#marriagewins

Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times, “The Price of Gay Marriage,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/opinion/sunday/the-price-of-gay-marriage.html) is a beautiful and concise summation of pivotal moments in the struggle for gay rights since World War II. After reading, I thought immediately how useful the piece would be as a concluding reading in a course on Gender & Sexuality or the American Family or a History of Marriage. What I especially loved is Stewart-Winter’s ability to celebrate this victory but remind readers that tremendous gains often come with costs. This is a win, but one that should give us pause.

White House rainbow.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge

When SCOTUS first undid DOMA back in 2013, I wrote about the influence of the decision and how I loved the extension of equal rights across the population, but how I also felt uneasy about the privileging of marriage above basically all other chosen relationships (https://aslongaswebothshalllove.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/thoughts-on-marriage-equality/). Stewart-Winter writes to that end: “The gay movement has stood for valuing all families — including those led by single parents, those with adopted children, and other configurations. It has stood for other ideas, too, that risk being lost in this moment’s pro-family turn: that intimacy, domesticity and caretaking do not always come packaged together; that marriage should not be the only way to protect one’s children, property and health; that having a family shouldn’t be a requirement for full citizenship; and that conventional respectability shouldn’t be the only route to social acceptance.”

When I teacher Gender & Sexuality in US History, I emphasize the ways in which gay and lesbian relationships, more visible in the aftermath of Stonewall and the creation of a Gay Liberation Front, contributed mightily to the changed nature of opposite-sex relationships. For gays in the 1960s and 1970s, marriage, laced with patriarchal overtones, was rarely identified as a goal. Love didn’t have to mean marriage. Living together without a license from the state, a necessity for same-sex couples, was a possibility for a man and a woman, too. Love didn’t have to mean forever. One kind of love could end while another kind could come to take its place, allowing relationships to evolve over time. All that said: there is great value in alternative lifestyles to enhance and improve the possibilities for those living in the mainstream (although, of course, that’s not the responsibility of the marginalized – but it’s a pattern that we see time and again). To suggest that relationships should conform eventually to fit one model (even as flexible as marriage has become) is troubling. As is the implicit reinforcement of the idea of marriage as the primary relationship one should aspire to and the ultimate relationship one can achieve.

So the SCOTUS decision is a win, but it’s complicated. Do I love the outcome of last week’s decision? YES. And ESPECIALLY after reading the HORRIFYING dissents (please note the deliberate use of caps). Have I loved seeing the rainbow-tinted world of Facebook and the many hashtags celebrating SCOTUS’s ruling on same-sex unions? Yes, #loveislove and #lovewins. And yet, love is nowhere in Justice Kennedy’s 2013 delivery of the court’s opinion. Kennedy writes about citizenship and status and the extension of benefits. Love doesn’t necessitate a marriage license (or vice versa [sorry, romantics]). So maybe more accurately, #marriageisbenefits or #marriagewins. If we’re talking about marriage – and we are – we’ve achieved equal access not only to the institution, but also to its limits and flaws.

A Slippery Slope: Wedding Tradition v. Sexism

Slate’s Gentleman Scholar recently engaged with the question: Should men ask their future in-laws for permission to marry their daughters? Is this charmingly old-fashioned or disgustingly sexist? (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/weddings/2014/06/asking_future_in_laws_for_permission_to_marry_their_daughter_a_tradition.html)

Until women ask men’s parents for permission or blessing, it *is* sexist. Until that time, the one-sided practice suggests that a woman is passing from possession of one family to another. It ignores the fact that women are just as capable of self-support and independent decision making as men. And as the age at first marriage continues to rise, it’s increasingly ridiculous to ask permission to enter into a consenting committed partnership with a full-grown adult (not to mention the fact that the idea of marriage as “partnership” is harder to swallow if one party is checking in with a third party, re: the relationship moving forward [additionally: the continued focus on the man as proposer and the woman as propose plays to the inequality of the relationship – especially since decision-making about moving forward remains a male prerogative]).

And, of course, the piece relies on the fact that we’re still dealing solely with male-female unions. What happens to the process of asking permission or blessing when there are two men or two women wedding? Something I love about the growing visibility and increasing legality of same-sex weddings is that they reveal so clearly just how gendered (and archaic) so much of American wedding culture is.

Still, the Gentleman Scholar, in weighing in on this issue, is not wrong in suggesting that if the idea of securing permission or blessing is important to you and yours, talk it out, and decide what’s best for you. Fine. And I’m not suggesting those who ask for a blessing or permission are sexists, full stop. But I hope couples deciding to continue on with this non-tradition think through just what, exactly, it represents.

