THE COMMITMENT

Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family

By Dan Savage

Dutton. 291 pp. $24.95

Dan Savage is a man practiced at having it both ways. In this memoir of how and why he decided to marry his boyfriend, he combines many risque mentions of his friend's hot buns with scenes as suburban as a backyard badminton game. He writes a syndicated sex-advice column and is also editor of the Stranger, Seattle's alternative newspaper. He's gay, of course, which to some people still conjures images of wild parties and late nights and marvelous West Hollywood parades, but in fact, he and Terry (by this account, a lot younger and cuter than Dan) have been together 10 years and are the adoptive parents of a boy called D.J. Now that their 10-year anniversary is approaching, the idea of marriage has occurred to Terry and Dan. After all, they've already got the kid, they might as well tie the knot.

But there's a whole lot going against this notion. Dan, raised in an Irish Catholic family, is afraid of jinxing the relationship. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, is his motto. Terry is a little more petulant and a little more on the money: He doesn't want to act like straight people, he complains.(Considering he's already playing stay-at-home dad to D.J. and fielding crass remarks from Mr. Savage about being a gold digger, it would seem a little late for that particular complaint.) Perhaps most important, little D.J. is dead set against the idea. Where he goes to school, men marry women, women marry men. Anything else verges on the embarrassing and the weird.

Still, Dan and Terry feel they should do something to commemorate this landmark in their emotional lives. Maybe throw a big anniversary party. Maybe get coordinated tattoos. Under a lot of light and carefree humor (and later in the book, a good bit of tendentious argument), a much larger question looms: If two people of the same sex love each other, what should they do in today's querulous and litigious society, where the religious right spends its time looking up Old Testament warnings about men lying together, while on the far left, sweet lesbian ladies spend their life savings on matching Vera Wang dresses? (Please don't send me any letters on this. I disapprove of marriage in general, no matter who marries whom. Although I do follow my stepmother's good advice and always speak of my ex-husbands so kindly that people assume they're dead.)

"The Commitment" divides into two narratives. First Savage takes Terry and D.J. on an extended midwestern vacation with his own family. Three sets of his siblings and their significant others, as well as Dan's mother, weigh in on the ups and downs of marriage. One brother has been married before, has a son from that marriage and an "open relationship" with a new girlfriend. One couple is married with a kid of their own and another from another previous marriage. Then there's Dan's sister and her boyfriend, with no marriage at all. And Dan's kind mother, whose own parents' marriage was a nightmare but who feels Dan and Terry probably should get married. Savage, playing the good journalist, follows his relatives around and asks how their relationships are working out.

The strongest argument here, which he brilliantly plays down, is that family means everything to these people: married, not married, blended, gay, straight, whatever. All of them get along beautifully, play parlor games, sport around on the beach, go out for a beer or two, tell the old family stories, hang out. So what's the big deal about this possible marriage? It isn't even legal, except maybe in a state or two; it would be more a symbolic action than anything else. Even if Dan and Terry went north to Canada for a legal marriage, the whole thing would be null and void when they came back across the border. What's the point?

The point, which becomes distressingly clear in the book's second half, is that Dan Savage is a homosexual activist. He argues for first-class citizenship for "homos," as he calls them, and to do so he stands up and knocks down every nutty anti-gay piece of rhetoric he can think of. It's as though the sweet family party Savage describes in the first part of the book has broken up and two or three crabby uncles and aunts who've had way too much Seagram-and-Seven have decided to blab on into eternity:

"I listened to a 'Christian leader' on a cable news shoutfest describe the December 26, 2004, earthquake and tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people in Asia as evidence of God's displeasure. With Asians? No, with same-sex marriage. 'We can't allow things that offend God to flourish without expecting to incur the wrath of God,' she said. She cited gay and lesbian marriages in Canada, San Francisco, and Massachusetts. 'Gay marriage offends God deeply,' hence the killer wave." Does Savage dismiss this for the rant that it is? No, he spends the next seven pages off on a rant of his own, ending with "And what, I wonder, will the social conservatives do after they realize that their 'Nuremburg-lite' laws have failed? Round us up and put us in camps? Pack us onto boxcars heading north to Canada? Line us up against walls and shoot us?"

A lot of this gay-marriage stuff is moot by now. In many states gay people can bequeath money to their partners. Plenty of gay people have a say in how their partners die in hospitals. James Dobson and his Focus on the Family may not like it, but that's beside the point. Even Disney gives benefits to "domestic partners." This is not to say that gays are first-class citizens in America, but neither are women or Mexicans or Middle Easterners. Savage fails to note any significant social progress or acknowledge the suffering of other repressed groups; he just drones on, preaching to the choir.

And he can be mean-spirited, too. He makes fun of the "morbidly obese" and "breeders," one of whom after all was partly responsible for his beloved D.J. He crabs on and on about the wedding industry and sounds once again like crazy Uncle Dan holding forth in his Barcalounger. When he accuses Terry of being a gold digger and not understanding the value of a dollar, I couldn't help but think Savage is a lucky man. Any woman worth her salt would have bopped him with a heavy vase.

But he gets married, signs on for his ball and chain, while making condescending remarks about his spouse getting his pottery business "off the ground." He does it while D.J. hides behind a couch, pleading, "No kissing! No kissing!" But they do it. They get married, and they kiss, and they're absolutely sure they're right. They're sanctimonious personified, the mirror image of James Dobson himself.