If you’re wondering about the title, it’s what me and my husband-to-be call equal marriage. Yes, I am to be wed this coming Saturday to my partner of 11 years. It’s all getting a bit hectic and exciting in the run-up to the Big Day. Rather fortuitously, this momentous occasion in my life has coincided with me reading a lot of queer theory for my current research on LGBTQ housing and homelessness. This literature been a bit of a revelation – I’ve dived into it like a contestant on Drag Race would dive into a dressing-up box. Part of why I’m coming to this late in my academic career is related to the broader theme of this post – in my academic career to-date I’ve ignored my own queerness focusing on mainstream policy studies which has helped advance my career. This will be the topic of another post later.
The crashing together of getting gay marriaged and queer theory has been interesting and I thought I’d share a couple of insights.
HETEROSEXUALS, MARRIAGE IS SO INCREDIBLY FUCKING GENDERED IT IS UNTRUE AND YOU REALLY NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THAT.
My first awareness of this was when I first announced my engagement at work the Monday after my partner proposed. I was chairing a meeting and as an ice-breaker I asked people to share an interesting bit of non-work news when they were introducing myself. I came last and my news was my engagement (I was actually trying to think of something else to share; make of that what you will). The women in the room whooped with joy and immediately followed it up with questions about the details of the proposal and when the wedding was going to be. This took up a good five minutes; the men in the meeting looked bored and had clearly mentally moved onto item five on the agenda.
And this has basically continued ever since. We had a wait a long time before actual wedding planning got going as we’re members of the congregation of the Church of St John the Evangelist on Princes Street, part of the Scottish Episcopal Church. We were waiting for the Synod of the church to change the Canon Law to allow same-sex marriage, which they did (I heard the news via Twitter on the train home from work, and cried quite a lot). As planning got going this gendered divide about wedding discussions continued – I couldn’t briefly mention it to women without getting the Spanish Inquisition treatment, whereas men, on the whole, could not give a fuck. I started mentioning this and it was interesting how heterosexuals found this irritating too. One women explained how her husband organised her wedding and she actually got very angry at the number of people who questioned this. Another male friend explained how they equally shared tasks, and similarly was angry that people were aghast. In culture, this divide that weddings are women’s work is recreated in things like Don’t Tell the Bride.
I suppose this came as such a shock to me as the discourse around marriage has changed so much. It’s all about “partnership” and the inroads of feminism have made it less of an imposition of patriarchal power in our society. The weddings I’ve attended (oh, so many weddings…) really, I thought, reflected the input of both people in the couple; I rarely considered that it was mainly a woman’s work. What my experiences have led me to consider is that this profound gendering really demonstrates how far the institution of heterosexual marriage has to go until it becomes something more equal. This behaviour, for me, demonstrates how still marriage is something women must aspire to – hence the focus on the “big day” – and it’s something that men must be subject to – hence their lack of interest.
This also demonstrates how marriage is one of the everyday ways in which patriarchal heterosexuality is remade as the norm in our society. As a young gay man I thought I would never, ever get married, let alone married in a church (I should add, I’m still an atheist). A common criticism of equal marriage from queer activists is it is just another tool of assimilation; it is part of the way LGB people are become normalised in a neoliberal society that will accept us as normal consumers, but doesn’t really want to accept our queerness.
Going on this journey to marriage, I have ended up challenging this, particularly with the insights from Celia Kitzinger’s fantastic paper Speaking as a heterosexual. In this paper Kitzinger describes the everyday ways in talk that heterosexuality is made, and key among these is through marriage and the associated pronouns – husband, wife, and the general presumption of an opposite-gender partner. Indeed, until equal marriage, just ticking the box on a form to say “married” implied heterosexuality. To be non-heterosexual had to involve awkwardly correcting people – pointing out incorrect pronouns after you spoke about your partner was a fairly regular occurrence in my life.
Same-sex marriage upsets this entirely, and therefore, although I fully recognise where critics of homonormativity are coming from, I think they underestimate the possible radical change that will come about from widening the scope of such an incredibly heterosexual institution to us queers. For a start, it gives us a new vocabulary to play with – husband and wife. It also, profoundly, means that a wedded couple cannot be assumed to be opposite-sex. If you notice someone’s wedding ring on their finger, your thought now must be “what gender is their spouse?”. My research on housing has really opened my eyes as to how much the heterosexual family unit is subtly normalised in all manner of simple interactions. This will be eroded. Ironically, the campaigners against equal marriage are right – it might destroy, or weaken marriage; but a particular form of heterosexual marriage.
I think I note this radical possibility more intensely than other LGB people might because of the religious aspect to our marriage. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. Also my husband-to-be was heavily involved in the SEC’s “Cascade Conversation” about equal marriage and also gave an impassioned speech about same-sex marriage at the Synod back in June (people said afterwards what a big impact it seemed to have on the audience). So it’s something that’s been considered quite a lot indeed. The opening liturgy of our ceremony on Saturday emphasises how the love in our marriage reflects and reinforces the love of God and the love of Jesus when he died for us on the cross. By getting married in church, this is stating that this love is as bountiful for everyone equally; as the priest presiding at the Cathedral in Vancouver on Pride Day said: God loves us in all the ways he made us fantastically different. This liturgy could not be more radically different from the old “honour and obey” liturgy of days of yore that was saying God made man to dominate woman.
So I’m hopeful of equal marriage. I hope it will change society and make heterosexuality be questioned a bit more as the norm, and allow people to be more easily proud of their queerness in an everyday way. I’m also hopeful for our own marriage – from what I know we’ve got good odds. The same-sex divorce rate is the same as it is for opposite-sex couples (c. 45%, yes, we’re as bad at this as you straights are) but we’ve made it past the average length of the failed marriage – 10 years – already.
And trust me, as an academic, to over-intellectualise my own sodding wedding day.