Which brings me to potentially the more interesting point of the article: the idea that this part of wedding culture is “traditional.” As one man claimed about his decision to ask permission of his then-girlfriend’s father “I thought that there was something in the ritual….I embraced the tradition despite the fact that the institution of marriage has evolved.” As the article notes, however, the tradition hasn’t been a tradition, really, in years. The Slate piece references the 1948 edition of Vogue’s Book of Etiquette, which established that once a man and woman decided to wed, it was for the bride to inform her family of the decision. Many of the prescriptive texts I read for As Long As We Both Shall Love communicated the same point. Ideas of what is traditional, of what is a fundamental part of the wedding process, continue to shape decisions contemporary bride and grooms make as much as their own desires or actual traditions, established by previous generations within their families and handed down across generations. In writing about the use of blessing or permission, the Gentleman Scholar engages with the use of tradition: “We’re talking, in each case, about embracing traditional language to indicate respect for values more durable than the patriarchy from which that language emerged.” I don’t disagree with the idea that traditions evolve over time or that asking permission or blessing means something different now than it once did. But I can’t let go of the fact this alleged tradition still communicates the bride’s subordinate status. And I have to wonder what it means when, of all the possible traditions out there, this is among those that still has legs, especially when it seems simple enough to amend the tradition to this end: decide to get married; assume your parents see you both as competent adults; then – as a couple – tell each set of parents (or whomever) that you’ve decided to wed. Boom. Dilemma of sexism v. tradition/values solved.

Reconsidering the Meaning of Marriage

Focusing on the outcome of marriage equality in New Mexico, the Albuquerque Journal this past weekend published an article “Couples Reflect on Wedded Life” (http://www.abqjournal.com/390315). A host of stories about what marriage has meant to same-sex couples reveals the relief they felt at finally having legal recognition that validated their relationship should one partner require medical care; that legitimated their roles as parents and affirmed the status of their children; and allowed them to use language that explicitly recognized the spousal relationship status of “husband” or “wife.” What stood out to me most in this article, however, was the duration of the relationships only just recently recognized by New Mexico government. Couples have long endured inequity, and under this new recognition of their unions are able to celebrate partnerships already cemented. In this way, the marital status affirms a relationship that has long existed rather than suggesting the start of a new relationship style.

As I argue in the conclusion of my book, many couples today – particularly those of a certain class status and possessing a certain cultural capital – often use their marriages and their weddings as a means of demonstrating that they’ve achieved any number of goals: professional success, long-standing relationships with family and friends, and, of course, a stable, fulfilling (and often already long-lasting) romantic partnership. For straight couples, the decision to wait to marry is one often made strategically, based on time, money, items to-do. The marriage is a culmination of decisions made about a relationship, rather than a point of origin. For same-sex couples, their unions likewise have this element of build up, although, of course, their delay stems from the long-standing denial of full rights of citizenship.

I’m intrigued by this idea of marriage as a transitional moment (potentially) as opposed to a point of origin or a fresh start. And as I’ve been giving some thought to the ways in which the American family structure has changed and is changing, it’s interesting to think as marriage or the wedding as no longer the earth-shaking events of people’s private lives. As people live together or arrange for long engagements, the negotiation of what sharing the greatest intimacies of day-to-day life means is often done before a marriage happens. And if it turns out that sharing those intimacies doesn’t work, one can simply initiate a break up or conclude a cohabitation (and I know “simply” is a crazy word; but to break up rather than “divorce” is the simpler alternative). To some extent, it seems as though our relationships to other people in our lives, and here I’m thinking particularly about aging parents or newborn children, are the ones that will cause the most disruption and require willingness to start fresh. So I’m either providing an effort at contemporary cultural lifestyle analysis or suggesting the direction I think the family is about to take more broadly. In any case, the winds are pointing me in the direction of change.

But, of course, I can’t conclude without some consideration of those who endeavor to undo marriage equality gains. State recognition certainly communicates a level of validity. But the validity of these relationships had already been established through the way gay and lesbian couples have chosen to live their lives, even without sanction of the law. As women’s liberationists insisted as the Second Wave gained power: the personal is political. In these couples’ private lives, they have practiced a brand of political and cultural resistance to a mainstream that has failed to recognize their partnerships as equal to those shared by heterosexuals. But even if those opposed to marriage equality continue to protest and attempt to halt the extension of universal rights across the population, gay unions won’t go away. And these unions will continue to be as strong as those shared by couples of the opposite sex. As Albequerquean Betty Lord, newly wed to her partner of 34 years spoke to this point directly when she exclaimed “Edna and I have been together a hell of lot longer than most married people!”

