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

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Sometimes We Watch TV and Scream

And it’s not even always because we’re watching The Walking Dead.

 the-walking-dead-flesh-eating-zombies-season2-2011

Last night, my husband called me into the TV room and deliberately rewound so I could watch this:

http://www.ispot.tv/ad/7fld/davids-bridal-the-invisible-man

davids-bridal-the-invisible-man-small-1

Why must he taunt me?

I get that there is this cultural thing going on in contemporary America that privileges wedding dresses above all other wedding accoutrement (I guess some people would argue that the ring is NUMBER ONE, but my money is still on the dress). I get that there is this on-going view of the wedding as “the bride’s day.” I see these trends. I accept that they exist. I hate them. And so: I use this blog to express my frustration with this advertisement (titled, “The Invisible Man” – gag) and its willful perpetuation of ideas I despise.

First: Grooms need not be “mere cog(s) in the wheel of…carefully choreographed wedding extravaganza(s).” The groom is future partner to the person he’s about to wed. As such, he should (and many grooms do) share responsibility in the careful choreographing of said extravaganza. Or he should feel free to say,“Hey, I’m not into the idea of our wedding as a ‘carefully choreographed’ anything, extravaganza or otherwise.”And if he’s about to marry the right person, that person will say “I get it. What kind of celebration can we plan that will make us both happy?”

Second: Sometimes grooms marry grooms. And then – uh-oh. There’s no bride for the wedding to be all about. And there’s no dress to take up the absent bride’s attention. SIDENOTE: Trust me: I get that same-sex partners can embrace non-normative gender titles and appearance – but for the sake of argument, let’s say no bride, no dress. What then? The wedding doesn’t matter? Chyrs Ingraham critiqued the wedding-industrial complex years ago, and paid particular attention to the heterosexist element of American wedding culture. To some degree, with the growing legalization of same-sex unions, the heterosexism of traditional wedding expectations is more apparent than ever. And from my point of view, it makes the wedding industry’s attempt to grasp at tired wedding absolutes look terribly old-fashioned and out of date (ahem, David’s Bridal).

Third: Brides are not an absolute lump category. Just like we in the history biz can’t say “American women” and feel fine that we’ve covered our bases talking about what ALL WOMEN thought, how they acted, or what they valued, we can’t say “brides” and feel like we’ve got a catch-all terms on our hands. Newsflash wedding industry: women/brides have different goals and intentions as they prepare for their weddings and their marriages. Because weddings have been my point of research – and to some degree, my professional bread and butter – I’ve tried not to digress to the personal in these posts. But here and now I share this: I bought a wedding dress from J. Crew that a) was among the cheapest they had available; b) I could get at 30% (I think) off because I would’ve spent above $100; c) they would ship to my house and I would never have to go into a wedding gown store; d) I thought would be fine. What I wanted: something much more vintage-y that fell just below the knees, had tea-length sleeves, and was not white. Is that what I got? No way. Why? Because I didn’t value getting the dress I had in my mind’s eye enough to spend the time and resources looking for it. What I did value: checking “get wedding dress” off my list. I report the following: Wedding dress ~ Good enough; Wedding day ~ Awesome; Marriage ~ Still going strong. For me, for others, it definitively was *not* “all about the dress.”

I get that David’s Bridal, which essentially is the Costco of bridal boutiques (it feels wrong to use “boutique” here, but I will), probably isn’t particularly interested in rocking the boat, re: mainstream views of contemporary American weddings. But I do think the company could tap into something more exciting and more relevant in the world of wedding culture. When brides and grooms of the 1960s and 1970s decided they would “do their own thing,” that they would personalize their celebrations to reflect who they were and what they thought, the Grand Dame of the wedding dress industry Priscilla Kidder – who had made her name and fortune with 1950s-era brides – started using language about how weddings and gowns could be unique and reflect the individual. And she sold more dresses. The traditional market was still there – but the new market responded to her savvy tactics. My sense is that the many businesses that comprise the contemporary wedding industry would do well to take stock of evolutions in wedding populations and styles of celebration and shape their messages to fit the modern age. My guess is that even the “traditional” celebrants would see the appeal.

Shame on you, Lance Bass

In the world of things I don’t love, at the top of the list are the assumptions people make about sex and gender, the expectations they have of how men and women should behave because they are men and women. Clearly, then, weddings provide a fruitful ground for frustration. I suppose, by now, I should’ve learned to temper my expectations and assumptions about who will play up what tired clichés and how. And yet, I have not. For this week’s disappointment, I present to you one Lance Bass.

BassThe culprit: Lance Bass

Bass, in the midst of arranging his wedding to partner Michael Turchin, has offered up some half-baked wisdom from the world of wedding planning. After noting that he almost feels bad that there’s not a woman around to make decisions, he noted “The sad thing about two guys planning a wedding is it’s really hard – the wedding’s usually for the bride, and they’ve been dreaming of it since they were two years old.” For someone who should be happy he’s gay wedding planning in the twenty-first century when unions such as his own are not only legal but also celebrated, Bass is dishing up some pretty archaic ideas. Operating in a weird world of gender dichotomy – where “man” equals one set of behaviors and values and “woman” an opposing set – Bass seems oblivious to the fact that many people would look to him and his non-traditional romantic partnership and assume that he and Turchin must embody an alternative kind of masculinity (especially, one might imagine, when Bass suggests the two men may take as long as a year to plan their wedding. Why a year if they’re not really that into it?). Or, it’s entirely possible, given prevailing stereotypes, that many would look to a gay male duo and presume the two men to be effeminate in behavior and outlook. These kind of presumptions, of course, are ridiculous and have been proved inaccurate time after time after time.  As I’ve written here and elsewhere, the problem with these assumptions is that they limit people from understanding that any range of behaviors can be considered normal and natural, that neither men nor women need to be confined to a rigid set of rules and regulations. Many women, we know, have had plenty of other dreams – weddings aside – to keep them busy “since they were two years old.” And plenty of men – gay and straight – have taken active roles in planning for their impending nuptials. All of this is true in spite of the fact that the larger culture keeps hammering home the concept of the wedding as “the bride’s day.” It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

And Bass and Turchin are a case in point. When Bass notes that since there’s no wedding dress to serve as star of the celebration, he and his groom will encourage female guests to don high fashion and couture, he both affirms and contradicts himself. He stands by the idea that women should be adorned on the wedding day, that there should be a dress. But he also provides an example of two men thinking fairly deeply about how what their celebration should look like and how it should unfold.

