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Is Marriage the Containment, Once and for All, of Homosexuality? 14 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Gender, Inequality & Stratification, Microsociology/Social Psychology, Queer Theory.
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A common thread in queer critiques of gay rights movements is that the aims of the movement are moving us toward a domestication or containment of our queerness, of the things that make us different and interesting in the first place. I have mixed feelings about these criticisms. 

On one hand, Michael Warner’s argument in The Trouble with Normal really resonate with my own sensibilities of the beauty and the possibility of queer culture and gay relationships (see also Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy). I worry that the movement’s goals are about conformity and respectability, rather than about the freedom to be different and, well, queer. My own research concludes that what makes gay community and culture possible are the social spaces necessary for gay people to work out the meanings of their difference with each other, rather than in relationship to the dominant heterosexual norm. I argue that one of the key areas of weakness in the current iteration of gay rights movement is that it seeks integration into the dominant culture, and ignores the necessity for queer spaces in their own right. If there are no more queer social spaces, there are no more contexts within which queers can create their own culture. Remember, culture is an emergent property of social interaction; without interaction, there is no culture. Do we really want to just blend in and accept the terms of ‘normality’ from the dominant? Is my desire for men nothing more than a quirk that can fit into the hegemonic American Dream?

There are at the practical level significant problems, sociologically speaking, with my position. Namely, the kind of social spaces, whose loss I bemoan, and the kind of emergent culture they produce, have historically happened oppositionally. That is, they happen because there was a need in the social environment for their creation. Or to say it yet another way, in my research, gay men formed social spaces and cultures because they needed to in their context in history. Could it be that to maintain gay male difference, for example, you must live in a homophobic or heteronormative society? If there is no institutional or social mountain to climb, is there still a difference worth fighting for? In some ways, this will be a question of history. You can look at places like Sweden which has integrated homosexuality to a great degree, so that there are virtually no queer spaces at all in the country: Then we can ask the question, are there still differences? If not why not? If not, should there be?

But since culture is emergent and context specific, is it even the right focus to mourn the loss of cultural practices that arose in different contexts and that may no longer be useful or meaningful in the current environment?  Because culture is nothing more nor less than the production of meaning that is useful to the group in a specific setting, should our critical focus be preserving a culture within a changed context? [I believe these questions must be asked of other minority groups as well, not just queer culture.]

There are still more levels to delve through. Warner is but one among many who argue that marriage is the wrong battle to wage. But we are left with two important empirical considerations: 1st and foremost, the liberal democracy distributes social goods based on institutions, in this case marriage, which means that when the legal definition of marriage excludes same-sex relationships, it necessarily distributes those goods unequally; and 2nd, because marriage is a part of a the current social environment and it carries significant cultural weight, across race, ethnic, class, and religious lines, it is an object of desire for many (most) people in the society.

On the first point, many activists argue that the institution of marriage should be eliminated altogether, not only because it excludes homosexual pairings, but because it has a long history of sexist and racist effects. Marriage has been a tool of containment for women, specifically controlling their bodies and reproduction and limiting their public participation and status. The cultural spectre of marriage has been used in many different ways to maintain racial categories and in their effect the subjugation of African Americans (think: social gospel movement, eugenics, contemporary debates about “welfare queens”, etc., not to mention anti-miscengenation). So should the government just scrap marriage altogether? Should we as a society just jettison the institution because it cannot be clensed of its past and/or because it still is used as a tool to maintain social boundaries and control the flow of social power? [A similar question has been asked at a much larger scale if liberal democracy itself should be overthrown for similar reasons.]

On the second point, we have to deal with the thorny issue of people’s desires, why the desire them, if those desires are ethically acceptable, if they should be allowed to consummate them. Clearly, this should be of utmost importance to queer thinkers, as our whole modus operandus revolves around the consummation of desires, sexual and otherwise. In traditional critical theory, the world revolves around, in some form or another, “false consciousness”, the belief that people who desire “bad” things are duped or ignorant, but that if they could only be made to “see” would desire something else. In this specific case, it means telling gay men and women and other queers, transsexuals and bisexuals, that if they desire to be wed, they are complicit in their own oppression, they do not understand, or that they are morally or intellectually inferior.

