Changing Contexts

A couple decide to holiday in a popular tourist district. Having tried to book into a hotel they end up fighting a discrimination case for two- and-a-half years. They are refused a double bedroom on the grounds that they are unmarried. The devoutly Christian owners of the hotel are opposed to sex before marriage and therefore deny unmarried cou­ples rooms with double beds. The couple are shocked, and after a court rules that they had been discriminated against, one partner recounts: ‘we have stayed in places that you might think would be far more tra­ditional and religious […] and had double beds with no worries at all’ (The Guardian, 19 January 2011: 1).

A surprising tale? In this day and age few couples would expect to be denied their preferred sleeping arrangements on the basis of their marital status. However, there are complicating dimensions to this couple’s story: they are a same-sex couple in a legally recognised civil partnership. Thus what began as an ordinary holiday turned out to be what the media represented as a battle between those at the vanguard of post-traditional secular lifestyles and the defenders of ‘traditional’ religious mores. The outcome of the case is noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, while hotels in the jurisdiction can legally refuse double beds to unmarried couples, they cannot do so on the basis of a distinc­tion between marriage and civil partnership. Second, in his ruling the judge recounted that until recently the beliefs of the defendants would have been those ‘accepted as normal’ by society at large, but now ‘it is the other way around’. Third, while the defendants, predictable organisations and elements of the media decried the marginalisation of Christian ‘rights’, even tabloid journalists (historically the most vitriolic opponents of political correctness) were keen to inform their readers that ‘there is no difference between a civil partnership and marriage’ and that in this case it was the hoteliers who were ‘loonies’ (Parsons, 2011). Overall, the case illuminates how, in the interpretation of law and in public discourse, marriage and civil partnership are for many intents and purposes one and the same thing. It also touches on the power of marriage-like legal arrangements as a strategy for claiming same-sex relational ‘rights’ on a par with those afforded heterosexuals. Further, it points to changing conceptions of who belongs to the main­stream: in this case, ‘married’ same-sex couples do while traditionalist and religious ‘loonies’ do not. Historically, the mainstreaming of same – sex relationships via marriage-like arrangements is a surprising develop­ment. As Weeks recounts:

In the 1970s, with the rise of gay liberation ideas across most Western countries, but especially in the United States, no-one, whether inside or outside the movement mentioned the possibility of same sex mar­riage. It seemed beyond the horizon of possibility and even of desir­ability in the context of fierce lesbian and gay critiques of the family and heterosexual marriage.

Weeks (2010: 129)

Marriage, a core institution through which the norms and privileged status of heterosexuality were enshrined, has become more open. Same – sex marriage is one expression of this as it signals a detachment from the requirements of sexual and gender difference. While some commen­tators celebrate this development as indicative of the moment of sexual (or lesbian and gay) citizenship and equality, others have linked it to the broader modernising, renewal and reinvigoration of marriage along more democratic and egalitarian gendered lines. The development has not, or course, escaped criticism or resistance. For some, it illustrates how the ‘natural’ order of things, based on clearly defined gendered dif­ferences and values, is being undermined. For others, it is indicative of something altogether different: the triumph of hetero-patriarchy where rights and respectability are bestowed on same-sex couples on the basis of adopting heterosexual conventions. For others still, it represents the redrawing of relational citizenship in line with market-driven neo­liberal values. In the latter respect, through marriage, same-sex couples take on the financial and caring responsibilities that the neo-liberal state seeks to shed.

However one views it, there is no doubt that same-sex marriage is a life-political story of our time. By this we mean that it has become an important focus of debates about how the diverse ways in which people ‘do’ their relationships, and the meanings and values they attach to them, can or should be recognised in law, policy and in day-to-day life. It would be mistaken to see this as concerning solely, or even primarily, the politics of same-sex relationships. At the heart of debates about same-sex marriage is a broader scoping of the meaning and significance of formalised relationships that cuts across homosexual-heterosexual difference. Sociologically, there are a number of questions that lie at the centre of debates about same-sex marriage that are as pertinent to heterosexual life as they are to same-sex relationships. First, what difference does legal recognition make to relationships on the ground nowadays? Second, how are contemporary orientations to marriage, and the relating practices they involve, socially shaped and/or linked to personal agency? Third, in what ways are contemporary marriages indicative of new constraints and/or freedoms with respect to gender, sexuality and relating?

In this book, we attempt to address these questions from the hitherto unexplored perspective of the new experiences of younger generations of people who have entered into civil partnership, and who mostly see themselves as married. Younger same-sex couples’ accounts of their relationships tend to highlight the value of the couple above other adult relationships. They emphasise the personal importance of main­taining connections with families of origin, of couple-focused personal lives and of ‘ordinary’ practices of commitment. They are narratives of ‘ordinary’ relationships that are linked to, but that are not wholly deter­mined by, generationally located personal histories. They are stories of relationships that are vital to a sense of self-security and of interpersonal connectedness, and of marriage as route to affirming and recognising the personal significance of these relationships. Sociologically, these accounts and stories point to how couple relationships and marriages are vital in another sense: they are dynamic and emergent, and do not simply follow a script. Rather, young same-sex partners actively struc­ture and ‘do’ their relationships and marriages in a diverse range of ways, as is likely to be the case for heterosexual relationships and mar­riages today. This is linked to how different ‘relating selves’ interact, and how relational conventions, constraints and choices are negotiated in situated circumstances.

Despite this diversity, in actively modelling their relationships on the ordinary, the couples whose relationships are analysed in this book often adopted ‘conventional’ standards. As we shall see, this was evident where partners’ tended to invest in the couple as the ideal relational form, linked monogamous couple relationships to maturity, drew on their parents’ and others’ ‘ordinary’ relationships to articulate their relational imaginaries, and ceremonialised their ‘marriages’ in mainstream and sometimes self-consciously conservative ways. It was also evident in how the couple as the focus of relational life tended to trump all other relationships, including friendships. Compared to previous genera­tions of same-sex relationships as reported by a number of studies, the younger couples we studied appeared to be more actively invested in convention than in radical relational experimentation. In this book we suggest that there are contradictions and convergences between con­vention and experimentation, and between diversity and commonality, that are linked to broader developments (variously termed ‘postmod­ernisation’, ‘individualisation’ or ‘neo-liberalisation’) that are reconfig­uring relational life today and that give rise to new experiences.