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Charles Manson and Gay Marriage

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November 18, 2014


The internet is abuzz with the news that the 80-year-old Charles Manson Manson might be marrying his long-time girlfriend Afton Elaine Burton, who goes by the name “Star.”


There is, of course, incredulity all around, but I’m amused by one strand in the commentary that has been showing up: the apparent ridiculousness of the idea that a mass murderer like Charles Manson can marry but gay people still can’t do so in every state.


Pro-marriage gays and their straight allies are snarking everywhere, in articles like this or on Twitter and Facebook, about the apparent injustice evident in the news.  A serial killer can get married, but gays can’t? is the general refrain.  Several echo perhaps the most tired joke to emerge out of all this, one tweeted by Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign: “80yo Charles Manson will soon be getting married, but by all means don't let gay couples destroy sanctity of marriage!”


As Abby Tallmer reminds me, Griffin et al were not as enthusiastic in mentioning Manson when he came out as bisexual in the pages of Rolling Stone.


The current wave of mockery is the sort that has greeted several short-lived celebrity marriages, including that of Britney Spears in 2004, in a Las Vegas ceremony that was annulled almost instantly. The logic seems to be this: The fact that straights can marry any time they want, regardless of who they are, means that gays should be able to do the same.

In mocking such infamous and often short-lived couplings, gays are implicitly insisting that they are far more respectable than flighty pop stars or mass murderers.  Over and over, the politics of respectability which I’ve critiqued in “What’s Left of Queer?”, in this interview, and several other places, overdetermine such responses.  


But in their mocking of Manson, gays are inadvertently making the case against marriage and, inevitably, simply proving that their determination to gain marriage is really about wanting access into a flawed institution that grants a few people privileges, not rights.


The fact that Charles Manson can marry doesn’t highlight the relative inability of gays to marry.  They will, in fact, be able to do so, everywhere, in less than a decade because, as Against Equality has pointed out, it is neoliberalism’s handiest little tool. It simply proves that marriage is, at best, a utilitarian tool that allows people to gain benefits.  Star has emphasised that she wants the marriage so that she can, as a family member — a legally recognised one, as opposed to simply being part of that other family —  access evidence to prove Manson’s innocence.


Instead of pointing out that even a serial killer can get married, we might consider this: Marriage is for serial killers.  In other words, marriage is not meant to be proof of your moral worth but  might actually mean the opposite.


Or perhaps gays and lesbians who mock the upcoming Manson nuptials might consider that comparing their supposed paucity of rights to the presumed advantages of Charles Manson doesn’t make sense.  They are, after all, comparing their lot to that of a psychopathic, megalomaniacal, serial mass murderer who is in prison for life.  If you’re going to compare your lot to that of married people, perhaps choose a different point of comparison, like the stupendously wealthy and famous Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who once swore they would only get married once gay marriage was legal everywhere, only to exchange highly profitable vows this year.


Ultimately, this is what pro-gay marriage advocates really support: the ability to tie not love but estates into profitable, long-term schemes. The sad fact is that several key privileges, like that to the right to live or die, via health insurance (even under Obamacare) or the right to not have your parental status questioned in the emergency room, do in fact accrue to the married, and the extent of this unfair system will only increase with a rise in neoliberalism and its relentless privatisation of everyday life.  The problem with the gay argument for marriage is that it continues to forcefully create a world where marriage becomes the only way to access privileges for the coupled.  You might be someone who lives in  a place like the United Kingdom, with its famed National Health Service, and think you’re immune and an exception to all this.  For you, I have a question: Do you really think it’s a coincidence that the push for gay marriage, spearheaded by billionaires like Elton John, comes around the same time as the possibility of drastic cuts to the NHS?


And then there are all the problems with marriage that will never go away, and which have to be endlessly negotiated by thoughtful people who find themselves in the institution. It remains an oppressive institution for women and children, and exploits the relative vulnerability of those with less economic and cultural capital.  If you don’t believe me, try getting divorced as the person with more to lose and less to keep after marriage.  In its worst aspects, marriage’s punishments are gender-neutral. Following gay marriage’s legalisation, several gay couples are opting to lead lives where one partner is the breadwinner and the other the stay-at-home mom or dad.  You can choose to see that as progress, but talk to me ten years down the line, when the wealthier halves of couples decide to fall for younger, fitter, healthier people (why, yes, gays and lesbians are indeed the same as straight people) and the housewives and househusbands find themselves without jobs, friends, or money to sustain them.  


In sum, those riding the bandwagon of Manson-mockery and claiming support for gay marriage might look elsewhere and also consider the perils of marriage.  As Marc Bridle put it on my Facebook page, responding to the news about Manson, it “seems oddly appropriate since marriage is a prison sentence.”  



This is one of my short blogs, and meant to provide a spark for discussions and comments, not an exhaustive history of the issues or a research paper.  If you’re interested in supporting my long-form work, including original scholarship, journalism, and commentary, please subscribe here.  If you’d rather not, but would like to demonstrate support for my unfunded work, please make a donation in any amount. No amount is too small. You can also check out my Wish List.

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