Making it real
Berger and Kellner (1964: 9) note that in marrying, partners embark ‘on the often difficult task of constructing for themselves the little world in which they will live’. The fact that most of the younger same-sex partners had already begun this task before entry into civil partnership in part undermines the ‘cataclysmic connotation’ (ibid) that marriage may have once had for those embarking on it. Nevertheless, marriage still has such connotations in the popular imagination which ‘is underlined as well as psychologically assuaged by the ceremonialism that surrounds the event’ (ibid).
Nearly half of the couples (22) celebrated with what they termed a ‘wedding’ or ‘wedding reception’. These partners tended to be on good terms with their families of origin. While weddings were sometimes seen as uniting two different families, parental involvement in planning the wedding did not seem to be important to the partners. The input from parents did not approximate that which might be associated with heterosexual weddings. Help was not necessarily volunteered or wanted, and the planning was very often a couple project. The weddings could be large and expensive and take months of preparation. Frederick (209a) and Tim (209b) went for a ‘big white wedding’.
Tim: It was all planned to the last millisecond.
Frederik: Every detail, every little
Tim: ’cause you have to have everything different. Everything
has to match […]
Frederik: Tim, you’re a sort of […] control freak in one way and I’m
a control freak in a different way. So you put two control freaks on something like a wedding, it becomes like a military operation.
While weddings were an opportunity to affirm and display the couple’s commitment, they were also an opportunity to affirm and display the couple’s tastes and social aspirations. Here are Tim and Frederik again:
Tim: ’cause you’re all the arty and the way it looks and what
ever, and I’m more, right, so it must go to time and what are we gonna do and
Frederik: so we actually – I really enjoyed all the planning part,
Tim: Yeah, yeah.
Frederik: And dealing with all the suppliers. And I did all the design [. ] side for the wedding and built the website and so on and so forth. We were very specific about the food. We wouldn’t go with their stock food, sort of their standard menu. We went to every wedding place we’d been able to find, pulled all their menus together and we spent one Sunday going through every item on every menu.
Like heterosexual weddings today, same-sex weddings were ‘life – styled’. By this we mean that they said as much about tastes and styles associated with socio-cultural location and aspirations as they did about sexuality. Some couples, like Mandy (126a) and Olga (126b), adopted what they termed an ‘organic’ approach but struggled to decide how to celebrate. Initially they opted for a ‘do-it-yourself thing’ whereby friends would bring the food and they would take care of the decorations themselves: ‘very Guardian’ style as they described it. A few months later these ideas were put to rest when Mandy’s father encouraged them to do it ‘properly’. He also offered the means to make this happen. They ended up with a wedding in a ‘beautifully converted barn out in the country’, with ‘amazing food’ and over 70 guests. In this case, the wedding said as much about Mandy’s family and their economic and social standing as it did about the couple.
As well as those who opted for weddings, some partners self-consciously chose celebrations that were less like weddings: that did not include a formal sit-down meal, speeches or religious symbolism. Some celebrations were based on small guestlists or were present-free. Scaling down the guestlist proved problematic for some. Fiona (122a) and Iris (122b) worried that they would upset people as neither wanted a ‘big fuss’. In the end, they decided to limit it to those who were ‘completely hundred per cent behind’ the formalising of their relationship, who would affirm the authenticity of their commitment. Others still wanted a less expensive way of marking the event whereby guests would pay for their own meal or bring a dish. Some opted for a unique venue, on a train or on a ship, others choose an unusual timing such as at Christmas. As well as personal taste, the nature and style of the wedding or celebration were often dictated by economic circumstances and the size of personal networks, with some partners opting for a ‘small and intimate’ affair (10 couples), a ‘party’ (8 couples) or no celebration at all (4 couples).
For those who opted for a wedding, the absence of a clearly defined gendered wedding script meant that endless decisions had to be made. The dilemmas encountered included: Do we have a hen weekend? Who gives the bride away? Who will be paying? Most people welcomed opportunities to create their own ceremonies, but for some, like Andrew (204a), the lack of clear directions made their celebration feel ‘inauthentic.’
There was nothing traditional about it, it felt like […] we felt we were making it all up made it almost feel like a charade, or like a sham or like we were acting rather than it was a real thing, but on the other hand, the fact that we, that we did make it all up made it very personal.
In many respects, same-sex couples’ dilemmas about how to ceremo- nialise, celebrate or mark the formalisation of their relationship are not so different to those faced by many heterosexual couples that stem from a sense of expanded choices in terms of ‘style’, and the sense that the wedding should be an authentic expression of the couples’ (or at least the bride’s) individuality. Dawn (120a) and Hailee (120b), who struggled with the decision about what to wear on the day, wanted to avoid the ‘tragic matching suits’ that they thought defined lesbian weddings:
You see lots of photos on the news, on the TV, of like two lesbians getting married and they always, they often have sort of like really tragic matching suits and stuff, and we were just like we don’t want that [laughs].
