From ‘other’ to ‘ordinary’
Modern histories of same-sex relationships and heterosexual marriage are deeply intertwined. Historically, same-sex relationships have been construed as the ‘other’ of heterosexual ones, and since the nineteenth century homosexual relationships have been intensively defined, outlawed and pathologised as unnatural, unhealthy and abnormal. As Foucault (1979) observed, the discursive invention of homosexuality as socially and personally threatening went hand-in-hand with the codification of normal (re)productive sexualities as a property of the heterosexual married couple. The modern sexual hierarchy (Rubin, 1992), with heterosexual married couples at the top and same-sex relationships near the bottom, was never wholly unchallenged (Adam, 2004). However, current possibilities for minority sexualities and same – sex relationships are most directly rooted in the feminist, lesbian and gay and sexual-liberation movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, and in the historical, socio-cultural and economic developments that gave rise to them (Adam, 1987; 2004; Altman, 1971; D’Emilio, 1983; Weeks, 1977). These movements gave rise to sexual communities and cultures that were critical in a number of senses. First, they challenged the heterosexual assumption (or compulsory heterosexuality, Rich, 1983) and the sexual and gender ideologies that underpinned it (Blasius, 1994; Connell, 1987). Second, they enabled the formation of strong, although still marginalised, minority sexual identities (Adam, 2004; Weeks, 1995). Third, they were the source of political claims for sexual-minority rights and the legitimacy of same-sex relationships (Adam, 2004; Cruickshank, 1992). While they opened up new ways of identifying, it has also been argued that lesbian and gay critical communities provided the context for a distinctive ethos of relating.
It has been argued that coming out as lesbian or gay has entailed ‘coming into’ lesbian and gay culture and community (see Plummer, 1995). This, Blasius (1994: 219) argues, involves ‘rejecting one’s own subjection […] that is the product of historical processes of domination by heterosexism’ through the resources that critical lesbian and gay cultures and communities provide. For Blasius, coming out assumes a critical reorientation to dominant heterosexual practices of relating that are linked to ideologies of natural gender differences and interdependence and that support gender inequalities. Lesbian and gay approaches to intimate relating, he argues, are ‘derived from an erotics that decentres genital sexuality and de-essentialises gender’ and through this ‘the possibility of a different relational ethic emerges: reciprocity’ (ibid). Also, the absence of institutional supports and cultural guidelines for same-sex relating implies that lesbians and gay men are engaged in creating novel, vital and more egalitarian relationships (see also Dunne, 1997; Sullivan, M. 2004). Since these have ‘no other support than the willingness of partners to enter into it […] they are not in themselves power relationships’ (Blasius, 1994: 219). At the heart of Blasius’s analysis is an often repeated argument: that by virtue of gender sameness, lesbian and gay relationships are more creative than heterosexual ones, and are, in principle, reciprocal and equal (Dunne, 1997; Sullivan, M. 2004).
The themes of creativity, reciprocity and equality have also been a feature of discussions of developments in sexual-minority cultures that have most immediately and directly influenced current claims for the legal recognition of same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage. These include AIDS, same-sex parenting and the ‘family turn’ in nonheterosexual cultures. AIDS was a catalyst in mobilising a new lesbian and gay relational politics in the 1980s. These politics were initially focused on the recognition of same-sex partners’ vital caring commitments, and protecting ‘rights’ in relation to property and next of kin. Community responses to AIDS facilitated the institution-building and political confidence that made same-sex relationship recognition seem like a realisable political objective. Combined with this, new possibilities opened up for lesbian and gay parenting from the 1980s (through self and assisted insemination, surrogacy, fostering, adoption, and so on) that led to a growing number of same-sex couples (mostly women) choosing to parent. Relationship recognition was seen as vital for recognising and protecting co-parenting commitments.
