Generationally situated meanings
Among many of those whose sexual identities were formed through an active engagement with lesbian, feminist, gay, bisexual and queer critical communities and cultures, there is likely to be an enduring reluctance to embrace marriage as a way of understanding or recognising their relationships (cf. Adam, 2004). This is linked to how such communities and cultures were often critical of marriage as the lynchpin of heteronormativity and of ‘homosexual’ oppression. Of course, it is also the case that people can review their opposition in light of changing legal, social, political and personal developments (see Kitzinger and Wilkinson, 2004).
Among younger cohorts, and especially those whose sexual identities were not formed through active engagement with critical cultures and communities, there can be more general comfort with the idea of same-sex marriage. This was evident in how the same-sex partners we spoke to view the marriage/civil partnership distinction (for socio-legal analyses see Barker, 2006; Harding, 2011; Stychin, 2006). The majority were untroubled with the legal distinction between marriage and civil partnership. They viewed themselves as married, and saw the distinction as a relatively insignificant technical one, even if some would prefer it to be dissolved. A small number who viewed themselves as married were more outraged by the distinction, as they saw it as an affront to their ordinariness. Others still were ambivalent about the issue. A small minority were keen to keep the distinction on the basis that they did not want to be married. Most of the couples we spoke to would have agreed with Doris (104a), who said: ‘it [is] a civil partnership and we feel it’s a marriage’. Even those who were wary of marriage as a heterosexual institution could describe themselves as married. This was the case for a couple we spoke as part of our pilot study (where one partner was aged over 35 when they entered into civil partnership) who were at the cusp of different generational experiences of same-sex relationships:
Sue (102b): when we got married I was […] still not sure
about using the terminology of marriage […] I did have quite big problems with the notion of […] marriage as an institution.
Beverley (102b): Yeah, I’m not a big fan of marriage as an institution
and I’d always sworn that I was never ever getting married. Of course, what I meant was to a man […] I’m not particularly keen on the implications. But we are just like a married couple really, aren’t we?
Sue: […] even though legally [marriage and civil part
nership are] pretty much the same, it is the same, there wasn’t that baggage of what marriage should mean that you get with a heterosexual marriage.
While these partners are not technically married, they describe themselves thus and see marriage and civil partnership as ‘the same’. While they are familiar with, and espouse, political criticism of marriage as ‘an institution’, on the basis of the gender differences it has ‘traditionally’ assumed and the gender inequalities it promoted, they describe themselves as ‘just like a married couple’ in practice (Harding, 2011, also found a ‘major attachment’ to arguments about same-sex and heterosexual relational sameness among lesbians and gay men). Confused thinking? Perhaps. A more likely explanation is that this couple, like many others, are grappling with complex realities that stem from the changing possibilities that have opened up for some same – sex and heterosexual relationships. By formalising their relationships, couples like Beverley and Sue are engaged in new ways of conceiving and doing same-sex relationships, and are differently positioned in relation to marriage than they were previously (but see Adam, 2004, 2006). As opposed to viewing marriage in mostly institutional terms, as they imply they once did, Beverley and Sue also now see it from another perspective: from the perspective of life on the ground. This more multi-dimensional perspective is signalled by the complexity of their exchange. One the one hand they are keen to critically distance themselves from marriage as a heterosexual institution because of its baggage of gender and sexual differences and inequalities (its ‘shoulds’). On the other hand, they are keen to embrace the similarities between
their own and others’ marriages on the basis that they are not necessarily subject to its institutional baggage in practice.
Another couple, Kevin (205a) and Jorge (205b), also touched upon the ordinariness of same-sex relationships and partnerships when discussing the similarities and differences between their partnership and their parents’ marriages. As opposed to identifying these as being intrinsically different on the basis of their gendered make-up, as older cohorts have done in previous studies (see Dunne, 1997; Sullivan, M. 2004; Weeks et al., 2001), they emphasised the commonalities. They saw them as rooted in the interpersonal challenges that all partnerships – whether married or not – involved:
Jorge: I suppose because they’ve been together many years.
They’ve had their up and downs but they always manage to pull through […]
Kevin: I mean I think the key thing, I mean my mum and dad […]
had difficulties throughout their marriage but I think the key thing is that […] being in a partnership is you’re a team and you kind of, deal with the good and bad stuff as a team and it’s kind of what it’s about really. And generally there’s more, you know you hope for more good than bad, but you know life’s a bit full of surprises, so [. ] the partnership thing is about working through stuff together and being a team really.
Some will be cheered, and others depressed, by same-sex couples’ stories of being ‘married’, of being like other married couples, and of the continuities between heterosexual marriages and their own. In sociological terms, these stories can be difficult to hear in their own right, without slotting them into existing frames that see marriage through the lens of gendered and (hetero)sexual domination and inequalities, and that see same-sex relationships in terms of gender equality and (nonheterosexual agency (see below). Thus, it may be tempting to see such stories as evidence of the undermining or the triumph of heterosexual norms, and to interpret stories of ordinariness as evidence for either side of the debates about the value or dangers of claims to normality and assimilation (Adam, 2004; Rauch, 2004; Sullivan, A. 1996, 2004; Warner, 2000). We will discuss the frames and debates in more depth in due course. For the moment, however, we argue that understanding these stories requires situating them generationally.
Unlike previous generations of lesbians and gay men who, because of the lack of cultural guidelines and social supports for their identities and relationships, had little choice but to engage in life experiments, the partners in our study neither claimed nor wanted to be at the vanguard of radical relational life. This does not mean that their relationships were not radical in practice. In some situations they clearly were, especially where their visibility as a ‘married’ couple disrupted the heterosexual assumption and where their very ordinariness troubled constructions of homosexual pathology and depravity. Nevertheless, the ways in which most modelled their relationships on the ordinary was linked to the broader ways in which they saw their lives as ordinary. This is not because they are the unthinking victims of heterosexual ideologies (cf. Warner, 2000), but because their generational circumstances made it possible to feel relatively ordinary compared to previous generations of lesbians and gay men. Young same-sex couples’ claims to be ordinary may well feed ‘the fears of queer critics that what same-sex unions are all about is assimilation into the status quo’ (Weeks, 2008: 792). However, Weeks argues that ‘we should never underestimate the importance of being ordinary. It has helped to transform the LGBT and broader worlds’ (2008: 792). A more important point, we suggest, is that there is the need to interrogate the ‘status quo’ as it is imagined and deployed by queer and other critics.
We aim to do this by putting personal stories of ordinary same-sex ‘marriages’ at the centre of the frame for comprehending developments that cut across the homosexual-heterosexual dichotomy. These developments are linked to the diversity and vitality of ordinary relationships, and trouble the notions of a simply given or universal status quo or set of relational values. To explain this, in the following sections we consider the historical, legislative and broader socio-cultural developments with respect to same-sex relating and marriage that are the backdrop to contemporary young same-sex couples’ experiences. We also outline the analytical strategy we deployed to explore these experiences.