Same sex marriage refers to a union by two people of the same sex that is legally sanctioned by the state, where identical rights and responsibilities are afforded same sex and heterosexual married couples. The term ‘‘gay marriage’’ is popularly used to refer to same sex partner ships or cohabiting relationships that are formally registered in some way as a ‘‘civil union’’ (variously known as civil partnerships, registered partnerships, and registered cohabitation), although the latter are in fact legally distinct from marriage. The term is also sometimes employed to talk about unregistered same sex couple cohabitation or partnerships acknowledged through commitment ceremonies. Few states currently afford same sex couples the opportunity to participate in marriage (those that do include Belgium, Spain, the Nether lands, and Canada, but see the following web sites for detailed information on changing status in different countries: www.marriageequality. org; www.samesexmarriage.ca; www.stonewall. org.uk). Civil unions, civil partnerships, and registered cohabitation, which include some exemptions from the automatic rights and responsibilities afforded heterosexual married couples, are the most common forms of legal recognition. They offer some of the symbolic and material advantages associated with marriage, but with more limited legal status. At a global level, most same sex partners must currently rely on ‘‘do it yourself’’ affirmation and commitment ceremonies, or seek religious blessings where available.
Same sex marriage and civil unions have become high profile political issues in many countries since the early 1990s. In Europe the number of states that have extended, or are planning to extend, legal recognition to lesbian and gay relationships through civil unions has increased steadily since the first civil partnership legislation was passed in Denmark in 1989. Elsewhere, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand, South Africa, and other countries have either nationwide or regional legal facilities for the recognition of same sex partnerships or cohabiting relationships. In the United States, the issue of same sex marriage has been an especially contentious one. While some states have introduced legislation to recognize same sex marriage or civil unions (e.g., Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont), other states have enacted constitutional amendments that explicitly forbid same sex marriage, or have passed legislation that bars civil union type recognition. This points to the strength of support and opposition that the issue of same sex marriage can generate in the US and most other countries where the issue is debated. On the one hand, some constituencies see same sex marriage and civil unions as an ultimate marker of social and political tolerance. On the other hand, some groups view the issue as indicative of the decline in religious and moral values in an increasingly secular world. Amongst 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.
Same sex marriage and civil unions therefore touch on important sociological themes to do with sexuality, family life, and social change, and raise questions about social ‘‘rights’’ and responsibilities, sexual politics, and citizenship. The topic features highly in debates on the demise of the ‘‘traditional’’ family, the legitimacy of new family forms, and the blurring of the ‘‘public’’ and ‘‘private’’ in contemporary social contexts. Existing theory and research has focused on the social, cultural, and political forces that have brought the issue to the fore; the extent to which same sex marriage represents full ‘‘sexual citizenship’’; the meanings afforded partnership recognition by lesbians and gay men; and the implications of recognition for couples and their ‘‘blood’’ or ‘‘chosen’’ families (Weston 1991).
A number of social developments have influenced the current focus of lesbian and gay politics on same sex marriage. AIDS, some theorists argue, was a catalyst in mobilizing a new lesbian and gay relational politics in the 1980s. This was initially focused on the recognition of same sex partners’ caring commitments, and protecting ‘‘rights’’ in relation to property and next of kin issues. Community responses to AIDS facilitated the institution building and political confidence that made same sex marriage seem like a realizable political objective. Since the 1980s new possibilities have opened up for lesbian and gay parenting (through self and assisted insemination, surrogacy, fostering, adoption, and so on) and a growing number of same sex couples are choosing to parent. Same sex marriage is seen as a crucial strategy for recognizing and protecting co-parenting commitments.
Another social development is the changing nature of heterosexual marriage itself. The separation of marriage from the needs of reproduction and women’s increasing economic independence from men are transforming the meanings of heterosexual marriage. Some theorists cite statistics on divorce, cohabitation, single parenting, and solo living as an indication of the fragility of the institution of marriage. For others, these statistics are indicative of how processes of detraditionalization and individualization make marriage a ‘‘zombie’’ institution (Beck 2000). The recognition of same sex marriage can therefore be interpreted as an attempt to reinvigorate or reinvent an ailing institution. A different perspective suggests that the changing role of welfare states can explain the political support that same sex marriage has received from unexpected quarters. Some argue that as welfare states seek to shift social and care responsibilities back onto individuals and their families and communities, the recognition of same sex marriage makes sense as it formalizes the responsibilities of lesbians and gay men for their partners and families.
The tendency is for sociological analyses of same sex marriage to reflect broader political and social debate, and to be framed around dichotomies of accommodation and resistance. The core debate is the extent to which same sex marriage represents a radical challenge to heteronormativity or a triumph of heterosexual norms. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘‘Sullivan versus Warner’’ debate. On the one hand, marriage is viewed as the legitimate aim of lesbian and gay politics, and as the most appropriate strategy for non-heterosexual citizenship (Sullivan). This position understands the marriage contract as symbolizing an emotional, financial, and psychological bond and highlights the economic and social advantages of marriage.
Some analyses suggest that the legalizing of same sex unions can reshape and modernize the institution of marriage in keeping with gender and sexual equality. On the other hand, 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. This views the extension of marriage to same sex couples as a form of social regulation, with profound normalizing implications for same sex relationships and queer identities (Warner). The political desire for marriage, it is argued, 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 which may stifle the creativity of same sex partnerships. Feminist critics have further argued that the valorization 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.
