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Why Marriage?
Ellen Lewin
Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies at the University of Iowa

© May 2004, Ellen Lewin

That same-sex marriage has emerged as the most passionately debated civil rights issue of the early 21st century should come as no surprise to anthropologists, many of whom, after all, have devoted their lives to studying kinship. American kinship, as David Schneider pointed out many years ago, depends on metaphors of blood and law, metaphors that work as effectively as they do in organizing our lives because they are so deeply held and emotionally compelling. And these are, of course, the metaphors that rule in the current debates, embedded in an even more compelling set of images of nature that make the eventual resolution of this issue matter so much to actors on both sides.

Why has marriage become so central to questions of gay/lesbian rights? How has this happened when lesbians and gay men are themselves so divided over the issue? I would like to outline a few ways that we might think about these questions. I base my comments on the research I carried out on same-sex commitment ceremonies (Recognizing Ourselves: Ceremonies of Lesbian and Gay Commitment, 1998), on other anthropological work I’ve done with lesbian and gay families in the US, and on my own experience as a participant in the struggle to achieve the right to marry. My views on this issue, which had long rested on a radical antipathy to marriage as a patriarchal institution, shifted dramatically after my spouse and I were united in a Jewish ceremony in 1992 and after I studied some 60 same-sex couples who staged commitment ceremonies of various kinds — none at that time legally sanctioned.

Celebrating Commitment

Commitment ceremonies, weddings, and other ritual occasions that seek to celebrate lesbian and gay relationships are in many ways very diverse: some are religious, some are secular; some are modest affairs, others involve conspicuous expenditure and lavish display; some are crafted with the intent of invoking convention and upholding “tradition,” while others are playful, subversive, and self-consciously “queer.” But what they all attempt is to situate a relationship within a broader community context, to proclaim the authenticity of the relationship in a public manner, and to achieve recognition that extends beyond the boundaries of gay/lesbian communities. These ceremonies are often gripping events, occasions at which participants may experience unanticipated reactions: It is not uncommon for guests at ceremonies, even those (heterosexuals) who are attending under duress, to burst into tears, or to reveal the powerful impact the ritual has on them in other displays of emotion. “Now I understand,” they may cry, “It’s all about love.”

When I first witnessed these events, and heard these formulaic exclamations, my reaction was embarrassment. Can relationships be reduced to sentiments commonly associated with popular romance novels? But I soon learned that I was missing the point, and that “love” is a code that makes otherwise alien behavior understandable within a shared cultural matrix — for both actors and audience. Non-gay people in our society may not understand or sympathize with homosexuality when they have no choice but to think of it as some set of sexual practices they probably cannot imagine, but they are very likely to “get it” when the issue is commitment, loyalty, domesticity — in short, “love.”

Expression of State Approval

Given that these rituals are successful — that is, transformative — even in the absence of legal marriage, one might think that the issue could end there, to be easily resolved with some codification of “civil unions” or other non-marital conventions. But that conclusion ignores how both material and linguistic accoutrements of weddings shape their symbolic dimensions. As satisfying as religious ceremonies, rings, flowers, gifts, and the other markers of “weddings” are, there is nothing quite as powerful as the expression of state approval.

Last summer, my spouse and I went to Toronto to get legally married, 11 years after our extra-legal Jewish wedding. Our decision to do so was largely political. We wanted to be among those pioneering couples who would have a part in future legal challenges to marriage codes in the US. But nothing prepared us for the emotional impact of having government officials routinely process our paperwork or of having a functionary licensed by the province perform our brief City Hall ceremony. No family or close friends could attend, and virtually all routine wedding insignia were absent. But we were moved far more deeply than either of us expected; we came home feeling convinced that we really were “married,” and that feeling has persisted even as we’ve had to confront our inability to officially claim any of the privileges that accompany marriage in our own country.

