Like so many of my friends, I greeted the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision as wonderful news (and a welcome counter to the VRA decision). But this celebration, I hope, won’t lead us to ignore how problematic it is that the United States extends so many rights and privileges of citizenship through the marital relationship and, as such, marks as secondary the other relationships people choose to cultivate through their lives – those they have with siblings, extended families, friends, and even former loves. Maybe, if I’m being idealistic, these considerations will be next. These are thoughts I’ve often wrestled with, long before the anticipated DOMA ruling. When I first embarked upon my efforts to write about same-sex weddings (the subject of my fifth chapter), I found it the most challenging topic I’d pursued to that point, largely because it was so complicated and so politically charged. Weighing both sides of an internal same-sex community debate, I appreciate radical queers’ insistence not only on other goals the gay community might embrace (healthcare, economic justice, etc.) but also pride in and celebration of queer difference. And then there is the very legitimate critique about the limitations of the marital relationship and the danger of sanctioning the state’s power to regulate personal, sexual relationships (those interested in reading about these critiques in more detail might look to any number of Michael Warner’s works – I recommend The Trouble with Normal). All of this gave me pause in my focus on queer marriage and same-sex weddings.
Nancy Cott, who’s done as much as any historian to reveal just how public and just how political our seemingly private lives are (see Public Vows), gave testimony as an expert witness in a 2010 effort to refute the claims of Proposition 8 supporters in California. As she debunked Prop 8 defendants’ ideas about the nature of marriage (its alleged focus on procreation, the alleged perils gay unions presented to child-rearing, etc.), she aimed to neutralize efforts to mark her as partisan activist: “I would call myself not an advocate, but someone who has come to a personal opinion as a result of my historical research and study of this matter of the history of marriage for quite a number of years now,” she said. I’ve likewise been influenced by my research and scholarship. The familiar language of marriage – and for my research particularly, the familiar performance of weddings – has done much to facilitate grassroots support of broader equality for same-sex couples. Many same-sex wedding celebrants have noted that those close to them, those who initially may have balked at the notion of queer lifestyles and unions, have been won over by displays of love, devotion, and commitment so central to wedding celebrations. And while Warner, with his dissatisfaction with the pursuit of “normalcy,” would likely prefer the undoing of marriage as institution, the reality is, in a nation where we must live and engage with sometimes stifling social conservatism, marriage isn’t going anywhere. But if we can extend the population to whom marriage rights extend, there is the potential for changing the institution (as many would argue feminists have done in their decision to engage with marriage rather than abandon it).
On this topic, I wear my politics and my profession proudly. Like Cott, history has led me to believe marriage equality is a must, particularly in a nation that has done and continues to do so much to convince its citizens (and the world) that it is a bastion of liberty, justice, and equality. And a place where the separation of church and state is real. To that point, Mike Huckabee’s lament that “Jesus wept” at the SCOTUS ruling and Michele Bachman’s claim that SCOTUS went against ideas created and defined by God are irrelevant (as Nancy Pelosi clearly believes). Their parishes or broader faiths can persist in bigotry and exclusivity and hateful notions of difference, but their nation must live up to its promises to eschew these sentiments. As a Catholic growing up in New Jersey, rather than learning particular Bible passages or specific scripture, I received a more general sense of what Jesus Christ was about. And the guy whose central tenets were “do unto others” and “judge lest not ye be judged” seems like he’d be okay with marriage equality. Although, from my perspective, JC, the anti-materialist “Prince of Peace,” would probably not love contemporary GOP policies on economy and war. But I’m no religious historian, so I’ll stop there.