 

“The sad thing about two guys planning a wedding is it’s really hard – the wedding’s usually for the bride, and they’ve been dreaming of it since they were two years old,” he continued.
Read more at http://www.entertainmentwise.com/news/134244/The-Weddings-Usually-For-The-Bride-Lance-Bass-Admits-Its-Sad-Theres-No-Excited-Bride-In-His-Gay-Wedding#84MW2GvLCQMGiuxY.99
“The sad thing about two guys planning a wedding is it’s really hard – the wedding’s usually for the bride, and they’ve been dreaming of it since they were two years old,” he continued.
Read more at http://www.entertainmentwise.com/news/134244/The-Weddings-Usually-For-The-Bride-Lance-Bass-Admits-Its-Sad-Theres-No-Excited-Bride-In-His-Gay-Wedding#84MW2GvLCQMGiuxY.99
“The sad thing about two guys planning a wedding is it’s really hard – the wedding’s usually for the bride, and they’ve been dreaming of it since they were two years old,” he continued.
Read more at http://www.entertainmentwise.com/news/134244/The-Weddings-Usually-For-The-Bride-Lance-Bass-Admits-Its-Sad-Theres-No-Excited-Bride-In-His-Gay-Wedding#84MW2GvLCQMGiuxY.99

A West Point Wedding – not “just like every other wedding”

I read numerous headlines this week marking the wedding of two West Point graduates at the Military Academy’s famed Gothic Cadet Chapel. Fantastic. Dancing on the graves of DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell at the same time. Two birds with one stone. (p.s. And good for the lesbian couples who wed at the Point last year.) But something in the coverage gave me pause. I had to stop and scratch my head when I read groom Larry Choate’s statement about the wedding: “It’s going to be just like every other wedding there, except probably a lot smaller and no bride.” I don’t think so, Larry.

Years ago, when I wrote about the role weddings played in black Americans’ sense of citizenship and national belonging (“Ceremony and Citizenship: African-American Weddings, 1945-1960,” Gender and History 21 [August 2009], 402-24.), I emphasized West Point weddings as particularly symbolic. Hosting a wedding at potentially the most elite educational institution in the United States, thereby demonstrating belonging as part of its esteemed community, clearly marks a couple as celebrated members of the larger body politic. The upwardly mobile and striving black middle class celebrated these weddings as they read about them in issues of Jet and Ebony (Jet, June 18, 1953; Jet, June 23, 1955; Ebony, September 1953). Coverage in these periodicals – both of which strove to highlight black Americans’ inclusion in the postwar American way of life – suggested that these weddings were notable and worthy of public accolade. The celebrations indicated mainstream acceptance of black achievement and respectability and suggested a move toward greater racial equality.

To suggest that a wedding of two men at West Point is “just like every other wedding there” ignores the fact that a gay wedding on the Military Academy’s campus very clearly marks a sea change in both institutional and public perceptions of same-sex love and marriage equality. My sense is that two men who attended West Point and are now attending and employed by Harvard Business School are two men who maybe don’t love the idea of rocking the boat. I suspect they’re happy to celebrate their relationship’s similarity to mainstream notions of coupledom rather than calling attention to their obvious difference. But here’s the thing about gay weddings – still, I argue, even with the marriage equality advances taking place: when there’s no bride or no groom, the wedding EMPHATICALLY is not like “every other wedding” regardless of where it’s held. The absence of one of these formerly major players changes the game and makes the wedding explicitly political, not to mention pretty clearly different from what most people expect. And to be honest, this change, with its openness and acceptance and the tremendous difference it signifies in public views and public policy from only a few short years ago, is well worth celebrating.

cos-01-west-point-wedding-de

Larry Choate III and Daniel Lennox

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.

 

In Taiwan, the Wedding as Site of Activism

More than 1,200 Taiwanese people attended a mock “wedding banquet” in Taipei on Saturday, September 28. Held outside the presidential office, the celebration was intended to gain support for a bill to legalize same-sex marriage and civil partnership. taiwan

The wedding, so often critiqued for its reflection of conformity and consensus, is a site of very real cultural and political power. Just as gay men and lesbians in the United States have embraced weddings – both mass celebrations and private rites – to bring attention to persisting inequalities, these Taiwanese advocates used the celebration to demonstrate commitment to marriage equality. As noted by 22-year-old student Richard Chen, “This looks likes a traditional wedding scene and even if it’s not real, I think a picture is worth a thousand words and I hope we will get more public attention and support for same-sex marriages.” In my book, As Long As We Both Shall Love, I argue that American queers successfully adopted the wedding as a site of political advocacy. By adopting a celebration with which the public is familiar and establishing the nature of their demands through a language of love and commitment, gays and lesbians effectively built an ever-increasing alliance in efforts to achieve marriage equality. As marriage equality activists worldwide press for legal recognition of same-sex unions, the wedding may become an increasingly valuable political tool as well as a more recognized site of power.