Move to the Front of the Bus

While only a few years ago lesbian and gay couples were thrilled to have even the most meager sort of recognition thrown in our direction, many of us are now adamant that we must have marriage and nothing less. In large part, this sense of entitlement to the full package of rights and responsibilities reflects wide discussion of the level of discrimination same-sex couples endure because we can’t get married. More than 1,000 specific rights are restricted to heterosexually-married couples, including tax benefits, pension rights, child custody, and survivor benefits, in other words, most entitlements that have to do with being someone’s next of kin. These benefits are not trivial. They can directly affect our ability to survive under particular conditions. But I would argue that as marks of legitimacy and authenticity these entitlements are even more vital. They mediate the ability to claim a particular identity in the context of one’s community, and they intervene in situations where shame may preclude naming one’s most important relationships. They have to do with the dignity with which we move through life.

Let me use an example from the drama of marriage-related civil disobedience that has been unfolding around the country. A few days after the mayor of the village of New Paltz, New York began to perform same-sex weddings without marriage licenses, the New York Times featured an article about the first couple to take advantage of the new policy. Jeffrey S. McGowan and Billiam van Roestenberg had told very few people of their relationship. They had long been afraid to purchase a home together, feeling that it would be safer to rent in case they had to move quickly “if too many people found out about us.” Even after buying a house, they avoided neighbors, had separate phone lines installed, and even removed photographs from the house when friends and family came to visit. Van Roestenberg described the anguish he felt as friends would try to make matches for his partner: “I can tell you it is utterly humiliating for me to be with the person I love and have people discuss whether he is suitable or not for a particular woman. You smile, but it really does hurt inside.”

The wedding by a public official, however insecure the legal grounds on which it rested, changed everything for these two men, enabling them to make their relationship public. Van Roestenberg put it aptly, “Jeff and I sat down in the front of the bus for the first time and began a new phase of our lives together.” By drawing on this image from the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, he not only situated the struggle for same-sex marriage in an honorable protest tradition, but he alluded to the psychological damage done by discrimination that was at the heart of moral opposition to racial segregation.

Standard of Legitimacy

Stories like this are not rare. They emerged over and over again in the research I conducted in the mid-1990s with same-sex couples whose weddings occurred outside the legal system. Even for lesbian and gay couples who have not felt it necessary to enter into such elaborate forms of concealment, the notion that one’s union is not quite legitimate, not exactly “the real thing” casts a pervasive shadow over our lives. Marriage may seem like a small step, but it is what other people — other citizens — have access to, and it is what many lesbian and gay people, as participants in the wider culture, use as a standard of legitimacy. For many of the couples I studied, the issue was having access to some form of authority that they saw as attesting to the authenticity of their relationship: in some cases, the endorsement came from God, in other cases from the presence of family and non-gay friends; in still other instances, receiving gifts, wearing clothes associated with weddings, having a certificate of some sort, like a Jewish ketubah, or drawing on ethnic traditions in constructing the ceremony authenticated the event. For many couples, even an ambiguous mark of legitimacy opened the door to making other claims to equal marital rights, even if such claims involved nothing more than declaring their existence for the first time. Marriage certificates issued by the state or religious institutions clearly offer another example as they constitute evidence that the relationship is just what the couple claims it to be — a marriage.

Division among lesbians and gay men over this issue continues to be sharp, although the tone of the debate has been muted in the face of recent actions to demand the right to marry. It’s hard to be against such dramatic instances of civil disobedience, even if one doesn’t find marriage a compelling goal, and even if one is reluctant to launch this struggle in the year of a critical national election. Of course, lesbians and gay men are not yet in a position to refuse to get married, since such protest can only be coherent when leveled against a right we possess. What’s important as the discussion continues is to resist thinking of legal marriage as nothing more than a way to gain access to a package of formal entitlements and economic advantages. These concrete benefits are significant, but in the end pale beside the more symbolic rewards that come with moving to the front of the bus. This is a process that anthropologists can document with particular clarity. Our voices need to be heard in the current debate, not only to challenge unfounded claims by demagogues about the universality of any particular marital configuration, but to support the rights of lesbians and gay men to build their lives as full citizens.

Ellen Lewin
Originally published in the American Anthropological Association’s
“Anthropology News,” reprinted with permission.

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