New narratives of ordinary lives
Despite the ways in which the media represented the couple discussed at the beginning of this chapter, as being at the vanguard of posttraditional secular lifestyles, the publicising of their personal story about being in a marriage-like relationship had its beginnings in an commonplace experience that would raise few eyebrows: going on holiday. Reflecting on the court ruling in their favour, one partner recounted: ‘Had we not been in a civil partnership it would have been a different decision’. Their holiday would have been marred by their experience, but they would have had no legal recourse. Legal recognition can enable the living of ordinary lives and this, some argue, has been at the heart of claims to same-sex relational rights. For some, such rights are at the heart of lesbian and gay equality, and recent legal developments are said to signal the achievement of (non-hetero) sexual citizenship. The speed with which such developments have taken place in some contexts is notable, even if, overall, they are uneven.
‘Gay Rights. Job Done?’ was the question asked by the headline of an article reporting of the raft of legislation on same-sex relationships and sexual orientation in Britain in recent years (BBC News Magazine, 30 April 2007). As well as the Civil Partnership Act (2004), the lowering of the age of consent (2000), and the repeal of ‘Section 28’ that prevented local schools and councils from promoting homosexuality as ‘pretended family relationships’ (2000 in Scotland, 2003 in the remainder of the UK), there was the Equality Act (2007) that protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Civil Partnership Act and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 also recognised same-sex parents (see Harding, 2011). While there have been similar developments in some parts of the United States, the overall situation is more varied. Following the US Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), same-sex sexual acts became legal nationwide. More recently, the passing of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act permitted openly homosexual men and women to serve in the US military. Many states have outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and hate crimes based on sexual orientation are punishable by federal law. Policies on same-sex parenting are very varied. As of early 2012, six states perform same-sex marriages (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, as well as the District of Columbia) and four states (Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Delaware) recognise civil unions. At the same time, other states have enacted constitutional amendments that explicitly forbid same-sex marriage, or have passed legislation that bars civil-union-type arrangements. In the United States, President Obama has recently supported same-sex marriage, as has Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron. Their stance has divided their political allies and enemies alike. In light of these uneven transatlantic developments, it is clear the gay rights job is not wholly done and dusted in legislative and policy terms (Harding, 2011), and globally the job may just be beginning (see Chapter 1). This is especially the case in terms of embedding rights on the ground, where same-sex relationships and minority sexualities continue to be subject to marginalisation, harassment, denigration and the like.
Despite this, in Western democracies, many sexual minorities are now living more ‘ordinary’ lives than were imagined possible 20 years ago. While they may still encounter prejudice, heterosexism or homophobia, this is not the defining story that many tell about their lives. Rather, it is one story among others of the challenges encountered in living their everyday lives. Such challenges often concern relationships with family, partners and friends; emotional, home and work lives; money, resources and lifestyle aspirations; and the balancing of various demands to do with parenting, health and care. Previously sexual minority life stories tended to emphasise marginalisation, exclusion and prejudice. Nowadays we are hearing fuller stories of multi-dimensional lives. Among these are diverse and multi-faceted stories of same-sex relationships, and accounts of ‘ordinary’ same-sex marriages are a part of these where the opportunity for legal recognition is available. These accounts are not so dissimilar from stories told about heterosexual relationships and marriage: of romance, love and relational aspirations; of trials and tribulations, successes and failures; of plans, contingencies and surprises; of grappling with the challenges and rewards that couple and married relationships involve. Such accounts highlight how in same-sex relationships, like heterosexual ones, women and men must actively grapple with conflicting demands, pressures and ideals, and juggle the expectations, tensions, contradictions, emotions, joys, disappointments, constraints and possibilities associated with partnerships. In these respects, all adult partnerships nowadays – same-sex and heterosexual, married and otherwise – share a degree of sameness.
While it might be tempting to think that same-sex couples’ claims and practices of ordinariness are indicative of how homosexual relationships have become more like heterosexual ones, the issue could be viewed the other way around. Indeed, some theorists have argued that heterosexual relationships have become more like same-sex ones in that they no longer follow given formulae or have conventional supports. Put another way, heterosexual marriages in practice have become more like same-sex relationships in that they do not simply follow a set of given rules. Rephrased again, nowadays heterosexual relationships and marriages have become more intensely vitalised: like same-sex partners, heterosexual partners must actively and intensively participate in creating their relationships and marriages. At the heart of this are the ways in which marriage is no longer always a necessity for reproduction or economic and social status. Also, marriage does not necessarily presume a lifelong commitment, and people nowadays enter into marriages with previous experiences of sexual and intimate relationships. Thus, they are likely to be familiar with the doubts, cynicism and the bad press that marriage receives in the media and day-to-day life. In these respects, marriage is not a given script that people simply follow. In principle, for heterosexual and same-sex partners alike, ‘ordinary’ marriages are vital projects that necessarily involve heightened degrees of agency. Agency in this respect refers to the requirement to be an active participant in the structuring of one’s relationship and personal life, but agency does not imply freedom from power. Rather, one of the implications of the findings outlined in this book is that accounting for the agency people have with respect to their relationships necessitates a more vital conception of power than the gender reductive one that has often underpinned studies of heterosexual and same-sex relationships.
While the ‘new’ similarities between heterosexual and same-sex relationships are noteworthy, it is also important to remain attuned to the differences between relationships. In general terms, heterosexual relationships are still privileged over same sex ones in most contexts. But there are also differences between same-sex relationships that are linked to how they are socio-culturally located. As well as the historical, cross-national, state and district differences that influence variations in legislation and the knock-on effects they have for experiences on the ground, same-sex relationships are also shaped by differences to do with gender and sexual identity (LGBTQI), class, ethnicity, geography, age and the like. We consider these differences as they emerge as significant in our analysis, but by focusing specifically on younger generations’ same-sex marriages our aim is to bring generationally inflected differences in experience to the fore. Thus, prior to discussing the new experiences that are the main focus of this book, it is important to situate them generationally, and we do this in Chapter 1. Before this, we briefly situate these new experiences with respect to the study that we undertook to explore them.