Initially, Moral Right responses to AIDS and same-sex parenting in the UK and the USA reinforced the historical construction of lesbians and gay men as a threat to the family. In the United Kingdom, for example, legislation was introduced in the late 1980s (commonly known as Section 28) that explicitly sought to ban the promotion by local authorities of homosexuality ‘as a pretended family relationship’. Such interventions, however, had the reverse effect of mobilising a lesbian and gay relationship-oriented politics that was organised around family issues such as couple and family recognition, parenting, adoption and other rights. Weeks et al. (2001) conceptualised these developments in terms of the practices and politics of ‘families of choice’ (see also Weston, 1991). Whereas same-sex relationships were once seen as the antithesis of family, in the 1980s and 1990s sexual minorities began to reclaim the language of the family to refer to the relationships they chose, created and invented: relationships that were vital in giving meaning to their day-to-day lives. In doing so, they challenged the idea that family was defined by biologically or legally sanctioned relatedness, and instead suggested that what mattered most was who people ‘do’ family with (see Morgan, 2011).
Key to Blasius’s (1994) analysis, and to Weeks’s (Weeks, 1995; 2007) elsewhere, is the idea that by the end of the twentieth century lesbians and gay men had arrived at the cusp of ‘equality'(Blasius) or the moment of ‘citizenship’ (Weeks, 1995). Both theorists argue that this was rooted in the personal politics of coming out and the strong lesbian and gay communities that facilitated and partly grew from this. This, in turn, led to a ‘felt need for same-sex relationship rights [that] grew from the ground upwards’ (Weeks, 2010: 129). While some observers link same – sex marriage campaigns to the activities of global elites, Weeks stresses that the latter are themselves ‘a response to changing social realities, not an anticipation of them’ (Weeks, 2010: 129). While Blasius’s and Weeks’s broad analyses are convincing to some extent, they gloss over the more messy complexities of the politics of coming out and of sexual communities that are central to understanding same-sex marriage as one (highly visible) direction that same-sex relational politics has taken (Adam, 2004). Most importantly, they overplay the coherence of imagined lesbian and gay communities, underplay the radical diversification of sexual identities and politics, and ignore generational developments with respect to sexual communities, identities and politics.
One of the key features of sexual-minority cultures in recent years has been their fragmentation by ‘internal’ claims for the recognition of diverse sexualities and relationships. Nowadays it is broadly accepted that there is no one lesbian and gay culture of the kind that Blasius seemed to assume, and even the plural notion of lesbian and gay ‘cultures’ has been troubled by the identities and experiences encompassed by the acronym LGBQTI. While there are dominant sexual stories (Plummer, 1995), in practice a lesbian and gay community and ethos was always unlikely – not least because of the significance of gender, class, ‘race’ and ethnicity and other differences in influencing diverse experiences (cf. Hennessy, 2000; Taylor, 2007). Nevertheless, the critical lesbian and gay communities that emerged in the 1970s were largely populated by those who were distinctively located in historical, cohort and generational terms (Rosenfeld, 2003). This was a founding generation of lesbians and gay men in the sense of ‘a cohort that comes to social significance by virtue of constituting itself as cultural identity’ (Edmunds and Turner, 2002: 7). This founding generation can be distinguished as a political generation ‘in its rejection of the status quo and in its attempts to overturn current political values usually in response to historical circumstances’ (ibid). Generations are linked to cohort experiences, and the constraints and opportunities that shape life chances and worldviews. They do not necessarily share one worldview (or ethos), as generations contain internally differentiated ‘generation units’ (Mannheim, quoted in Edmunds and Turner, 2002: 9). As far as sexualities and relationships are concerned, there is no ‘one’ generational experience, and within any generation there are diverse experiences. The experience that most successfully articulates itself as the generational one is the one that is best resourced to do so (cf. Edmunds and Turner, 2002). Sociologically speaking, the generations that have so far defined sexual-minority experience since the 1970s are the founding lesbian and gay generation and the queer generation that followed it (Warner, 2000). The raises an important question: Can the defining frames of interpretation generated by previous generations adequately explain the experiences of contemporary younger generations?