BettyLordEdnaFonseca

Betty Lord & Edna Fonseca

This is the Story of the Wedding that Wasn’t

Shout out to my partner in the Most Successful IU Mentor-Mentee Pairing in the History of IU Mentor-Mentee Pairing (title self-appointed), BLS. She’s put me on to many resources for history and teaching and thinking about professional life more broadly, but she’s also put me on to any number of books, articles, and writers that have nothing to do with our shared profession (although it’s not uncommon for us to find a way to make them relatable). In particular, and for the purpose of this post, I’m thinking of Ann Patchett.

happymarriage

Patchett’s most recent book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is a collection of her essays and articles previously published in magazines – with the exception of her introductory essay, which I could go on and on about, re: my love of her interchangeable use of the word “working” for “writing” and her unabashed celebration of a good work ethic. The article for which the collection is named tells the story of Patchett’s reluctance to marry Karl, her partner of eleven years, despite his on-going desire that the two should be wed. After a failed marriage as an early twenty-something, Patchett swore off the institution. When she met and began dating Karl, she insisted that they maintain separate homes, separate accounts, and semi-separate lives. It was only when Karl was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition that she relented. Ultimately, it turned out that he had been misdiagnosed and continued to live happily and healthily – and by then they were wed. And she was glad.

While listening to a Fresh Air interview with Patchett, I was struck by her discussion of the marriage, her resistance to entering into it, and what she ultimately concluded was the main thing she had been averse to: being a bride. In looking back, she asserted that she’d not been so nervous about the relationship or even the institution of marriage, not with this man or under the circumstances (all good) under which their relationship took place. She claimed she’d had no idea how nor any desire to navigate the expectations that come with having a wedding.

Way back when, in 1988, when she’d wed her first husband, their terrible wedding seemingly predestined their eventual split. After a proposal in which Patchett’s gut instinct was to say no before the question had even been popped (of his pulling out the ring, she writes “He might as well have pulled a knife.”), she and husband #1 lived together uneasily until she gave in. “Okay, we’ll do it,” she said, months after the initial attempted proposal. On the wedding day, she lost her shoes (never to be found); bees swarmed around the flowers in her hair; the cake melted in the heat; and the couple’s car broken down on the way out of town, eating up their honeymoon time and savings. The marriage lasted fourteen months.

That experience, along with the marriage itself (and a rich family history of failed marriages), put Patchett off marriage. And, it seems, off weddings. I imagine there’s a bit of hindsight to Patchett’s proclaimed aversion to the having and hosting of a wedding, and it may well be a hindsight that could only develop once a thing is said and done. Of her marriage to Karl, Patchett writes that his illness gave them a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it came to a wedding. They purchased the marriage license, a Catholic priest friend dropped by their home to sign it, and they were married. That afternoon, Ann and Karl went out and bought a lawnmower. Having moved in, having gotten married, having avoided fanfare, Patchett wondered what she’d been waiting for.

APandKarl

AP & Karl

I’ve thought of this story from a number of different angles. On the one hand, I love Ann and Karl’s simplistic approach to legalizing a pairing that worked pretty well as it was. But there’s something I can’t shake. Again, I suspect, to some degree, that Patchett’s claim on not wanting to be a bride may be a realization that came when she felt a sense of relief at not having had to be a bride. But the fact that such a smart, funny, together women who seems to have a pretty good idea of who she is and what she stands for (unless I am misreading her entirely in her essays) could feel cowed by contemporary wedding culture says something about just how overwhelming and seemingly monolithic and unrelenting that culture is. As someone who studies the history of American weddings – and dabbles in evaluating the modern business and culture of the celebration – I see variations in the styles of celebration and have argued that the wedding offers possibilities for any number of expressions. But I can appreciate how it appears not to.