We were surprised by the extent to which the partners, like Dawn and Hailee, were disparaging of what they termed ‘gay weddings’, and that this was a ‘style’ that they self-consciously sought to avoid. ‘Gay weddings’ were thought to be silly and described as ‘a circus’ or as ‘ridiculous’. OJ (225b) recounted how a ‘gay wedding’ would obstruct the ‘real’ message of becoming a family.
We wanted an austere wedding, it would have been way too easy in our minds for that ceremony to become a sort of pantomime, ‘Sex in the City, Gay Wedding’, which is hell in both of our aesthetic visions […] I didn’t want it to be distracting in terms of the fun of the ceremony, the craziness, then you wake up the next day and go, ‘Shit, what have I done?’ I wanted it, the ceremony, to sort of represent, Herman phrased it very well at the time, to be about becoming family […] it was a serious event and I think both of us were very keen that the way the event was organised would show that to us. There wouldn’t be any sort of silly distractions.
Despite the various reasons for formalising the relationship, the majority of participants emphasised that first and foremost they entered into civil partnerships ‘for themselves’: as an expression of their love and already existing commitment. At the same time, familial, personal community and broader affirmation were clearly important, although it was less often explicitly mentioned. The critical nature of the event was reflected in many partners’ descriptions of their ceremonies as ‘special’, or their wedding days as the ‘best day’ of their lives. Many also described the ways in which others (and especially older and more distant family members who might be assumed to be disapproving) had deemed it special or ‘the best’ wedding they had attended. In this way, entry into civil partnership and the ceremonialism that surrounded it involved the objectification of a social relationship, part of a process ‘by which subjectively experienced meaning becomes objective to the individual and, in interaction with others, become common property and thereby massively objective’ (Berger and Kellner, 1964: 9). Put another way, civil partnership as a form of marriage confirms the couple’s reality, and the wedding itself can be indicative of the ways in which ‘the groups with which the couple associates are called upon to assist in co-defining this [. ] reality’ (ibid). In this respect, family, friends and personal communities were not simply called upon to witness the couples’ expression of their commitment, but to be actively involved in objectivation of the relationship and in codefining the reality of the marriage. This partly explains the aversion to ‘gay weddings’. These potentially undermined the seriousness of the event because they risked mocking it. This was at odds with the significance of the event for most partners, which was linked to making the relationship visible and ‘real’ in terms that could be understood by significant others, and involving these others in the co-construction of their reality.
For the most part, the young couples’ marriages were positively affirmed by friends, families and parents. However, in some cases, significant others refused to affirm the commitment as worthy of celebration. This was the case for Radinka (103a) and Kamilia (103b), who noted that when they presented the news of the impending civil partnership over the phone to their families there was no ‘Wow’, not even ‘congratulations’:
Kamilia: I was a bit disappointed that none of them really made
the effort to come to the civil partnership […] That was one of the really disappointing things wasn’t it, really? Radinka: Yeah, and my father, I actually told my father [about my
sexuality] just before our marriage.
Kamilia: I can’t be cross with them, but it really makes you think a
bit. I can’t say with certainty, but I think if I was about to marry a man, then they would definitely come. Especially if it was an English man, they would go, ‘Oh, well, our daughter’s [getting married]’ and the whole village would know about it.
Garry’s (227a) experience of his father’s refusal to confirm the authenticity and value of his partnership was a more explicitly brutal one. His relationship with his father had been very strained for some time, but Garry hoped that he would still attend the wedding; however he did not. Things took a more negative turn. A few days after the wedding, Garry was banned from seeing his mother who had suffered from a chronic condition for a long time. His father had always blamed Garry for his mother’s illness and the wedding had apparently made her condition worse. Garry does not know if he will see his mother again. He explained:
I’d be happy to [see my mother]. I’m not sure if I’ll be able […]. I would very much like to. I don’t know how it would be possible. Unless my father changes his mind at some point in the future, I have absolutely no idea how I could do it without basically laying myself open to accusations of trying to go and make her, trying to go and kill her faster.
At a symbolic level, weddings provided the opportunity to confirm or affirm the connection between same-sex couples’ little worlds and the worlds of their families and personal communities, and to involve same-sex couples and their personal communities in co-constructing a world together. However, they could also involve symbolic violence, as in Garry’s case, where a powerfully significant other could refuse to affirm the legitimacy of the relationship.