The cohorts that we are concerned with are those that were born between the mid-1970s and the late 1990s, who entered into their teens between the mid to late 1980s and the early 2000s, and who entered into their 20s between the mid-1990s and the late 2000s. If one of the defining experiences of earlier cohorts was that of a more-or-less absolute heterosexual landscape (where the public visibility of homosexuality was highly policed and enforced), one of the differentiating aspects of younger cohorts’ experience is the increasing visibility of sexual minorities. By the mid-1980s, homosexuality had entered the public consciousness through AIDS, but also through lesbian and gay battles against negative representations of same-sex relationships. By the late 1980s, public debates about lesbian and gay families were in full swing, and Denmark had legalised same-sex unions. By the mid-1990s (when the oldest of the younger cohorts were aged in their mid-20s and the youngest were still young children), same-sex relationships were being represented in the media and television programmes like Friends, Ellen, Brookside, Queer as Folk and the like. By the mid-2000s, civil partnership was seen as akin to marriage in the UK. Thus, these cohorts have to a greater or lesser degree grown up with the cultural visibility of lesbian and gay identities and same-sex relationships, and will have legal recognition for their identities and relationships (in a variety of ways) for most of their adult lives. Many had grown up with a sense of the relative ordinariness of lesbian and gay identities and same-sex relationships, or developed this fairly early on in their lives.
These experiences can go hand-in-hand with the belief that heterosexualities and minority sexualities themselves are not so different. This appeared to us to be the underlying assumption where several of our interviewees spent hours discussing their relationships but made little or no mention of their sexual identities. It might also partly explain the relatively less significant ways (compared to previous studies) in which ‘coming-out’ out stories featured in interviewees’ background narratives to their relational lives. As one woman put it ‘I’ve never had this kind of big realisation that I’m gay’ (Theresa, 110b), and as another woman recounted ‘I just went with it, like with Stacey I just went with it […] it never really felt strange to me’ (Angela, 106a). Further, it may partly explain why many people felt little need to socialise with others on the basis of a shared sexual identity. Many partners recounted having mostly heterosexual friends. Callum (203b), for example, preferred the company of his own and his partner’s ‘straight friends [who] see us as Mark and Callum, rather than [being gay]’. His partner, Mark (203a), commented that ‘you would never know that we were any different to the straight friends that we’ve got’. On the one hand, some analysts could view this couple’s comments as unwelcome evidence of normalisation or assimilation. On the other hand, the above quotations taken together could be viewed as evidence for something else: that minority sexual communities and identities are becoming less essential or vital in an era where the work for recognition has been done by previous generations. This may partly explain why some theorists are now discussing the decline of the modern regime of sexuality, and suggesting that the politics of sexual identity and sexual difference is being superseded by the politics of intimacy (Weeks, 2005) or becoming a spent force (Noys, 2008).
At the heart of Weeks et al.’s (2001) analysis of the family turn in nonheterosexual life, as discussed earlier, was another argument that loosely links to generational experience: that creative developments in families of choice and same-sex relationships, and the ideals of reciprocity and equality that they aspired to, should not be seen as isolated from developments that were reconfiguring relationships in the ‘heterosexual world’. This points to a problematic assumption that underpins some arguments (like Blasius’s) about a distinctive lesbian and gay ethos of – or approaches to – relating: that heterosexuality and marriage, and the links between them, have remained historically and generationally static. Thus, marriage and heterosexuality are primarily viewed in static institutional terms as ‘givens’, and not in terms of dynamic meanings and practices. Hence, while the creativity and vitality of lesbian and gay relationships are applauded, little credence is given to historical agency as far as heterosexuality is concerned. This undermines the ways in which definitions and practices of marriage have in some contexts become more flexible and open, which partly accounts for why same-sex relationships can be incorporated into marriage.