NATIONAL JOURNAL OF SEXUAL ORIENTATION LAW
VOL. 1, ISSUE 1 Mary Sylla, editor (email@example.com)
A (Personal) Essay on Same-Sex Marriage
Barbara J. Cox Professor
California Western School of Law _________________________________________________________________
Very little since Stonewall, and the break from accepting
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the status quo that those riots symbolize, has challenged the lesbian and gay community as much as the debate we have had over the past several years on whether seeking the right to marry should be the focus of our community's efforts, political influence, and financial resources. As is often true in most such political debates, both "sides" to the debate make important arguments about the impact that the right to marry will have on each member of our community, on the community as a whole, and on our place in society.
Arguing against same-sex marriage in her article, Since When is Marriage a Path to Liberation?, Paula Ettelbrick believes that it will not liberate lesbians and gay men but will make us more invisible, force assimilation, and undermine the lesbian and gay civil rights movement. She also argues that it will not transform society into respecting and encouraging relationship choice and family diversity, which are primary goals of that civil rights movement. Ruth Colker in Marriage echoes Ettelbrick's concerns, arguing that rather than expanding the couples who can marry, we should change the institution of marriage to eliminate its marriage-dependent benefits, so that people will choose it for symbolic, rather than legal or utilitarian, reasons. She also recognizes the class-based assumptions inherent in the marriage debate, realizing that for most poor people, marriage offers few economic advantages.
Nitya Duclos examines four reasons advanced for same-sex marriage (political reform, public legitimation, socioeconomic benefits, and safeguarding children of lesbian or gay parents) in her article, Some Complicating Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage. She concludes that the effects of allowing same-sex marriage will not be felt uniformly throughout lesbian and gay communities and questions whether it will exacerbate differences of power and privilege in those communities.
In a companion piece to Ettelbrick's, Thomas Stoddard, in Why Gay People Should Seek the Right to Marry, while recognizing the oppressive nature of marriage in its traditional form, believes that lesbians and gay men should be able to choose to marry and the civil rights movement should seek full recognition of same-sex marriages. His three reasons for pursuing this right are the practical advantages associated with marriage-related benefits, the political reason that marriage is the issue most likely to end discrimination against lesbians and gay men, and the philosophical explanation that lesbians and gay men should have the right to choose to marry and that providing that right will be the principal means toward eliminating marriage's sexist trappings.
Nan Hunter, in Marriage, Law and Gender: A Feminist Inquiry, argues that legalizing lesbian and gay marriage will destabilize marriage's gendered definition by disrupting the link between gender and marriage. She analyzes both marriage and domestic partnership against the feminist inquiry of how law reinforces power imbalances within the family and views same-sex marriage as a means to subvert gender-based power differentials. Mary Dunlap finds that same-sex marriage is constructive when lesbians and gay men are encountering gay-bashing resulting from Bowers. She examines the values underlying the push for same- sex marriage (such as equality, autonomy, fairness, privacy, and diversity) and encourages expansion of the marriage debate
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outside legal circles. One way to expand this debate is to read the interviews of lesbian and gay couples, some of whom have chosen to have public ceremonies celebrating their commitment and some of whom have chosen to keep their commitment private.
The debate continues to rage, as seen from the recent articles contained in the Virginia Law Review's symposium issue. Without resolving the debate here, it seems clear that obtaining the right to marry will drastically impact the lesbian and gay civil rights movement. My response to the debate is best expressed in the following short (and personal) essay, explaining the vital political change that can result from the simple (and personal) act of same-sex marriage.
es, I know that weddings can be "heterosexual rituals" of the most repressive and repugnant kind. es, I know that weddings historically symbolized the loss of the woman's self into that of her husband's, a denial of her existence completely. es, I know that weddings around the world continue to have that impact on many women and often lead to lives of virtual slavery. es, I know. Then how could a feminist, out, radical lesbian like myself get married a year ago last April? Have I simply joined the flock of lesbians and gay men rushing out to participate in a meaningless ceremony that symbolizes heterosexual superiority?
