Ordinariness and vitality
A core argument of this book is that understanding same-sex marriages and their social and political significance requires an understanding of the developments discussed so far in this chapter, combined with an exploration of the experiences of same-sex marriages on the ground. By taking these together we aim to generate insights into same-sex marriage as one expression of the new politics of ordinary and vital relationships. What do ordinariness and vitality mean in this context? As we have seen, in terms of contemporary sexual-minority and mainstream heterosexual cultures of relating, diversity is the order of the day. There is no homogenous lesbian and gay experience, or ethos of relating, that can be counterposed to any homogenous heterosexual one. Sexual-minority experience, like heterosexual experience, is radically diverse. Plummer (1995) acknowledges this in discussing late modern sexual stories, where ‘different kinds of stories [are] emerging alongside the older ones’ (1995: 131, his emphasis):
In the late modern world, the very idea of ‘being gay’ may increasingly get transformed into the idea of a multiplicity of sexual/gendered/ relational/emotional, etc. beings in the world. Enter the time of post-gay and the post-lesbian? And, as importantly, the awareness of the dispersal of homosexualities must also mean the awareness of the dispersal of hetrosexualities. Indeed, late modernist stories dissolve such distinctions at base. The separate genders and their separate sexualities cannot so clearly be sustained.
Plummer (1995: 142)
Continuity and change are important. While people continue to tell stories about being ‘gay’ or ‘heterosexual’, or being in a lesbian or heterosexual relationship, this cannot be taken as short-hand to describe any one way of living or relating. Similarly, stories about being partnered or married cannot be read as indicating any one way of organising or ‘doing’ a relationship. Claims to ordinariness can be read in multiple ways (Heaphy, 2011; Savage et al., 2000), and it would be mistaken to read young same-sex couples’ claims to be ‘like any other marriage’ in any straightforward way as evidence of the normalising/regulating or queering/resisting potentials or effects of same-sex marriage. This would be a reductive view of these claims. In contrast, our argument is that claims to ordinariness are sometimes an explicit, and more often an implicit, recognition that ‘all’ marriages are the same and different to the extent that they are vital in terms of interpersonal affect, and the meanings and practices they involve.
Marriages nowadays – same-sex or otherwise – need to be understood in terms of the vitality of the relational landscape. Marriage as an institution no longer has the universal ordering and constraining power that is commonly associated with modern marriage. Elsewhere it has been argued that one of the defining features of late modernity is how gender and sexual identities, meanings and practices have become so open (or individualised) that heterosexualities have become radically diverse (cf. Giddens, 1991; 1992) and that marriage is a zombie institution (Beck, 2000). It has also been suggested that because of interlinked processes of detraditionalisation and individualisation, heterosexual married couples nowadays meet as equals (in principle at least) in negotiating relationships (Giddens, 1992). While the assumptions underpinning these arguments have been the subject of trenchant criticism (Adkins, 2002; Heaphy, 2007; Jamieson, 1998), the core arguments themselves point to how heterosexualities nowadays cannot be reduced to the omnipotent heterosexuality that is often imagined in critical socio-cultural analyses of modern marriage. In this respect, Henning Bech has argued that it is the changing nature of heterosexuality that needs to be placed at the heart of analyses about same-sex marriage. He argues that heterosexual experience is becoming more and more like modern homosexual experience:
‘The heterosexuals’ […] know that that the family is not an eternal institution into which they have entered once and for all; they may divorce, establish another family, live outside the family, use the world of strangers as a resource, a place where one can go and find other people to build up new kinds of relationships. They, too, experience promiscuity, broken relationships and serial monogamy, and they have established networks of friends other than relatives.
Bech (1997: 195-6)
Bech argues against the idea that same-sex marriage should be seen as ‘normalisation’, ‘bourgeosification’ or ‘straightification’. On the contrary, he says, same-sex marriage has become possible because of decline of modern constructions of marriage and ‘the family’, which is influencing a ‘basic homo-genisation of ways of life’ (1997: 203). From Bech’s perspective, new personal stories about the ordinariness of same-sex relationships reflect the ways in which heterosexual experiences have come into line with homosexual ones. Whether we accept or reject Beck’s, Giddens’s or Bech’s approaches to explaining the issue, they are agreed that the differences and distinctions between heterosexual and homosexual relationships may be less important than the ‘new’ similarities. As we discussed in the previous section, this is a point that many younger same-sex couples who see themselves as married agree with.
Same-sex marriage is not the end of the creativity of same-sex relationships, but is linked to the intensive vitalisation of heterosexual ones. At the root of this is how marriages have become increasingly vitalised in practice – where people must grapple with conflicting demands, pressures and ideals, expectations, emotions, disappointments and possibilities associated with partnerships. Thus, the vitality of marriage is linked to the vitality of relational life and personal life more broadly – same-sex or otherwise – in advanced modernity. This is expressed in the broader culture where relationships and marriages are now regularly represented and storied in radically diverse ways. Media representations of relationships and marriage, for example, reflect the multiple meanings and practices associated with them. While headlines may often link the current state of marriage to social progress or demise, the real stories beneath the headlines are the personal ones of relational vitality: of emotional commitments, struggles, changes and the like. Plummer has captured the dynamics at play through the metaphor of the personal story, none of which he argues ‘are true for all time and space’:
We invent our stories with a passion, they are momentarily true, we may cling to them, they may become our lives and then we may move on. Clinging to the story, reworking it, denying it. But somewhere behind all this story telling there are real, active, embodied, impassioned lives.
Plummer (1995: 170)
This points to an important story about same-sex marriage that often gets lost in abstract debates about the issue and the reductive terms in which they are often framed: the vital relationships that people in same – sex marriages have, and how these are linked to real, active, embodied, impassioned lives. This is not to say that such lives and relationships are not socially shaped or patterned or are not linked to the workings of power. Indeed, vitalism as a philosophical tradition has been modified and taken up in critical theoretical work to explore how lives are socially shaped relationally, where ‘subjects, concepts are composed of nothing more-or-less than relations’ (Fraser et al., 2005), and to understand power in the sense that Foucault understood it when he discussed the ‘turn to life’, bio-politics and bio-power (Olma and Koukouzelis, 2007). The point is that same-sex marriages as they are lived are more complexly shaped, patterned and made than many of those in favour of or against same-sex marriage suggest. By focusing on their vitality, we can explore the social influences and power that same-sex marriages involve in emergent and relational ways. The focus on relationality, in turn, implies that it would be mistaken to equate the vitality of relationships and personal life with the contemporary disembeddedness of personal life as some theorists do (Bauman, 2003; Beck and Beck – Gernsheim, 1995, 2002; Giddens, 1992). Rather, it can partly be viewed as an aspect of the interplay of embeddedness and openness, which was a core concern of the study which is at the heart of this book.