Monday, January 17, 2005

Bring "out" the dead

OK, this should be it, but Nick's Lincoln comment reminded me...I'm not sure what the postumous outing of various individuals is supposed to do for gay rights now, for the right of living gay people to marry, to join the army, and so on. Andrew Sullivan is, as Nick points out below, altogether fascinated by Lincoln's gayness, to the point of dwelling on it beyond any relevance it might have. But Sullivan is also suddenly coming to the defense of the once-despised Susan Sontag, whose wife, as it were, has been largely ignored in obits of Sontag, but who nevertheless placed high up in Sontag's will. Problem is, Annie Leibovitz wasn't exactly Sontag's wife, at least not according to Sontag, who, in a quote Sullivan posted a while back, outed herself, but maintained that Leibovitz was just a friend.

Sullivan writes: "Annie Leibovitz is second in line only to Susan Sontag's son, according to the New York Daily News. In Virginia, Leibovitz would, of course, have to fight for this in court. In all those states with bans on civil marriage and civil unions, Sontag's bequest could be challenged by Sontag's relatives as well, if they so chose." He adds, dryly, "Still, since Leibovitz and Sontag were just good friends, why should anyone worry?"

But this is crucial: If Sontag and Leibovitz were just good friends, and didn't even consider themselves married, then perhaps the law doesn't and shouldn't owe much to Leibovitz. If a straight person with an opposite-sex best friend dies, does that best friend automatically get morphed into a spouse? Now, it's certainly possible that Sontag and Leibovitz were, for all purposes, married, and that it was societal homophobia that, despite Sontag's being out, prevented the two to declare the status of their relationship. It's also highly possible that Sontag was a complex and unconventional woman who towards the end of her life chose a partner who fit no particular societally (gay society or straight) role: a platonic female best friend. Had she lived longer, perhaps Sontag would have fallen (romantically) in love with another woman or man, and would have put this person higher up in her will, but as it was, at the time of her death, perhaps Leibovitz was just the person she was second-closest to. The law does not check up on married couples to make sure they like each other like that, but the idea is, marriage is what happens when people decide to go well beyond friendship, committment-wise. Even if the law does not recognize gay marriage, Sullivan does. He refers to his own "boyfriend" not "husband" or "would-be-husband" and is accomplishing nothing by giving Sontag a wife she may or may not have actually had.

Somewhere, in some strange afterlife, Abe Lincoln and Susan Sontag are gettin' it on with each other at this very moment. Or maybe they're just sharing a bed, dreaming, respectively, of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, both of whom are on the market once more...


Dylan said...

Sullivan's very weird on the Sontag will thing because he appears to have some strange belief that the law cares about your legal or blood relationship to the beneficiaries of your will. It does not. If you give all of your money to a home for stray cats and leave your wife and children nothing, then unless it can be proved you were out of your mind (and you'd be surprised how little mental capacity you need to make a valid will), the stray cats get your cash. Leibovitz could be a lesbian eel with whom Sontag had homo/bestiality/Satanic sex. It's entirely irrelevant to her will.

Some caveats: many judges appear to stretch the law to void will provisions they don't like if they feel sympathy for an excluded blood relative, and intestacy laws do protect family members if you DON'T have a will. But gayness as a legal matter doesn't matter at all. I have, however, heard of a case where one gay man was advised to adopt his partner as his son (and did), because it prevented some distant cousins from having standing to challenge the will. Just because they can't (usually) win doesn't mean they won't tie up the money and make you run up legal fees.

Nick said...

Sullivan, however, is indeed correct on these points. Many families have successfully challeneged wills in which money has gone to surviving same-sex partners.

For a primer on this, I suggest George Chauncey's "Why Marriage?"

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

This is fair, Nick, but what if Leibovitz was really just a friend, and there was no girlfriend in the picture, even if Sontag herself wouldn't have minded having one?

Nick said...

well, I'm not one who could in any way accurately comment on Susan Sontag's personal life. I'm just saying (in response to the comment) that Sullivan has a point.

I think there's a basic disrespect in society for same-sex relationships, which are very meaningful and aren't really treated as such. Imagine spending your life with someone only to have them reduced to a friend in your obituary. Imagine being reduced to that "friend."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

But in this case, Sontag herself called Leibovitz a "friend" even while admitting that she'd also had female lovers. So I don't think it holds here, even if there's a broader point worth making, which there is.