Same-sex marriage means many things to many people. For those in government, it’s a political hot potato, dividing not just parties but individual families — no matter how well she keeps mum on the subject, one suspects that out lesbian Mary Cheney has a different attitude on the subject than her father. For fundamentalist Christians, it threatens the breakdown of the entire institution of marriage and the American family. For the GLBT community and sympathetic friends and family, it’s a matter simply of life and death — how gay people are permitted by their government to live out their lives and what will happen to their property upon their death, even whether a partner of 30 or 50 years may be able to see them in the hospital when the inevitable comes. The time is right for a documentary that thoughtfully examines both sides of the issue and allows a voicing of the various viewpoints. Tying the Knot is not that film, but it does make some valuable additions to the ongoing discourse.
The film personalizes the issue by focusing largely on two people who lost their life partners and were subsequently denied the rights that those able to legally marry can take for granted. Mickie Mashburn, a police officer in Tampa, Fl., married fellow cop Lois Marrero in 1991. Ten years later, Lois was killed in the line of duty, and the community, the police department, and the Marrero family rallied around Mickie — until she tried to claim Lois’s police pension. Lois’s sister Brenda turned on Mickie, claiming that her relationship with Lois had fallen apart and that she had no right to the money. As the state of Florida granted Mickie no legal standing as Lois’s spouse, the pension board denied her claim and awarded the pension to Lois’s biological family. A similar story takes place in Oklahoma, where Earl, partnered for 22 years with a man named Sam (no last names are given, and some family members interviewed have their faces blurred to protect their privacy), died with a will that left everything to Sam. The will, though, was missing the third signature necessary to make it legal, and distant relatives came out of the woodwork to deny Sam ownership of the home and land he had built with Earl.
Director/producer Jim de Sève does a clever thing in introducing Sam, interspersing scenes of him talking about marriage and commitment in conventional, conservative terms with similar scenes of other Oklahomans sneering with disgust at the very thought of a same-sex relationship. You assume Sam is just another bigoted redneck (he has the look and voice of an uneducated Southerner) until he begins to speak movingly of meeting Earl one evening by the Arkansas river and sitting and talking with him well into the next morning. It upends the typical Eastern liberal’s assumption that a man like Sam has nothing to do with us. He is us, the film suggests, and our dismissal of men like Sam is just as shortsighted as the arch-conservatives’ dismissal of gay people as less than human.
De Sève intersperses the stories of Mickie and Sam with scenes of protest and marital bliss and an erudite but conversational survey of the history of marriage from historian E.J. Graff. The comparison is drawn to the case of Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage in America. He reviews the developments in Hawaii and Massachusetts, examines the Defense of Marriage Act and President Bush’s support of an anti-same-sex-marriage Constitutional Amendment, and talks to married same-sex couples in Canada and The Netherlands. Adjied Bakas, a married gay man tells him, “In Holland we have a saying that a civilization can be judged on the way it treats its minority. If it treats its minorities well, then it’s a civilized country.”
Tying the Knot is effective and touching in its depiction of the struggle for same-sex couples to achieve legal equality, but it gives short shrift to the opposing arguments. This is unsurprising, given its objective, but it’s a weakness. We see the arguments being refuted effectively, by such parties as Evan Wolfson, the plaintiffs’ attorney in the Hawaii case, but we see very little of those who made them in the first place, and no attempt is made to understand their mindset. What we do see, from legislators such as Bob Barr and Phil Gramm and Focus on the Family leader James Dobson makes them seem perfect caricatures of bigotry (Dobson is shown being interviewed on “Larry King Live,” where he addresses the issue with such perfect illogic that King, no great rhetorician, easily makes him look foolish). I don’t agree with their viewpoint, but a lot of not-necessarily-evil-or-foolish people do, and de Sève does a disservice to both sides of the argument by not examining their reasoning more thoughtfully.
Walking out of the theater, I said to myself, Well, the film’s well-argued and touching at points, but it’s preaching to the converted. No one who opposes same-sex marriage will see this and be persuaded to change his mind. Then, a couple of weeks later, I was on the phone with an old friend I hadn’t talked to in a while, and the subject came up. This friend is a bright woman, open-hearted, generally kind and nonjudgmental, but she’s a Christian and she’s lived her life in the Southern United States. She told me she wasn’t sure how she felt about the subject; that she believed everyone had the right to pursue personal happiness and fulfillment but she wasn’t sure she understood why gay people need to be legally married in order to do so. I’m going to send her a copy of Tying the Knot when it comes out on DVD. We may never persuade the James Dobsons of the world to re-examine their premises, but in talking to people of goodwill who remain undecided on the issue, a film like Tying the Knot may prove to be a valuable tool.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Tying the Knot / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()