Meanings of marriage
In October 2010, under the headline ‘Couples bid to overturn gay marriage law’ (24/10/2010: 25), The Observer newspaper reported on a campaign in Britain to overturn the restrictions that prevent same-sex couples from being formally married and heterosexual couples from entering into civil partnerships. The report quoted the campaign’s coordinator, the Outrage! activist Peter Thatchell, as saying that civil partnerships and civil marriage bans violated the Human Rights Act. As part of the campaign, eight couples filed applications at register offices for ceremonies that were forbidden. One applicant, who was in a same – sex relationship, was reported as saying ‘We want marriage – that is an institution we believe was divined by God and for me that’s important, and I don’t see why we should be denied it because of our gender […] Love is love at the end of the day and that should be honoured’. This is just one of the many media reports about couples seeking legal equality that have appeared for well over a decade in Western democratic countries. On the surface, it is just one more story about campaigns for same-sex marriage, but it touches on broader developments.
While the reported campaign advocates same-sex couples’ rights to marriage, it also supports heterosexual couples’ rights to civil partnership: to have their relationships legally sanctioned without marriage. Thus, the campaign points to how for both heterosexuals and sexual minorities alike relationship recognition can be a matter of life-politics: where people seek recognition for their relationships on the basis of the meanings they attach to them and not on the basis of definitions ‘imposed’ by the state and/or religious authorities. The meanings given to relationships are diverse, as is evident in how claims to recognition are currently framed. In this short article alone they include human rights, Divine rights, gender equality, the ‘chosen’ or ‘imposed’ nature of marriage, and the naturalness and universality of love. These claims point to how in contemporary contexts established frames for understanding couple commitments and their legitimacy intermingle and jostle with new ones. Diverse meanings are in turn linked to the range of opportunities that now exist for living and ‘doing’ relationships in practice.
However, amidst these developments, marriage continues to be central to cultural and political discourse about socially valued relationships. Whether people are in favour of it, opposed to it, or are ambivalent about it, marriage remains an ideological reference point in debates about how intimate and family relationships could and should be lived; how some relationships are or should be privileged over others; and how relationship commitments could or should be recognised at legislative and personal levels. These debates signal that marriage is no longer (if it ever were) a straightforward matter. They illustrate that marriage as a legal and social institution is radically contested, and that public
discourse about marriage is, above all, contested discourse. However, the centrality of marriage to public debates about couple and family relationships points to its continuing salience as a touchstone for cultural imaginings of the relational order. This partly explains why same-sex civil unions, which are technically not marriage, are often represented in the media and public discourse as ‘gay marriage’. This is certainly the case in Britain since the Civil Partnership Act was introduced in 2005. The language of marriage has also been speedily absorbed into everyday life, not least by many of those who have entered civil partnership:
Robert got down on one knee and said, okay, I know we’ve sort of said this before but went down on one knee, ‘will you marry me?’ It was like ‘Absolutely. But I don’t want to wait a long time. Let’s do it now, let’s do it within six months’.
Started to live together and the relationship just got better and better.
And then we decided to get married […] I think that’s about it, isn’t it? And now we are together, happy. I think, I hope.
Yes, definitely […] it feels different […] I’m not saying about security, because basically that’s what we shared before but the actual fact that we are committed to each other.
Stories like these, from people who were aged up to 35 when they entered civil partnership, point to a relative unselfconsciousness about the use of the term ‘marriage’ in same-sex relationships. They deploy the language of marriage with ease when describing their decision to formalise their relationships, the nature of their commitment and the everyday practices through which their relationships are embedded. They also tell culturally familiar stories of marriage as a key life event and as bolstering couple commitments. Many young couples in civil partnerships tell ‘ordinary’ marriage stories like these.
It would be surprising if some same-sex couples did not view marriage as an extraordinary way to discuss same-sex relationships, and studies have documented some same-sex couples’ opposition to and ambivalence about the notion of marriage (Hull, 2006, Mitchell et al., 2009). Prior to the availability of civil partnership, research by Weeks et al.
(2001) on non-heterosexual relationships in the UK, undertaken in the mid-1990s, found high levels of personal discomfort with the notion of same-sex marriage. While those studied supported the availability of same-sex marriage, the majority recounted that they would not chose it themselves because they saw it as a heterosexual institution. Later, in the mid-2000s, a UK study of pre-civil partnership recognition arrangements found greater ease among same-sex couples with the notion and terminology of same-sex marriage (Shipman and Smart, 2007). A similar ease among same-sex couples undertaking do-it-yourself recognition ceremonies has been documented in US studies (Hull, 2006, Lewin, 1998), but also ambivalence and opposition among others (Hull, 2006). A more recent cross-national study (where LGB respondents were mostly from Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA) also found a range of views, but with significant support for the idea of gay marriage (Harding, 2011; see also Clarke et al., 2006). As marriage-like arrangements become a real possibility, it seems that people are more likely to support them and that couples more seriously entertain the idea of entering into them.
However, different attitudes remain that are partly rooted in different political and cultural traditions. These are partly reflected in different national responses to claims for same-sex relationship recognition. Discussing the latter, Weeks (2010: 130) argues that while the French PACS legislation follows ‘classic republican traditions’ by refusing to recognise the separate cultural identities of lesbians and gay men, the Dutch recognition of same-sex civil partnerships and after that marriage is a logical move in The Netherlands’ ‘institutionalised liberalism’. In the UK, he suggests, the Civil Partnership Act in 2004 continued a tradition of ‘liberalisation by stealth’ by reproducing marriage law but naming it something else, thus ‘avoiding much religious opposition […] a classic case of, and a very British compromise’ (2010: 130). In the USA, which Weeks sees as the most neo-liberal of cultures, with the most affirmative LGBT identities and communities, the intensity of debate about same – sex marriage is linked to its being ‘the most religious of Western societies’. This, he argues, can partly explain the degree of opposition from conservative Christians and why advocates for same-sex relationship recognition in the USA often hold out for full recognition of marriage ‘compared to the more secular British or Scandinavians’ (2010: 131). Where marriage is in decline, he suggests:
[T]he LGBT population seems more likely to be satisfied with less than
marriage, because marriage itself is less sanctified. Where religious
traditions remain strong, as in Spain and the USA, so it is likely to go for full marriage rights when same-sex unions are recognised.
Weeks (2010: 131)
Other differences in attitudes to same-sex marriage intermingle with and cut across national, cultural and religious ones. Chief among these are generational ones related to cohort differences and the historically situated nature of sexual identities and cultures (cf. Edmunds and Turner, 2002: 6). In this respect, different attitudes to same-sex marriage are likely to be related to when and how people formed their minority sexual identities.