Some researchers have explored the dilemmas that marriage poses for lesbians and gay men. Opinions about the value of same sex marriage range from enthusiasm to outright rejection, and many individuals and couples are ambivalent about the issue. Lesbian and gay research participants generally endorse the principle of equality with heterosexual relationships. They desire social validation, and feel that same sex couples should be entitled to the legal benefits, rights, and responsibilities that are traditionally associated with marriage (such as medical decision making, child support, inheritance, and so on). However, individuals’ ambivalence is underscored where research suggests that while most lesbians and gay men feel that they should have the right to marry, only a small minority would marry given the opportunity. While lesbians and gay men appear keen to take up some of the entitlements and responsibilities traditionally associated with marriage, in com paring heterosexual marriage to their own relationships they often perceive the latter to offer greater opportunities for creativity and equality.
Some researchers suggest that lesbian and gay ambivalence about same sex marriage is indicative of the legal and cultural privileging of the institution. This leaves individuals with ‘‘no choice’’ but to see it as a crucial marker of social inclusion and citizenship – irrespective of their personal or political reservations. Others have argued that this ambivalence is rooted in the tensions between the desire for validation and participation in the existing traditions that marriage represents, and the desire to retain choice and creativity in ‘‘doing’’ and affirming relationships. A number of studies suggest that the lack of institutional supports and cultural guidelines for same sex relationships enables the development of distinctly creative partner ships and family practices. Studies also indicate that same sex relationships tend to be under pinned by a friendship ethic that generally pro motes a commitment to equality. Monogamy as the basis of commitment, and the primary significance of the couple, tend to be open to negotiation and are rarely assumed. This has led some theorists and researchers to argue that same sex relationships are creative ‘‘life experiments.’’ Such creativity is also noted in the research on commitment affirmation, where the playfulness of ‘‘do it yourself’’ traditions and rituals is highlighted. While elements of conformity are evident in how same sex relationships are celebrated and ritualized, couples often challenge or go beyond traditional ways of doing things. Research has further illustrated how commitment ceremonies simultaneously indicate conformity to wider values and intro duce ‘‘queering’’ messages at crucial points.
Same sex marriage and civil unions are distinctly contemporary phenomena, and they offer fertile ground for theorizing and new research. Several dimensions and questions could be explored. Established themes that warrant further exploration in different national and local contexts include: the ways in which same sex marriage challenges heterosexual norms or otherwise; the motivations for accepting or rejecting same sex marriage at state, political, couple, and personal levels; and alternative strategies for recognizing and validating same sex relationships and identities, such as the individualization of ‘‘rights’’ and responsibilities. Other areas for research open up as the availability and take up of marriage and civil unions increase. These include the implications for supporting same sex couple commitments; for a sense of connectedness to family and community traditions; and for a sense of couple and familial security. Research might also explore the implications (normalizing or otherwise) of legal and symbolic recognition for how couples structure and ‘‘do’’ their relationships. What, for example, are the implications for sexual exclusiveness and longevity? Studies could also examine the implications for non-heterosexual identities. Does recognition enhance a sense of individual security or otherwise? Are individuals judged (by themselves and others) on their capacities or willingness to marry? Finally, there is limited research on the breakup of same sex relationships. What are the implications of legal recognition for this? What are the implications of ‘‘divorce’’ and deregistration?
These topics and questions require creative research strategies and methodologies, an area where sexualities research has particular strengths and weaknesses. One obstacle is the ‘‘hidden’’ nature of lesbian and gay populations. This often means that particular experiences (white, middle class, and urban) are taken to represent the lesbian and gay experience. As the possibilities offered by same sex marriage and civil partnerships are likely to have profound implications for lesbians and gay men, future research should attempt to capture a fuller range of voices, experience, and opinions than has previously been the case.
- Adam, B. D. (2004) Care, Intimacy and Same-Sex Partnerships in the 21st Century. Current Sociology 52(2): 265 79.
- Beck, U. (2000) Zombie Categories. In: Rutherford, J. (Ed.), The Art of Life. Lawrence & Wishart, London. Clarke, V. & Finaly, S. (2004) ‘‘For Better or Worse?’’ Lesbian and Gay Marriage. Feminism and Psychology 14(1): 17 23.
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- Lewin, E. (2004) Anxiety at the Altar: Some Comments on Same-Sex Marriage from the United States. Feminism and Psychology 14(2): 323 6.
- Lewin, E. (1999) Recognizing Ourselves: Ceremonies of Lesbian and Gay Commitment. Columbia University Press, New York.
- Sullivan, A. (1996) Virtually Normal. Vintage Books, New York.
- Sullivan, A. (Ed.) (1997) Same Sex Marriage: Pro and Con A Reader. Vintage Books, New York.
- Warner, M. (2000) The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Weeks, J., Heaphy, B., & Donovan, C. (1999) Partnership Rites: Commitment and Ritual in Non- Heterosexual Relationships. In: Seymour, J. & Bagguley, P. (Eds.), Relating Intimacies: Power and Resistance. Macmillan, London.
- Weeks, J., Heaphy, B., & Donovan, C. (2001) Same Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments. Routledge, London.
- Weston, K. (1991) Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. Columbia University Press, New York.