison sentence (sorry, Justice Kennedy). To be alone is not about failure or the lack of possibilities but rather about opening up a rich trove of options and alternatives. Finally, being alone is a dignified mode of survival and a necessary form of life.