Table for one: Are singles the new sexual minority?

To celebrate Pride 2012, we’re offering a series of brand new columns from a few of our authors of LGBT Studies books, on a slew of topics ranging from marriage to parenthood to religion to the new sexual minority: the single. To kick off the Pride series, below is an excerpt from Maclean’s interview with Michael Cobb, author of Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled.

Q: [In your book,] you talk about all the classic indignities of the single life: the wedding invitations with “and guest,” the puzzlement when you go alone to a restaurant—all of it ongoing even while the world changes. The growth in people living by themselves is remarkable and yet there’s no language, no narrative to reflect this.

A: When I’m with my busiest friends, I’m thinking how we actually are more in relationships with our technology than each other, people staring at iPhones or BlackBerrys, to the point that I think, “Okay, something else is happening here, we are removed, we have other ways of associating.” Somehow we are often actually more comfortable associating with people far away than beside us. I’m not lamenting that, I’m just saying that it’s a dynamic that is happening, but the old grand narratives about how you belong to a culture and a world, a society, haven’t changed. There has been an extraordinary amount of singles studies that have appeared in the last year or so. The cover story for the Atlantic in November, written by a friend of mine, Kate Bolick, called “All the single ladies,” pointed out that sometimes successful women don’t want to get married, even in their late 30s. You start a conversation on this and you find a swell of support from people saying, “Yes, this is exactly what I experience myself.” Many single people are craving some kind of language, some kind of analysis that says you do not have to do this thing: married, children, retirement.

Q: Does the gay community bring a particular insight or emphasis to this?

A: It’s been very interesting to watch what has happened to gay politics in the last decade or so. Marriage equality—especially in the States—became the major focus. In Canada, we got it relatively quickly, and it wasn’t traumatic—the sky didn’t fall. But it shows the power of the couple idea. Sexual minorities felt like, “Okay, one way that we are constantly officially delegitimized is because we are not able to marry,” and it’s true. I’m appreciative of that desire to correct that civil wrong, but on the other hand it still proclaims the most legitimizing thing you can be is married, which will enable the rest of the world to say, okay, now you can inherit each other’s property, you can have visitation [rights], you can make stable custodial arrangements for the children. I don’t know if a lot of people have done enough thinking about this. Why is the couple and very official couple-making the goal we’re all driving toward?

Q: Your argument goes further, though—it is a polemic, after all: coupledom doesn’t just overwhelm singleness or isn’t always as perfect as claimed, it’s actually often toxic.

A: Coupledom shrinks the world. I use that language deliberately because being part of a couple is the thing that’s supposed to save you, as it does at the end of almost every single romantic comedy. I’m not saying people don’t have wonderful, large, fantastic relationships, but they are also anxiety-producing. They do shrink the world. You have fewer friends, you have fewer opportunities to go out in the world and explore and have all sorts of intimacies and associations and friendships and activities. Some people really like that, but I don’t think it’s much better than any other kind of situation. I’m trying to knock it off its hierarchy a little bit.

[Read the full interview:]

Cobb goes beyond debunking popular myths of the single life here; and in his 2007 South Atlantic Quarterly article, “Lonely,” he speculated how singles might fit into queer theory:

Not too long ago, at a queer conference, I toyed with the notion of attaching the letter S to the LGBTQ acronym (LGBTQS) so I could affiliate those who are “single” with the ever-elongating list of nonmajority sexualities. I was hoping to provoke serious reflection on why “relationships” and “coupledom” were often the most important objects of my fields of study. I wanted to inquire why there was always the demand to be oriented toward sustained, intimate relationships, especially since the single felt (and still feels) like one of the most despised sexual minority positions one could be.

What do you think? Does society really view singles as lonely half-people in constant search for a partner? Why is ‘coupledom’ considered unquestionably better than ‘singledom’—or isn’t it? Share your thoughts with us in our comments section!

Michael Cobb is Professor of English at the University of Toronto. He is the author of  Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled (forthcoming in July) and God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence, also published by New York University Press.

»»»  Happy Pride from NYU Press! Save 25% on these and other LGBT Studies books when you order via our website. Simply enter promo code DIVER12 online during check out, or call 800.996.6987. Offer ends on July 1, 2012.

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