I think not. When my partner and I decided to have a commitment ceremony, we did so to express the love and caring that we feel for one another, to celebrate that love with our friends and family, and to express that love openly and with pride. It angers me when others, who did not participate or do not know either of us, condemn us as part of a mindless flock accepting a dehumanizing ceremony. But more it distresses me that they believe their essentialist vision of weddings explains all -- because they have been to weddings, both straight and queer, they can speak as experts on their inherent nature.
Perhaps these experts should consider the radical aspect of lesbian marriage or the transformation that it makes on the people around us. As feminists, we used to say that "the personal is political." Have we lost that vision of how we can understand and change the world?
My commitment ceremony was not the mere "aping" of the bride that I supposedly spent my childhood dreaming of becoming. (In fact, I was a very satisfied tomboy who never once considered marriage.) My ceremony was an expression of the incredible love and respect that I have found with my partner. My ceremony came from a need to speak of that love and respect openly to those who participate in my world.
Some of the most politically "out" experiences I have ever had happened during those months of preparing for and having that ceremony. My sister and I discussed for weeks whether she would bring her children to the ceremony. Although I had always openly brought the women I was involved with home with me, I had never actually sat down with my niece and nephews to discuss those relationships. My sister was concerned that her eldest son, particularly, might scorn me, especially at a time when he and his friends tended toward "faggot" jokes. After I expressed how important it was for me to have them attend, she tried to talk with her son about going to this euphemistically-entitled
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"ceremony." He kept asking why my partner and I were having a "ceremony" and she kept hedging. Finally he just said, "Mom, Barb's gay, right?" She said yes, they all came, and things were fine. Her youngest son sat next to me at dinner after the ceremony trying to understand how it worked. "ou're married, right?" "es." "Who's the husband?" "There is no husband." "Are you going to have children?" "No." "So there's no husband and no children but you're married, right?" "es." "OK," and he happily turned back to his dinner.
My partner invited her large Catholic family to the ceremony. We all know how the Pope feels about us. Despite that, her mother and most of her siblings, some from several states away, were able to attend. Her twin brother later told us that our ceremony led him to question and resolve the discomfort that had plagued his relationship with his sister for many years.
As a law professor leaving town early for the ceremony, I told my two classes (one of 95 and one of 20 students) that I was getting "married" to my partner, who is a woman. (I actually used "married" because saying I was getting "committed" just didn't quite have the right ring to it.) The students in one of my classes joined together to buy my partner and myself a silver engraved frame that says "Barb and Peg, Our Wedding." My colleagues were all invited to the ceremony and most of them attended. One of them spoke to me of the discussion they had within their family explaining to their children that they were going to a lesbian wedding.
How can anyone view these small victories in coming out and acceptance as part of flocking to imitate, or worse join, an oppressive heterosexual institution? Is it not profoundly transformative to speak so openly about lesbian love and commitment? The impact was so wide-ranging, not just on my partner and myself, but on our families, our friends, and even the clerks in the jewelry stores when we explained we were looking for wedding rings for both of us. Or on the 200 people who received my mother's annual xeroxed Christmas letter with a paragraph describing the ceremony. Or the clerk in the store who engraved the frame for my students. Or the young children who learned that same-sex marriage exists.
es, we must be aware of the oppressive history that weddings symbolize. We must work to ensure that we do not simply accept whole-cloth an institution that symbolizes the loss and harm felt by women. But I find it difficult to understand how two lesbians, standing together openly and proudly, can be seen as accepting that institution? What is more anti-patriarchal and rejecting of an institution that carries the patriarchal power imbalance into most households than clearly stating that women can commit to one another with no man in sight? With no claim of dominion or control, but instead of equality and respect. I understand the fears of those who condemn us for our weddings, but I believe they fail to look beyond the symbol and cannot see the radical claim we are making.
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