All that said, I’d suggest that everyone has access to a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it comes to weddings – and it doesn’t have to be used in the pursuit of *not* having a wedding. It can be used to justify any number of additions to or subtractions from the standard form. A wedding can look as much like the cultural ideal as one chooses – or it can be a different animal entirely. And I think this possibility of variation is something that is becoming increasingly common and, maybe even more importantly, increasingly accepted. When writing about how marriage changed things, Patchett writes that marrying Karl freed up so much time. They no longer had to discuss why they weren’t married – with each other or anyone else. My sense is that – for them – their reasons for eventually marrying were solid and, in some ways, were reasons that they needed not share. The public declaration a wedding affords was not essential. That’s fine, and I’m sure there are plenty of other couples who feel the same way. But for others, how wonderful that there is the wedding to allow them the chance to tell the people they love most just why they’ve decided to wed and what they think their lives will be like. And how sad to think that an understanding of the wedding as rigid and constrictive might cause some people to forego that opportunity altogether.

Marriage? Meh.

In the aftermath of DOMA’s overturning and state after state legalizing same sex unions, there have been a flurry of articles to suggest the wedding industry has struck gold with the impending rush of gay and lesbian weddings. Maybe. But the New York Times suggests the onslaught may not be what vendors within the wedding-industrial complex have hoped for (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/style/gay-couples-choosing-to-say-i-dont.html?pagewanted=1&src=recg). Many gay men and women will look at the opportunity to marry, be happy for the move toward marriage equality and extension of citizenship rights, and then go about their daily lives.

To some degree, I think the best part of this article is that it uncovers the assumption that those who share a single element of identity are one community. In fact, there is never really just one community but rather multiple communities to consider. When teaching women’s history, I have to remind my students over and over that we can’t say “women” and imagine it’s a catchall term. Differences in race, class, region, religion, political affiliation, and so on make the population impossible to lump as one uniform group. So, too, with gay men and women.

As the Times article notes “For some, marriage is an outdated institution, one that forces same-sex couples into the mainstream. For others, marriage imposes financial burdens and legal entanglements. Still others see marriage not as a fairy tale but as a potentially painful chapter that ends in divorce. And then there are those for whom marriage goes against their beliefs, religious or otherwise.” Exactly. Straight society’s elevation of the married relationship – with all its flaws – above all other relationships is just one area where homosexuals are glad to emphasize their difference from a problematic heterosexist value system.

It’s interesting to consider what influence homosexuals’ negotiation of newfound marriage rights will yield. Even as they existed outside the mainstream, gay relationship styles have been largely influential. In the 1960s and 1970s, as homosexual relationship became increasingly visible, many couples were happy with to live together outside the bonds of matrimony (and for many of the reasons outlined above). In fact, many historians (myself included) argue that gays’ rejection of marriage and celebration of the cohabitation alternative ultimately influenced the straight world, where cohabitation went from almost a non-existent occurrence in the early 1960s to one that was fairly common by the end of the 1970s. Likewise, an emphasis on egalitarianism within gay partnerships influenced a move toward greater equity in straight relationships.

I wonder if it’s possible that the younger generation – the one the Times describes as post-marriage – will wield a similar kind of power and influence. Those in their early twenties, disillusioned by a world in which expectations of marital success are fairly low and divorce is common, may celebrate the acquisition of the right to marry but likewise embrace the right to not marry. It’s possible that marriage equality will stand as a hallmark of sexual civil rights, but the reality of how people live their lives and organize their relationships will remain flexible. Here we may see a community of those committed to marriage alternatives, a community that may be influential but is likely to remain outside the mainstream. And it may well be a community linked not by sexual preference but by age and experience.

 

Cashing In on Gay Weddings’ Coming Out

A major byproduct of the DOMA decision is the potential boon it brings to the wedding industry. Those willing to embrace gay clientele immediately find themselves with an expanded (and sometimes very affluent) client base. The various businesses of the wedding industry – from florists to caterers to jewelers – stand to gain handsomely should they play to same-sex couples. Those who refuse are finding themselves condemned in articles and blog posts that are garnering national attention (see the Colorado baker willing to create a cake for a dog wedding but not a same-sex union ~ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/05/masterpiece-cakeshop-gay-dog-experiment-_n_3392013.html).

Even greeting card companies are getting in on the action (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/24/happy-happy-gay-gay-cards_n_3785685.html). Emily Belden has created Happy Happy Gay Gay with the purpose of providing a variety of gay-themed wedding cards for those finding themselves with a number of celebrations to attend. While Belden will donate all profits to The Trevor Project, I wonder what the future of the broader gay wedding industry will hold. Wedding planners and bands and reception halls can offer wedding elements that look quite like “straight” weddings, or gay couples can request service with an aesthetic that veers toward the queer. But some elements of wedding consumer culture, like greeting cards – often featuring a lady bride and a man groom – will need a more dramatic makeover. The traditional photo of the bride as she readies herself for the wedding will need amending when a wedding is celebrated by two grooms. Such amendment will also need to take place when it comes to the language used in preparation for weddings. Queer couples, I am sure, will want the option of identifying as groom and groom or bride and bride when they fill out a gift registry or sign a contract to rent a hall. They may chafe at wedding websites and periodicals that speak far more to female celebrants than male. And so new versions of old industries may find a place in the world of weddings.

