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Tom Rasmussen
Photography Thurstan Redding

The new book taking a sledgehammer to the sanctity of marriage

Tom Rasmussen’s First Comes Love interrogates the reverence and the revile that holy matrimony so often inspires

For three years, Tom Rasmussen refused to cook a single meal at home. They were in their mid-twenties and they chose to eat every breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a restaurant – a financially ruinous decision that frequently meant eating alone and dreading the double bleep of a card machine. Though, that’s beside the point. “There is genuinely not one possible glimmer of glamour to be found in and around the world of Tupperware,” read their 2017 money diary, a tell-all account of a week in the chaotic life of an “anonymous” writer-performer, which would later secure Rasmussen a debut publishing deal for their memoir, Diary of a Drag Queen.

Fast-forward four years and Rasmussen returns with First Comes Love, an exploration of the culture of marriage as it spews over into class, religion, gender, and sexuality. From the miracle of queer love to the wonder of the Kensington Olympia Wedding Fair, Rasmussen attempts to reconcile their fantasies of Vera Wang bridal gowns and cosy chicken kiev dinners with radical sexual politics – questioning whether the stomach-soaring admiration they feel towards their partner, Ace, would do better with a ring on it. Ace, by the way, is vehemently anti-marriage, and Rasmussen can’t quite decide. Hence the book.

While there are obvious critiques on the hallowed institution of matrimony, this is no queer takedown, or rallying cry for its abolition. First Comes Love fizzes with contradictions, presenting marriage as both a symbol of social status, and selling-out, of comfort, and constraint. Rasmussen illuminates these grey areas with their own kaleidoscopic encounters with romance: be it getting engaged at the age of 22 or being bum-fingered whilst working the counter of a South London cafe, the writer peppers their cultural deep dive with chatty asides and rambunctious anecdotes. There’s that of Rasmussen’s grandmother, who would lovingly brush her teeth with a bar of Imperial Leather soap, Wotsit-topped wedding cakes, and drug-fuelled, Berghain orgies.

Then there’s Carrie Bradshaw, the OG sex and relationship counsel, who guides Rasmussen throughout their journey like Virgil to Dante – had either worn archival Dior or jewel-encrusted Manolos, that is. But where Carrie twists her friends’ most intimate of tales into self-serving column inches, Rasmussen simply passes the mic – to local newlyweds in crumbling cricket club venues, to Sophie Tanner, who sick of the societal pressure to secure a spouse, married herself, and to Amanda Teague, who entered into wedlock (and then divorced) a 500-year-old, seafaring ghost. As Rasmussen clambers over the right, or wrong, things to say to a polyamorous asexual in Dalston or a self-professed “nastypig” in Los Angeles, First Comes Love steers clear of any kind of moralising or prejudice. What prevails – at risk of sounding gooey – is love. This book is an incisive, compassionate probing of the pleasures and pitfalls of marriage. And, as such, is a deft deconstruction of normativity today.

As to what they now confidently know about marriage, Rasmussen purses their lips, and says that “it’s bad but it’s also good” which is, actually, an accurate dilution of their expansive, clear-eyed, investigation into the rigmarole of tying the knot. “All I want is for people to ask questions about these kinds of rituals and maybe apply that questioning to other areas of their life,” they say, septum piercing glinting as light slices through their bedroom window, which, as Rasmussen is quick to add, looks directly onto the platform of Forest Hill train station. Here, we catch up with the writer on monogomy, Ms. Bradshaw, and the myth of marriage equality.

Tom – you say you’ve forever been obsessed with marriage. Have you always been dubious of its culture? 

Tom Rasmussen: Um, no. 

It’s just that lots of people are absolutely fixated on getting hitched – Pinterest probably has a statistic for that somewhere – but nobody actually writes a whole book on it.

Tom Rasmussen: Honestly, no. I never knew I wanted to write because of where I grew up. Writing is not the thing that people do. People don’t read William Burroughs and they definitely do not devote themselves to the written word. Then, there came a point about three years ago when all my girlfriends back home started to get married, as did people from London, and family members. I started getting asked to be ‘best them’ at people’s fucking weddings. But I remember feeling like nobody was asking the question. Why are we doing this? Like, I can say that marriage is trash but I don’t actually, really, know why I think that.

I imagine when you start asking someone for their views on marriage, they end up speaking about just about everything else, too. It’s that kind of slippery, deeply personal subject that sometimes defies rationale.

Tom Rasmussen: Marriage is a great conduit to discuss the question of how you live your politics. What I thought was going to happen was that I’d find an intellectual justification for marriage and then I’d propose to my partner who’d say ‘no’ because he’s born and raised anti-marriage. Imagine. What a fab ending to a book. All this work. 100,000 words. And then a ‘no’ – almost to show that it’s all pointless. That ended up not happening because I completely waned throughout the book. Like, the Ghost essay is a damning indictment on the toxicity of marriage culture, but then the divorce chapter is actually quite a hopeful reimagining. 

I’m really interested in unpicking structures – I’m fascinated by that – and then communicating those ideas through various mediums, which is why I love music and performing so much. But nobody wants to listen to a song about the wedding fair I went to in Kensington Olympia. So a book just becomes the right medium. I wanted to take all the queer thinking that my friends and I have done over the last decade and apply that to the ultimate heterosexual institution. 

