Ordinariness, acceptance and difference
A striking feature of the stories of Hanna and Tammy, Kathryn and Louise and Fredrick and Tim is their confidence in their ordinariness. Hanna and Tammy’s story is of an ordinary relationship that is actively embedded in mundane practices linked to mutual family care, local commitments and supports for the couple. Their story is also a fairly ordinary one of romantic and more mundane practices of love. It is an unexceptional story of the dynamic life-contexts in which commitments are lived and develop, including financial constraints, everyday dilemmas and life-crises linked to illness and death. This points to the ways in which partners themselves saw their couple relationships as vital: as central to negotiating the challenges thrown up by day-to-day living. Marriage itself was viewed as a relatively ordinary way of acknowledging this centrality to each other and to close associates, and its continuation into the future (see Chapter 4).
Kathryn and Louise’s narratives tell a story that is also inflected by their social and personal circumstances. Like Hanna and Tammy, their story concerns mundane family practices, but is more focused on care, commitments and supports involved in parenting. They place less emphasis on romantic love as a driver in their relationship and more on their shared class and cultural backgrounds, their compatible family values and their practices and plans with respect to parenting. Their narrative of parenting-centred couple commitments is in many senses a common one. While the detail of their becoming parents may still seem exceptional, they also signal the ‘ordinary’ options that come with middle-class confidence. While they are ambivalent about the language of marriage, they are committed to its ordinary ideals: communication, sharing a life and fully giving yourself to the commitment (see Chapter 3).
Fredrick and Tim’s story is of a relationship that is actively supported by Fredrick’s mother and Tim’s parents. Fredrick’s account is a familiar one of good relationships with most family members and more strained relationships with others. The couple’s account of the developing commitment involves the tribulations of planning a grand traditional wedding that they could not afford, the day-to-day challenges of homemaking, work, commuting, unemployment, and the trials of ‘depression’ and serious illness. At the heart of their story the couple features as the focus of mutual care and as central to a sense of security for the future. Their wedding, though less modest than Hanna and Tammy’s ceremony and more formal than Kathryn and Louise’s one, is also portrayed as a family event, where the relationship is validated by family and friends as a form of marriage or as on a par with it.
Like Kathryn and Louise, whose use of the terminology of civil partnership and marriage depends on whom they are interacting with, Fredrick in his interaction with the academic interviewer punctuates his own enthusiastic account of his marriage with a note about being ‘slightly conditioned’. This does not make his story or the emotions and commitments that underpin it any less ‘real’, but it does highlight that these are not scripts that are simply followed but emerge through the vital circumstances of day-to-day interactions in context. This connects to how our partners’ confidence in their ordinariness seemed linked to the ways in which the legalisation of civil partnership was seen to potentially alter the day-to-day contexts in which partners lived and did their relationships. As Hailee puts it:
The civil partnership also made people treat you differently […] I feel like I work in quite a gay-friendly world anyway but it sort of has got this legitimacy to it which everyone really [accepts].
If what Blasius terms the ‘heterosexual panorama’ (the way in which it is only heterosexual relationships that are made visible in the culture) was once central to ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, our young partners’ narratives suggested that this could be disrupted in fairly mundane ways by civil partnership or same-sex ‘marriage’. Not only are gay marriages represented in the media, but same-sex relationships are also more routinely visible in day-day living:
Peter (216a) When you look around and you see things now, like you go into shops and it’s got, you know, there are civil partnership cards and all this kind of stuff. And you see it in day to day, you know, when you fill forms in it’ll have, ‘single’, ‘married’, ‘civil partnership’, and when you go to click something online, it used to be you had to select married and it would go, ‘you can’t be married because it’s two males’. And now they all have civil [partnership] as an option.
Nathan (220b): I’ve just bought a new car and […] they asked who Eric was [.] They have to tick a box so they tick this little [married/civil] partnership box. And because it’s written in front of them they accept it and like I said most everybody does, most people do.
Eric (220a): We’ve never come across anybody’s who’s caused
a stink or caused a problem or hasn’t been able to cope with it.