HAPPY-HAPPY-GAY-GAY-large570

There are many who will critique such developments as evidence of the celebration’s connection to the blatantly material, the embodiment of the crass consumerism for which the wedding has gotten such a bad rap. But if we look at the glass half full, the new industries shaped by queer wedding celebrations could upend tired, worn-out conceptions of gender roles and performance. The idea that male celebrants can and will engage in decision-making regarding plans such as favors and floral arrangements and décor could spill over into the world of straight weddings. Men and women may avoid being pigeonholed into assumed wedding roles and assigned wedding tasks – or may feel more empowered to challenge cultural expectations because they see others doing so, and without sacrificing their masculinity or femininity. And just as same-sex relationships of the 1960s and 1970s provided alternative models of romantic flexibility and improvisation, models ultimately adopted by many opposite-sex couples, so too might the emerging alternative gay culture of weddings lead to new trends that open up fresh interpretations of gender, romance, and partnership.

Making Marriage Cool

VH1’s website recently featured a post “15 Celebrity Couples So Cool They Don’t Have to Get Married” (http://www.vh1.com/celebrity/2013-08-15/15-unmarried-celebrity-couples/). The point of the article/photo gallery is that there are certain celebrity couples we continue to fixate on despite the fact that they string us along with their alleged engagements and supposed plans to marry. They’re so cool, we’ll follow their relationships even if they never follow through on their marriage plans. Aside from the fact that I take issue with the fact that by including both Jon Hamm and Jessica Simpson on this list, the post indicates that they are the same level of cool (they are not), I really, really hate the article’s title.

jessica_simpson_Mom_jeans_ JON-HAMM

Simpson & Hamm – may they never be listed on anything together ever again.

By suggesting that not getting married signifies cool, the post automatically suggests that getting married is square. People who think this way must suffer through miserable relationships. How terrible for them. Marriage, many continue to believe, is about the old ball and chain (especially for men), and is an institution for the conventional and conformist and to be entered into only when absolutely necessary. Upon entry, kiss both freedom and good times good-bye.

But at this stage in the game, when marriage is not a necessity (socially, culturally, financially [especially for women] – as it was up until at least the mid-20th century), people still get married, which suggests the marital relationship might not be that bad. As I discuss in my book, during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, Americans witnessed the rise of the alternative or new wedding. New wedding celebrants rejected the cookie-cutter conformity of the standard wedding celebration. They got married outdoors, wore hip-inspired wedding costumes, wrote their own ceremonies and vows, and embraced the homespun over the store-bought. Their objective: use the weddings to indicate how their marriages would be different – from those of other married couples, and even more important, from the generation that had gone before them. Their parents, they believed, had entered into compulsory unions – for security, as an escape from their own families, because that’s what people did, but not necessarily for love and partnership. To hear retrospective tales from those who wed in the 1940s and 1950s, those who remained wed as well as those who contributed to the massive divorce rates of the 1970s, the alternative wedding celebrants were right. During the post-WWII period, in particular, when responsibility and maturity were highly sought after characteristics and a marriage signified both, marriage was highly desirable, maybe for romance but definitely for the sense of security – financial and cultural – that it provided. Sentiments, admittedly, that are not particularly “cool.”

1954IowaCouple Arlo+Jackie-Guthrie-wedding

1954 v. 1969

All that said, the efforts of alternative celebrants to express the differences in their unions pointed to the fact that marriage needn’t be the ball and chain, that couples could be happy, that marriage could be cool. And from the 1960s on, and well into this still young 21st century, many celebrants have adopted this point of view. Couples needn’t stay unmarried to have their relationships stay fresh and fun and relevant. But old habits die hard, I suppose. And for some, it’s easier to work in dichotomies such as “married: not cool” and “unmarried: cool” than to attempt to investigate or explain the varied nature of human relationships and experiences. But for me, the thing that is much less cool than marriage, is this t-shirt, which I saw sported by some yahoo in Cleveland this past July. Not cool, joker. Definitively NOT COOL.

gameover

Let’s have a moment of silence for the woman about to wed a man in this shirt.