Both points are powerful, but both points leave me unsatisfied. Both points seem to rest on deeply flawed understandings of where meaning comes from in human populations, how social institutions arise and change over time, and the irreducibility of the connection of human meaning (and desire) to the context within which is emerges. Maybe I’m too past graduate school for this kind of critique, because it just seems to treat the question in ideal (in some ways Hegelian/Marxian) terms, disconnected from on-the-ground reality, with how societies build and maintain social structures and the degree to which state power can be coercive or not, without regard to the degree to which power flows in the other direction, and without accounting for the connections between institutions and meaning making by those who are supposedly oppressed by the institutions. It also risks lapsing into that “radical” netherworld where institutions are bad per se. It ignores that all institutions, no matter how they are constituted, both enable *and* foreclose possibilites, including whatever social institutions would fill the vaccuum after the state sanctioned marriages are removed. Importantly, all institutions bring with them a concomitant resistance, regardless of our personal political stance on the institution. To make an anti-marriage argument on the grounds that an institution has negative consequences seems nearly childlike in its naivete.

The brief piece “No State Regulation of Families”, while pointing to disturbing and important historical power-relations in marriage, also relies on an assumption that marriage (and by extension all social institutions) are static and unchanging, as if marriage in 2008 is the same thing as it was in 1808. I don’t think the authors actually think that, but their argument assumes that, as if the very humans who live and breathe within that institution don’t push against it and transform it constantly, both at the micro-, individual social level and at the macro level of overall constitution of the institution. Marriage isn’t essentially or inherently oppressive merely because it has been so in the past. Marriage is simply a category of a kind of social institution that humans have created in innumerable ways to organize relationships and structure society; but they have always then moved with and against it, to transform it over time so that it has evolved to meet differing needs in different contexts. You could argue that marriage is a particularly stubborn institution, particularly slow to change; yet you can’t argue that it is the same or that it oppresses in the same ways as the past.

There is some truth to the idea that gays wanting to get married works to conservative advantage and is in part a domestication of gay/queer culture. In fact, it’s true enough that it scares the shit out of me. Yet it ignores the opposite flow of power, which is that by their very insistance on participation in the institution, same-sex couples have and are dramatically changing the institution itself, how its power is constituted and how it constrains and enables behavior and meaning. One clear example is that queers, legally married or not, continue to negotiate the sexual boundaries of their relationships, rather than merely excepting sexual exclusivity as a norm. Another example is how male couples tend to negotiate and consciously arrange their finances in a range of ways that undermine the kinds of power marriage has had historically on unequal economies within the relationship.

Many anti-gay-marriage analyses also often have the problem that always comes from a kind of false-consciousness critique: Somehow, ethnic and racial minorities (and of course gay folks) who desire marriage and/or who want marriage are duped, that their desires are somehow less authentic or coerced. If blacks, for example, only saw that “traditional marriage” were deployed against them, they would no longer want to be married. Yet what African Americans have done for generations is insist on the validity of their own formations of marriage and family relations; while simultanesouly demanding the recognition of the state with all its accompanying rights and privileges. And yet in the social context within which all of these people live, marriage is one of the terms of social participation. That is, marriage already is, and so categories of people who have been oppressed by the terms of marriage (e.g., slaves who were married until “physically separated”, or women who were economically dependent on husbands) or who were excluded from it (e.g., interracial couples and same-sex couples) will naturally engage “marriage” as a cite of social transformation, rebellion, and change; and it necessarily involves a tension between wanting in and wanting it to be different once they are in. They redefine the institution necessarily by their very participation in it.

In an odd way, I believe arguments against gay marriage almost give too much power to marriage as an institution (and by extension to all social institutions), oversimplifying the flows of power and constant cultural change and transformation.