Thus, even for younger generations of sexual minorities, the changing circumstances in which same-sex relationships can be lived are noticeable. For those at the older end of the age spectrum of our interviewees, a long distance has been travelled in a short time. As Cori (115a) put it:
I don’t even think that was something that even occurred to me as being an option really […] I was fifteen […] sixteen years ago it was like there weren’t really openly gay people on TV, no one ever talked about it where I was from […] all of that stuff is completely different […] just a million miles away from where things were when I was a kid.
It would be easy to see new stories of the shift from the ‘heterosexual assumption’ (Weeks et al., 2001) to ‘assumed acceptance’ of sexual difference as evidence of a lack of self-conscious recognition of the reality of continuing prejudice. It may well be the case that in publically narrating their stories some couples emphasise the positive over the negative. However, adopting this view as an overarching frame for understanding narratives of increasing acceptance would undermine the links between people’s experiences and the stories they tell about these. Also, as we shall see in the following chapters of the book, partners could be brutally honest about the less than positive aspects of their lives and relationships (see Chapters 5 and 6). There is another way to view these stories of acceptance: as one expression of the diverse possibilities for contemporary non-heterosexual lives and same-sex relationships. In the not too distant past, the predominant story told about sexual-minority lives was one of systematic marginalisation, familial estrangement, social hostility and pathologisation. Yet, beneath the headline story there were also less often heard accounts of continuing connectedness, acceptance, and resistance. Nowadays, and certainly among our participants, more-or-less ‘full’ acceptance by family, personal communities and broader networks is becoming an increasingly audible story about sexual-minority lives. Yet, beneath this headline story there are also stories of estrangement, hostility and marginalisation. These latter stories do not necessarily undermine or invalidate the former, but throw into sharp relief differences within sexual-minority experience.
The differences within sexual-minority experiences raises the issue of how claims to ordinariness and relational options more generally are linked to situated personal circumstances, and how these in turn are linked to socio-cultural location. It is worth discussing these in more detail and in terms of the more established and newer axes of ‘difference’ that sociologists tend to be concerned with: class, gender, race and ethnicity, religion and disability. At the outset, it is important to note that while young same-sex partners’ relationship stories were inflected with specific situating details in terms of these axes, they were not uniformly structured by socio-cultural location in these respects. Put another way, women and men – irrespective of their different locations – could narrate similar stories of ordinariness, acceptance, estrangement, hostility and marginalisation. Our concern here is with the ways in which socio-cultural location could feature as a critical interpretive frame for understanding ‘personal’ relational possibilities.
Few partners explicitly linked the constraints they encountered in ‘being in’ or ‘doing’ same-sex relationships to institutionalised prejudice. Of those who did, Maria (104b) told a story of the intense stresses that living a non-heterosexual life as a mixed-race family could entail. For Maria, being black and in a same-sex biracial parenting relationship promoted a sense of distance from what she termed ‘traditional black families’, ‘traditional gay couples’, and ‘traditional straight relationships’. She and her family’s distinctive position minimised the supports that were available for the relationship and led to a strong sense of marginalisation. As a black and white same-sex partnership that was parenting a black child, her family was viewed as strange by her and her partner’s own families of origin, other black families, and by straight and gay couples (who for the most part did not have children). As well as the institutionalised prejudice they encountered as a same-sex couple and as a mixed race couple, the fact that they were same-sex parents meant that the ‘system’ wasn’t set up to deal with them and that they were marked as ‘different’ by other (heterosexual) parents. For Maria, black families, straight relationships and lesbian and gay communities had distinctive values, norms and practices that were at odds with hers. Discussing lesbian and gay relationships, she recounted:
In the gay community, if a relationship doesn’t work then you just leave and that’s that and it’s not that simple, we don’t have enough money for starters to just leave.
