The politics of marriage
Same-sex marriage and the recent proliferation of marriage-like arrangements, along with continuing struggles for and against these, are often seen as representing a critical moment in the history of marriage as an institution (Oerton, 2008). While this can be viewed in negative, positive and ambivalent ways, it cannot be understood in isolation from longer-term and broader developments in the diversification and vitalisation of ordinary ways of relating on the ground. Before discussing this, let us briefly review the current state of affairs with respect to same-sex relationship recognition. Few countries currently afford same-sex couples the opportunity to fully participate in marriage. As of late 2011, those that do include Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. In addition, same-sex marriages are performed in Mexico City and in six states of the USA. Additionally, marriages are recognised but not performed in countries like Israel and France. As well as a growing number of European states, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, New Zealand and other countries have either nationwide or regional facilities for the recognition of same-sex or cohabiting relationships. Civil unions, civil partnerships and registered cohabitation, which often include exemptions from the automatic rights afforded heterosexual married couples, are the most common forms of legal recognition. To varying degrees they offer some of the legal, symbolic and material advantages associated with marriage, but often with more limited legal status. Same-sex marriage and civil unions are being debated, planned for and legislated against globally where most same-sex partners currently rely on ‘do – it-yourself’ affirmation and commitment ceremonies, or seek religious blessings where available. In short, the global picture is a patchy but dynamic one.
Where marriage now includes same-sex couples or sits alongside other ways of legally formalising adult couple and family relationships, heterosexual marriage’s place at the top of the sexual hierarchy looks decidedly precarious. In these contexts, marriage is beginning to look like just one way among many of recognising and doing relationships. But this is not new. For many decades now, marriage has increasingly become the focus of contingent commitments, and sits alongside cohabitation, serial and more ad hoc partnering as one way of doing heterosexual relationships (Mansfield and Collard, 1988; McRae, 1999). While it is relatively usual for couples to live together before they are married, others don’t marry because they are ambivalent about it, and others still choose not to marry because personal commitment is sufficient. Instead of seeing diverse ways of doing heterosexual relationships as alternatives to marriage, or indicative of its demise, some have argued they can be conceptualised as ‘informal’ marriages (Mansfield and Collard, 1988: 4). Thus, Mansfield and Collard argued in the late 1980s that the definition of marriage was changing, and being extended to encompass a broad range of relationships in practice (Mansfield and Collard, 1988: 4).
This notional extension of marriage to include all manner of relationships may be problematic, as it still privileges the normative frame and language of marriage to make sense of relationships. However, it does point to how the meanings of marriage are ‘open’, flexible and diverse. In the 1980s, Mansfield and Collard (ibid) argued that this was linked to changes in the public image of marriage, where there was a shift ‘in emphasis from the external structure of married life to the private meaning of the marital relationships: the public institution of marriage is being privatised’. While the distinction between ‘marriages’ that are formalised or not is an important one, there are also radically diverse ways of conceiving and doing formalised marriage in practice. As well as those differences linked to class, ethnicity, religion, nationality and the like, there are other differences linked to family formation, the presence or absence of children, the demands of work and other commitments, personal preferences and interpersonal arrangements. It might be tempting to see the radical diversification, or privatisation, of meanings and practices of marriage as evidence of social instability and moral degeneration. However, as early as the 1960s, when discussing cohabitation, some argued that such diversification could be equally viewed as ‘signs of moral regeneration’ (Fletcher, cited in Mansfield and Collard, 1988: 5). Similarly, Giddens (1991) has seen such developments in terms of the life-politics of ‘remoralising social life’. We prefer to see it as an aspect of the broader vitalisation of personal life, where models and meanings of relationships are not simply given but have to be actively grappled with. Indeed, frames for giving meaning to relationships are never straightforwardly imposed or taken up. Rather, they are vital in that they are emergent and have to be grappled with as such.
Once marriage has become so extended that it can, notionally at least, include radically diverse of ways of doing and giving meaning to heterosexual relationships, it is unsurprising that same-sex relationships should be included within it. If changes in marriage are indicative of the moral regeneration and vitalisation of personal life, then why not see same-sex marriage as an aspect of this? Viewed in this way, same-sex marriages can be seen as one aspect of what Stacey terms the postmodern family (Stacey, 1997; 2006), and as linked to the reconfiguration of gender, sexuality and personal relationships more broadly. Where modern frames and concepts are deployed to make sense of contemporary marriages – same-sex or otherwise – this invariably entails overemphasising marriage as an ordering and homogenous institution, and imposing a conceptual coherence on marriage that is deeply at odds with the multiple, and often contradictory, meanings and practices associated with ordinary marriages on the ground. This problem is inherent in many of the existing debates about same-sex marriage, where modernist frames continue to be deployed to understand the links between marriage and the politics of family, sexuality and gender. To emphasise this point, it is worth briefly reviewing these debates.
