Duan, wife and son
It's never easy trying to make
conversation over the throbbing music of a dance club, but Duan had an
"How old are you?" I asked. Yes, I'm pretty direct.
"Have your parents begun to pressure you about marriage?"
"They know I'm gay," Duan said, all the while moving to the music. "Anyway, I had a wife and son."
"What?" I had to be sure I heard correctly.
"Four years ago."
"Four years ago, what?"
"I had a wife four years ago -- and a son."
His stress on 'four years ago' suggested it wasn't so anymore. "And now?" I asked.
"Now I don't know where she is. She doesn't want to see me anymore."
"And your son?"
"I haven't seen him for three years."
It took a bit more effort, and not a little shouting over the music to get the story out of him. And it went like this:
Duan had been in and out of boyfriends since sixteen. Somehow, at eighteen, he had sex with a girl, whom he had known as a friend. Just once. Exactly how and why that happened, there wasn't a simple answer. I gathered that there were multiple reasons: on his part, getting carried away from too much drinking and wanting to see, for once, what vaginal sex was like; on her part, probably that she loved him, and was trying to get him to love her.
What neither of them bargained for was pregnancy. And irate parents, both his and hers. For the sake of family honour and household peace, they got married. The baby soon followed.
Of course that didn't mean that there was any better chance of him loving her. He never did, and he never intended to be married to her. In any case, he had a boyfriend through the entire period. Even after marriage, he spent most of his time with him, most nights not even coming home. The wife didn't know her 19-year-old husband was gay, only that she hardly ever saw him. After more than a year, she finally became exasperated enough to shake the truth out of Duan's father. Learning where the lovenest was, she stormed over there and made a huge scene.
"So what did you say to her," I asked Duan, "when she found out you were gay?"
"I told her I had been with this boyfriend even before I met her."
He probably said a lot more than that, and she must have had ten times more to say, but the net result was something we could all have predicted anyway: she walked out on him, moved away with the child, and hadn't been heard from since.
* * * * * * * * * *
There are many threads one can follow from this story, but I would like to explore the issue of the shotgun marriage. First however, we should take stock of the ending. The child is now without a father, and if left to the mother, will have no chance of knowing his father. The mother is now a single parent (unless she has remarried). The father does not pay child support. Why the mother did not sue him for that, I don't know. Duan is still too young to have much of an income and I suspect the wife is still so bitter, she does not want anything more to do with him, not even his money.
Yet, all these downside consequences were supposed to have been addressed by the marriage: the child would have a father, taking his fair share of child-rearing responsibilities. Man, wife and son would live happily ever after. So why didn't these "benefits" come about? Why was the net outcome no different -- even worse, if one considered the bitterness -- than if the marriage had never taken place?
Marriage is a packaged deal. It is made of many interlocking components -- legal recognition, family honour, social respectability, financial cross-support, tax breaks, legal blessing for the children, inheritance rights, but also love, devotion and sexual fidelity. To enter into marriage is to completely rearrange your life. It is to forswear a lot of options for the future. Before going into marriage, one had better be sure that is really what one wants, and that the benefits in one's case outweigh the costs. Nowadays, the "better be sure" part is often substituted by believing oneself to be in love. Love conquers all, they say. To be in love is to be sure.
I know I sound like a cynic, but I think the rising divorce rate in just about every country that keeps such statistics isn't doing my cynicism any harm.
But it's shotgun marriage that we're looking at here, and the immediate thing that will strike you is that there was no love (at least not on Duan's part) at the beginning of the marriage, and there was no prospect of such love blossoming any time in the future. Gayness is a very fundamental thing, to a degree that straight people often are unable to appreciate. No matter how many beautiful women one parades in front of a gay man, no matter how much a self-sacrificing woman devotes her life to him, he can never love women to the extent straight men can love women. He can never love women at the expense of his boyfriends. Just because we force a gay man to be married, and through continuing pressure, compel the couple to stay together ten years, does not mean he will love her at the end of all that effort, at least not in the exclusive way the wife would desire. More likely, he'd simply be more miserable than he ever imagined, he might even hate her for being the cause of that misery.
For Duan, a shotgun marriage was the most hopeless of the possible solutions. It meant rearranging his life, taking on legal commitments -- not least of which was heterosexual fidelity -- which he was hardly disposed to carry out. A shotgun marriage only makes sense to the peripheral players -- the parents, the extended family -- who have nothing but the superficial veneer of social respectability at stake. They don't have to rearrange their lives in the wake of the marriage. They just want others to rearrange their lives, so that they can avoid "shame".