While Maria emphasised the limited supports for her relationship, in terms of black, white, heterosexual and gay cultures of relating, in the above quotation she also refers to financial resources required to live in accordance with cultural ideals. In this respect she highlights how economic resources represent a limit to what Giddens (1992) terms the ‘pure’ relationship where equality and satisfaction in relationships is premised on the power of partners to leave it. The constraints that diminished financial resources place on the doing of relationships also featured highly in other partners’ stories, most notably those who were from the most disadvantaged class backgrounds. Economic constraints and struggles featured highly in Mark (203a) and Callum’s (203b) and Hanna (108a) and Tammy’s (108b) accounts of their own relationships and of their strong connections to their families. Both couples recounted how the very possibilities of getting married and living independently as married couples were constrained by financial resources. Money worries were a shadow against which they narrated their relationships. However, they recount how tackling this shadow together has made their relationships stronger. For Hanna and Maria, this is part of a wider family project, where economic constraints imply a strong sense of mutual responsibility for family care. Economic constraints are not only linked to class, but also to other factors like disability and illness. In this respect, access to relational citizenship in the form of marriage could exacerbate these constraints. As Kurt (217b), a disabled man, recounts:
It sounds terrible. I’ve actually said this before, it’s an awful thing to say but […] if they didn’t have […] equality for […] gay couple[s] then Henry and I would be […] a lot better off than we are […] because we’d be classed as two single men [for benefits] and we’d have everything [. ] the fact is that because we have equal rights, and I agree with having equal rights, but in Henry and my situation it means that we are incredibly near the breadline and struggling incredibly.
Others pointed to how their religious family and cultural backgrounds, Christian and Muslim, enforced gendered and heterosexual ‘norms’ (see also Yip, 2008). In one exceptional case, a partner discussed how because of familial and cultural expectations it was impossible to be open about her same-sex ‘marriage’ to family members, and how this would inevitably shape her life:
My parents will expect me to marry [a man]. At some point I will get married. And that will be my life […] If things were different, if my parents knew of this relationship and were accepting of it, then this would be my proper life. But because that’s not the situation, and because of all these restrictions, I know it’s not realistic to continue this. And so this is just something that is for now. But later I’m probably going to get married again [to a man].
Josha’s narrative emphasised the difficulties of being open about her sexuality and relationship in the context of her Muslim family and community background. The stigma and shame this would imply was not simply hers, but also her broader family’s. Intensely religious backgrounds were mostly associated with highly heteronormative assumptions and expectations. Those who were most likely to struggle with their sexualities and same-sex desires, and were inclined to experience coming out as personally and relationally problematic, were from these backgrounds. Nevertheless, despite residual guilt, most partners claimed to have more-or-less overcome the obstacles that religion placed in being openly in same-sex relationships, and to have achieved a degree of parental and familial tolerance. Who knows how things will turn out for Josha? Despite the pressures, the fact that she has ‘married’ a woman indicates that she has not wholly succumbed to these. What about the gendering of same-sex marriage stories?
As Mansfield and Collard (1988: 42) suggest, in their discussion of the class backgrounds of the newly-wed partners they studied, a marriage cannot be reduced to a social class. Developing this they recount that ‘social class did not appear to account for the main differences we observed in the experiences of the newly-wed marriages: in practice gender proved to be a more influential divisor’. In fact, much of the research on heterosexual relationships in the decades before and after Mansfield and Collard’s work has emphasised this point (Benjamin and Sullivan, 1996; Duncombe and Marsden, 1999, Jackson, 1996; Jamieson, 1998, Van Every, 1995). In reviewing the British research on the gendered nature of domestic labour from the 1970s to 1990s, Dunne (1997) noted that in the majority of heterosexual partnerships women take responsibility for and perform the bulk of domestic tasks. This is the case where both partners are full-time waged, are without children, where women have higher occupational status than men, and even where couples see themselves as ‘fully’ sharing. Van Every (1995) also noted the difficulties that arise in challenging gendered assumptions in self-consciously non-sexist living arrangements. Duncombe and Marsden (1999) noted the gender divisions of emotional labour in relation to love and intimacy. And as noted earlier, Mansfield and Collard suggested that married men and women operate as ‘intimate strangers’. Building on this, Delphy and Leonard argued the following:
The hierarchy within the family household [… is] not something chosen by some heterosexual couples and refused by others. Many seem to find this particularly difficult to see. What they notice is that nowadays some husbands and wives interchange tasks and spend a lot of time together, that their interactions seem informal rather than governed by etiquette, and that they love each other. This leads them to suggest that marriage has changed ‘from being an institution to companionship’, and to the claim it is now ‘symmetrical’: that it exists between people who have different responsibilities and do different things but who are equal and complimentary human beings. Or, alternatively, they suggest that women can avoid whatever residual male domination there may be by having children on their own or by having their intimate relationships with other women.