#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.

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!”

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Betty Lord & Edna Fonseca

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

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.

 

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.