This book is about formalised same-sex relationships – what in the UK are legally termed ‘civil partnerships’ and what in the media and everyday life are termed ‘gay marriages’. Our aim is to show how younger generations of same-sex couples, who see their lives and relationships as relatively ordinary, have responded to new opportunities for legally recognising their relationships by creating meaningful ‘marriages’. We also aim to shed light on the social and biographical factors that influence these relationships, and the significance of their formalisation for partners themselves, their families and personal communities. The book documents couples’ and individuals’ accounts of their relating ideals, imaginaries and practices, and in analysing them makes links between partners’ relational biographies and broader developments in personal life.
The book is based on joint and individual interviews with partners in same-sex couples who were aged up to 35 when they entered into civil partnership. The interviews were carried out as part of a research project titled ‘Just like Marriage? Young Couples’ Civil Partnerships’ that was undertaken in 2009 and 2010 and was funded by the British Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC reference: RES-062-23-1308). In discussing the couples’ formalised relationships we often use the terms ‘civil partnerships’ and ‘marriages’ interchangeably. We do this not to deny the important legal differences between these, but to reflect the ways in which our participants used the terms and conceived their relationships. As is discussed in the book, most partners saw and described themselves as married on the basis of their entry into civil partnership, and the overwhelming tendency was to use the terms interchangeably. As is also discussed in the book, there is a case to be made for seeing civil partnerships as a form of marriage. However, where participants, or we as sociologists, determined the distinctions between civil partnerships and marriages to be significant, we have explicitly flagged this up. In discussing the couples we studied, we also regularly use the term ‘young’ to describe them, which may sound as if we are stretching the term beyond its reasonable limits. It is not entirely satisfactory to us as authors, but it is difficult to find a better overarching term to indicate how the couples were generationally located. Similarly, we sometimes use the term ‘sexual minorities’ in a descriptive way to include a range
of (non-hetero) sexualities organised around different identities and practices where appropriate. While it is commonplace to use LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) to describe a range of sexual identities, our study took relationships as the primary unit of analysis and not identity. In narrating their relationships, participants often made reference to their sexual identities (and in some cases individuals referred to several identities) but it was sometimes the case that a specific sexual identity was not explicitly articulated as such. The study did not seek to impose or fix sexual identities, and where ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘bisexual’ identities are attributed to partners this reflects how they defined themselves (see Appendix 2).
In the study we sought to do two things. First, we wanted to explore the meanings and practices associated with younger cohorts’ formalised same-sex relationships. The everyday possibilities for doing same-sex relationships have altered radically in recent decades, and we sought to explore how these were engaged with by ‘new’ generations: generations that included people who had grown up with the relative visibility and ordinariness of same-sex relationships from an early age, and who could claim relational citizenship via civil partnership or ‘marriage’ for most of their adult lives. Second, we sought to explore these relationships and marriages in their own right, and not as either ‘mimicking’ or ‘queering’ heterosexual ones. We aimed to situate them in terms of changing meanings and practices associated with same-sex and heterosexual relationships. This raised the issues of gender and power.
The tendency in existing analyses of relationships has been to view heterosexual marriage through the lens of gender difference, power imbalances and inequality and to view same-sex relationships through the lens of gender sameness, mutual negotiation and equality. While the norms, values and practices of heterosexual marriages are often assumed to be socially ‘given’ along gendered lines, those linked to same-sex relationships are often assumed to be creatively ‘made’ in the absence of clear-cut gender differences. This is a crude take on relational agency and power that undermines developments in heterosexual and same-sex relationships which are intrinsically interlinked. The fact is that social changes are reconfiguring marriage, heterosexuality, homosexuality and gender in situated ways on the ground, and legal developments in same-sex marriage are linked to these. Younger cohorts of same-sex married partners highlight how in practice marriages involve the interplay between ‘the given’ and ‘the made’. It would be mistaken to see marriage as a static and omnipotent institution or to ignore that marriage continues to speak to relational ideals, imaginaries and practices in powerful ways. The ‘ordinary’ same-sex marriages that are considered in this book emerge from conversations between the given and the made in situated contexts. In this respect they are not so different from heterosexual marriages. However, they bring into sharp focus how in some circumstances ordinariness can be a political act. In the chapters of this book we seek to develop this argument and draw out its implications for understanding the flow of power with respect to relationships, gender and sexuality today.