While some constituencies see same-sex marriage and civil unions as an ultimate marker of social and political tolerance, others see it as indicative of the decline of religious and moral values in an increasingly secular world. Among conservative religious and social groups especially, same-sex marriage is often interpreted as an attack on the primacy and ‘naturalness’ of the heterosexual married bond that is assumed to underpin a stable society. One dominating frame for academic debates about same-sex marriage is centred on the dichotomies of accommodation and resistance. This concerns the extent to which same-sex marriage represents a radical challenge to heteronormativity or a triumph of heterosexual norms (see Harding, 2011: 41-3; Oerton, 2008). On the one hand, marriage is viewed as the legitimate aim of lesbian and gay politics, and as the most appropriate strategy for nonheterosexual citizenship (Calhoun, 2000; Eskridge, 2002; Sullivan, A. 1996). This position often understands the marriage contract as symbolising an emotional, financial, and psychological bond, highlights the economic and social advantages of marriage, and the advantages for the social inclusion of sexual minorities. Some analyses suggest that legalising same-sex unions can reshape and modernise the institution of marriage in keeping with gender and sexual equality (Kitzinger and Wilkinson, 2004). On the other hand, some feminist, liberationist and queer critics have argued that same-sex marriage represents the dominance of heterosexual values and undermines the distinctiveness of lesbian and gay cultures (Auchmuthy, 2004; Warner, 2000). They view the extension of marriage to same-sex couples as a form of social regulation, with profound normalising implications for same-sex relationships and queer identities (Warner, 2000).
The political desire for marriage, some argue, is based on outmoded notions of commitment. Ultimately, it may lead to normative constructions of socially responsible and irresponsible homosexuals, and to the imposition of rules that may stifle the creativity of same-sex partnerships (Donovan, 2004). Some feminist critics have further argued that the valorisation of marriage as ‘full citizenship’ for lesbians and gay men is a naive political strategy. They point to the historical role of the institution of marriage in the reproduction of patriarchal structures, and its grounding in gendered inequalities (Jackson, 1996; Jeffreys, 2004). Other feminists argue for ‘full marriage’ on the basis that civil unions and other forms of recognition reinscribe the superiority of heterosexual married relationships. In line with a progressive view of socio-legal developments, they see same-sex marriage as a global inevitability:
The movement toward equality and justice for LGBT people has become a global one. It is no longer a question of ‘whether’ we will have the right of equal access to marriage worldwide; it has become a question of ‘when’. For feminists, the question is now what will we do with this right once we have it – and what does it mean for our politics of sexuality, marriage and the family?
Wilkinson (2004: 14)
These debates deploy many of the tropes of modernist thinking: pro – gression/decline, structure/agency; regulation/resistance; dominance/ submission. Diverse as they are, viewed together they express enduring themes and core tensions in modernist thinking about disintegration and order, emancipation and the impoverishment of personal culture (Heaphy, 2007). Overall, in line with conceptions of marriage as a lynchpin of modern (Foucault, 1979), patriarchal (J ackson, 1996) or capitalist projects, they view marriage as an ordering project that is linked in various ways to family, gender, sexual and broader social ordering. While continuity and discontinuity are two sides of the ‘intricate relationship between the present social condition and the formation that preceded and gestated it’ (Bauman, 1992: 187), each of these responses tends to overemphasise one side of the coin over the other. Taken together, they continue traditions of dichotomous framing of social issues to impose order on the meaning and implications of same-sex marriage. In addition, they imply that same-sex marriage is something that demands a position – either pro or con. In doing so, they tend to underemphasise radically diverse, uncertain and ambivalent meanings and attitudes associated with both heterosexual and same-sex marriage, and the radically diverse, uncertain and ambivalent directions that developments in marriage might take. A key challenge for understanding contemporary experiences involves a departure from inherited categories, conceptions and models of society and the social (Bauman, 1992). This involves developing new ways of conceiving the world and a new vocabulary for doing so. In important ways, the responses to same-sex marriage above fail to meet this challenge. What about other more nuanced responses?
Oerton (2008) suggests that since the 1990s there have been two waves of academic responses to same-sex marriage. The first, in evidence until the early to mid-2000s, was partly defined by debates of the kind we have considered here ‘about the extent to which same – sex relationship recognition, in whatever guise it came, was radical, transgressive and destabilising of heteronormativity’ (2008: 783). The second, in evidence from the mid-2000, ‘is more open to constructive dialoguing across the political spectrum’ (ibid: 784). In the later wave, Oerton includes ‘analyses of the regulatory frameworks operating in and across different contexts, and the multiple drivers underpinning them’ (ibid; see Harding, 2011; Hull, 2006; Stychin, 2003) and scholarship that comprises ‘critical analyses […] that contextualize the various meanings that recognition, commitment and ritual has for those whose lives are touched by existing and emergent laws’ (ibid; see Lewin, 1998; 2008; Smart, 2008; Shipman and Smart, 2007; Weeks et al., 2001). She also notes how feminist academics have interwoven their lived experience with theoretical and political analyses (see the collection edited by Clarke and Finlay, 2004). Thus, she argues that recently there has been a shift towards the production of more highly nuanced academic scholarship on same-sex relationship recognition (see special issue of Sexualities, 2008). While there may be a shift occurring, it is fair to say that Oerton (2008) probably overstates the distinction between the first and second ‘waves’ she identifies. While there are some notable exceptions (including many of the works cited above), and while some recent responses may be more situated, complex and nuanced, the tendency is for academics to continue to deploy many of the tropes of modernist thinking, and especially the modernist regulation/resistance frame. For example, one of the most recent and nuanced contributions, entitled Regulating Sexuality (Harding, 2011), uses such a frame for comprehending legal consciousness with respect to same-sex relationship and parenting recognition.