#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.

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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.

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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.

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Larry Choate III and Daniel Lennox

Challenging (and Carrying on) Tradition

Same-sex couples, finding marriage now a legally recognized option, may move deliberately toward the world of weddings. In the aftermath of the DOMA decision, many observers (myself included) have speculated about the potential payday such celebrations may yield for the wedding industry. But this assumption, to some degree, assumes that queer weddings will follow the format of straight weddings. In reality, however, the gay couples face endless possibilities when it comes to their styles of celebration. And the NY Times chronicles that with this article, “Free to Marry, and Not Bound by Rites” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/fashion/weddings/free-to-marry-and-not-bound-by-rites.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0&emc=eta1).

There are so many smart points made in this article – I encourage everyone to read it. And there are so many great, quotable lines. I’ll limit myself to this one: “Mr. Solomon wrote in an e-mail that he and Mr. Habich ‘wanted to have a wedding that echoed the weddings of our parents and of others,’ but without parroting heterosexual customs. ‘Everything traditional was nontraditional simply because we were both men,’ he said of their civil ceremony, which was followed by Christian and Jewish ceremonies. ‘The more of a ‘wedding’ it was, the more revolutionary it was.’ YES. This is a major point I make in my book As Long As We Both Shall Love. For those who critique marriage as a conservative goal and the celebration of a wedding as a mark of conformity, I’d argue that when a couple (two men or two women) who looks nothing like the expected couple (one man and one woman) take on these alleged hallmarks of conformity, they are immediately challenged and thereby robbed of their conformity.

The gist of the article is that same-sex couples have the opportunity to celebrate in as traditional or as non-traditional a style as they wish. Of course, I argue that couples – not just same-sex couples – have been doing this for years. The tradition that gay couples will carry on in their celebrations is the larger postwar wedding tradition of couples using the wedding to communicate their views of love, marriage, and partnership.

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.

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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.

Thoughts on marriage equality…

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).

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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.