You moonlight as a glitter-bearded, Kate Bush crooning drag queen (otherwise known as Crystal) so this book was always going to be a little bit gay. That being said, First Comes Love is not a queer text, per se. That would do a disservice to just how expansive it is.

Tom Rasmussen: It’s written from a queer perspective but you know, I think straight people need to read the book. A lot of us are trying to constantly reevaluate our relationship with normativity. And so this was just a long extended version of me doing that, in the hope that other people would read it. Like my friend Holly, who’s in the book, is getting married next year and is now asking herself loads of questions that she might not have otherwise. I think if you can arrive at the altar having done that, then maybe 49 per cent of marriages would not end in divorce and the other 25 per cent wouldn’t trundle on miserably. So many people commit their lives to misery of some sort. And I find that deeply miserable. 

In an early chapter you describe how you decided to “free (yourself) from the boring mill of the everyday” by living fabulously. I still can’t believe you ate every single meal in a restaurant for years on end. At times it made me question if I’m really living at all.

Tom Rasmussen: What, like getting pissed on in Lab.Oratory underneath Berghain? 

Yes, exactly.

Tom Rasmussen: A lot of that is not fun, though. I mean I was absolutely broke. I had a pack of five Fruit of the Loom t-shirts and one Raf Simons shirt that I would wear in rotation. It was very ‘chic’. But it’s that old adage – everything in moderation. Like I realised marriage isn’t inherently bad, or normative, even. It’s just about constantly asking the questions. Ugh. My biggest fear is just reaching a point in life where I feel unchallenged by my own opinions, or unchallenged by those around me, unchallenged by learning something new. I think marriage in many ways, or maybe the marriages I've seen, represent that.

So how do we combat that stagnation?

Tom Rasmussen: I think instead of committing to the idea of marriage or the idea of non-monogamy, you just have to commit to the idea of imagination. And that sounds so hippie but whatever. The thing is, leaning too far one way or the other forces you to cleave off the imagination of what could be. That’s what really, really got me about marriage, and any normative structure for that matter – whether it’s children, or monogamy, or capitalism – it forces you to not be able to ask or even sit with your desires for something different. You can be married and have imagination, you can be single and have imagination, you can be a nihilistic slut and have imagination.

“I think instead of committing to the idea of marriage or the idea of non-monogamy, you just have to commit to the idea of imagination. And that sounds so hippie but whatever. The thing is, leaning too far one way or the other forces you to cleave off the imagination of what could be.” – Tom Rasmussen

Imagination can be hard to muster, though. Particularly for queer people who have no roadmap, really, on what a married, or divorced, future might look like. 

Tom Rasmussen: It asks a lot, especially of queer people, because we are often burdened with the task of imagining new futures. And the moment they're imagined, they’re whipped away.

Like gay marriage? You do touch on the myth of marriage equality in the book.

Tom Rasmussen: There is no marriage equality. It’s a mirage, like it doesn't exist right now. For many trans people who haven’t changed their paperwork for various reasons to do with both choice and cis gatekeeping, marriage is inaccessible. For me, a non-binary person, I can’t get married with my pronouns as they/them legally because I can’t register those pronouns legally. I only realised this through researching. It’s just like anytime you rub up against the norm, you’re inevitably faced with a series of constant, small heartbreaks. So it would be nice if there were more conversations about how marriage equality isn't real for our community. 

What’s surprising, though, is that in and among all this progressive thought is the presence of Carrie Bradshaw, who you frequently refer back to. She was never one for non-normative relationships...

Tom Rasmussen: It’s interesting because I was talking to my editor about this and I realised the patterning of expectation and relationships among my generation is somewhat based on Carrie Bradshaw. Everyone, even if they themselves are not aware, has learned dating from this person. The cultural ripple effect that shows like Sex And The City have had is wild. I’m personally obviously obsessed with Carrie and it’s only in digging down into the bedrock of my life – love, marriage, my upbringing – that I’ve realised how problematically informed I’ve been by this dreadful person. Well, not dreadful, she’s harmless really. She just has zero self awareness.

Contemporary culture has a tendency to moralise people’s marital decisions, particularly when they intersect with feminism, class, and sexuality. But First Comes Love seems to hold space for everyone, no matter how traditional someone’s choices may be. 

Tom Rasmussen: That was a big aim for the book. It would be so easy to say ‘oh I've read online that it's not feminist to take the name of your boyfriend when you marry and you’re trash’. But we need to live in the grey areas a little bit more. We need more space culturally to do that. I actually started off with way more opinions but when it comes to the matter of organising your life, like marriage, there needs to be space for us to ask questions and make mistakes. I've just written a 100,000 word book on marriage and if someone said to me, should I get married or not? I'd be like, I don't know. I don’t actually know. 

Has writing the book at least quelled your own anxieties about marriage? As you say, the preoccupation with getting wed has taken up mental real estate ever since you were a child.

Tom Rasmussen: Yeah. It’s really lame to admit it but ultimately I believe in love. Like, I really do. Even though I think that’s deeply trash and embarrassing. If you met me ten years ago, you would think I was the most fab, but deeply basic, person. And it’s been nice to reaccess that. Of course, I also believe in hatred and revolution, but this book has allowed me to not come down on any particular side about marriage. Now, I’ve stopped equating marriage and love, which I think I always did, secretly. I always thought that marriage equals love, and love equals marriage but it doesn't. I just really, really, truly believe in love. I do. 

Order your copy of First Comes Love here