It is necessary to examine the issue from the young wife's perspective too, but without having spoken to her, we can only speculate. It was interesting that Duan mentioned that at the time when they had sex, he had the impression she was in love with him. Either she gave him what he wanted as a token of her love, or she subconsciously used sex to get him to love her in return. Probably a mix of both motivations. The trap she fell into was to equate love with sex, a trap that was set, not by Duan, but by the inherent contradiction within our modern ideas of morality, at once prudish (sex = intimacy), and liberated (casual sex is OK). Possibly there might have been major confusion of ends and means, that since love is to be consummated with sex, so sex must necessarily be consummated with love. It also looked like there was a certain blindness which I have often seen in young girls raised on pulp romances, to the possibility that young men want sex just for the fun of it .
The usual end result of such life disasters, from the women's perspective, is to blame the man for taking her love lightly, for being so wicked to her in being gay. Certainly, if you read women's magazines, which occasionally have articles touching on relationships with gay men, this is almost always the direction of blame. I am usually astounded how infantile such a conclusion is. Such pat answers do nothing to educate young women to see things as they are, not as the world should rosily be: that men, gay or straight, don't often equate sex with love; that the world over, they tend to treat women as sexual objects (or in the case of gay men, they treat other men as sexual objects); and not least, being gay is not any kind of wickedness.
As I keep on repeating to love-stricken young people, gay and straight, just because you love someone does not mean he has any obligation to love you back. It is not his fault if he doesn't.
It seemed bad enough that the young woman wasn't careful before giving sex to Duan (and it's unforgivable that Duan didn't use a condom!), but the shotgun marriage only made things worse by raising her expectations. By being formally married, she would have been under the illusion that the mistake had been corrected. All would be well in the future. If he didn't love her before, if he wasn't committed to her previously, by waving that marriage certificate, she could rightfully expect love and commitment to follow. It is the nature of packaged solutions. All the promised bits and pieces can be expected to be in the package.
With such raised expectations, the fall would inevitably be harder. The anger and bitterness when she found out the truth was all the greater. Furthermore, the one most innocent would also be the one most hurt -- the child -- cut off from his father, being raised without child support, because of the chasm between Duan and his embittered wife.
Shotgun marriages are not the solution to such mistakes of careless sex. Firstly, any solution premised primarily on avoidance of shame is never a solution, whether we're talking about pregnancy or embezzlement. It just leads to cover up, more lies, and a festering of wounds. Secondly, marriage as a solution is bigger, far bigger, than the problem it was meant to solve. Like using a jackhammer to open a can of tuna. The specific problem that had to be solved was the welfare of the child. He needed to be raised with love, by both his parents and as many other people as possible. And all those responsible for him should be contributing economically to his growing up. To deal with this problem by insisting on Duan and the woman taking on commitments to each other for the rest of their lives, flying in the face of Duan's gayness and his existing boyfriend, was just unrealistic, lighting a fuse for a future explosion. Duan and the young woman should simply have worked out, amicably, a child support and child access scheme, not exchanged marriage vows. But they didn't. They bought into this vision of a happily-ever-after, well, at least she did, and he stupidly agreed to it. It should hardly be any surprise that within a year, it blasted apart, leaving everybody worse off than before.
But what about family honour? What about the girl's honour -- deflowered, single-mother, and a few other pejorative words? First of all, we have to remember that she herself was responsible for her predicament too. She agreed to have sex. Duan's responsibility was not towards her honour. It should not have been for him to save her honour (by marrying her). Duan's responsibility, to be very clear about it, was to the child, for failing to use a condom .
But more importantly, there is a general principle worth pointing out: all this talk about honour sometimes leads us away from the best possible solution. It distorts our prioritisation of needs. At the end of the day, it is dishonourable to make false promises (such as a shotgun marriage); better to be pragmatic and find sensible solutions within the realities, namely that there was a child, and that Duan was gay, and would always be gay. He could love the child, as much as any father loves his son, but he did not love her.
And not least, we should look to ourselves too and ask how we bystanders tsk tsk and contribute to a climate of ostracism such that single mothers are driven to desperate solutions. Let's watch our own self-righteous moralism that destroys lives.
© Yawning Bread