All the best marriages are queer

Ann Bartow at Feminist Law Profs points us to a new article by Marc R. Poirier offering an innovative argument against the opponents of same-sex marriage.  Called “The Cultural Property Claim Within the Same-Sex Marriage Controversy,” Poirier argues that “traditionalist” opponents of same-sex marriage rights are in effect making an illegitamate cultural property claim on the definition and performance of marriage.  From the abstract:  “The protection of shared cultural symbols, rituals and traditions can be approached doctrinally and understood culturally in several ways in addition to a cultural property claim, including trademark dilution (especially trademark tarnishment), intellectual property rights that protect against unauthorized performance, laws against blasphemy and desecration, and environmental prohibitions of pollution and contagion. The article examines each of these, shedding light on the unexplored mechanics of the signal congestion that often lies at the heart of the traditionalist concern.”  And in a nice Judith Butlerian way, the article “focuses not only on the name and status of marriage, but also on the daily performances of gender roles that marriage authorizes and facilitates, and that same sex marriage apparently threatens to dilute or disrupt. The article thus applies both property concepts and gender performance theory to the same sex marriage controversy.”  See especially his discussion of “Marriage as Ongoing Gender Performance” on p. 38, the headline of section IV of his essay.  (Download it here.  Poirier loves him some cultural studies–you’ll find Mary Douglas in his footnotes too.)

Poirier’s analysis offers several fruitful ways to beat the argument about the so-called “threat to traditional marriage” posed by same-sex marriage.  Historiann wishes we would return to traditional marriage, American-style, and define it the way that John Winthrop and Cotton Mather did:  as a civil contract because marriage is a human invention.  (Adam and Eve were merely “shacking up,” in Dr. Laura’s inestimable formulation.)  Remember, folks, desacralizing marriage was one of the indisputably great things to come out of the Protestant Reformation.  This is probably the one area of agreement between John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, and Historiann.  Americans have redefined marriage throughout history–for example, revising marriage in the mid-19th century so that it didn’t rob women of their property rights; first prohibiting interracial marriage (ca. 1660-1720 in most English colonies), then permitting interracial marriage (in 1967, in Loving v. Virginia); and of course, the no-fault divorce revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, just to name a few of the major revolutions in American marriage history.  On p. 14 of his essay, Poirier indicates too how the legal definition of marriage varies not just across time, but across jurisdictional lines, from state-to-state.  So, including same-sexers in the fun seems like only a minimal revision of the potpourri of rules that we’re already re-writing constantly anyway. 

Poirier gets at the truth of people’s discomfort with same-sex marriage–at least the truth as I’ve always seen it, and explains why gay marriage is seen as a “threat” to “traditional marriage.”  He writes on p. 50, “[T]he injury traditionalists percieve, whether or not they would themselves describe it this way, comes in significant part from the fact that the gender binary is reaffirmed or challenged in the microperformance of couples everywhere, day in, day out. . . . When many people engage in similar gender performance, the normative components of their lived experience around gender, sex roles, and heterosexual components, are reinforced; indeed, they come to seem quite natural and unperformed.”  In other words, without a narrow, state-enforced definition of marriage, how will we know who wears the pants?  How will we know who’s supposed to mow the lawn and who’s supposed to keep the kitchen tidy?  How will we know whose last name the children will have, and who should be paid more for the same work?  (Freedom!  Horrible, horrible freedom!)   Queering marriage means not just permitting same-sexers to motor on down to any Las Vegas wedding chapel, but it also necessarily shatters the illusion that heterosexual marriage is a stable and natural institution.  It doesn’t threaten any marriage in particular, but it does threaten to expose “traditionalist” marriage as something that’s just as constructed and artificial as any other kind of marriage.

I’ve got all kinds of opinions about straight marriages and where they go wrong and where they’re hopelessly screwed up, and I’m sure you do, too.  I probably wouldn’t approve of your ongoing gender performance of marriage (straight or gay), and you probably wouldn’t approve of Historiann’s performance or marriage, if she is married.  So let’s agree to just bitch and gossip about each other privately like we always have, deal with our own happy and/or screwed-up (or happily screwed-up) marriages, and get out of the way of other people’s civil rights–the way adults do in a free society.  M’kay? 

0 thoughts on “All the best marriages are queer

  1. European elites (or at least the elite of the elite, i.e. the monarchs) were openly polygamous, but I’m not sure I’d say happily. I think the scholarly jury is still out on that one…


  2. GayProf–the clay-rich soils of Midwestern Funkytown that coat your face as you undermine straight marriages must provide you with a mineral-rich natural mask to keep you looking so fabulous!

    And ej: isn’t marriage about making people happy? Please tell me that’s what it’s always been! Please!


  3. Thinking of it as a cultural property claim is interesting. In the past I’ve borrowed W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of the “psychic wage” that whites get from racial inequality: the payoff, quite simply, is not being Black. Whether this is more usefully conceptualized as a wage, and thus a substitute for a tangible economic advantage, or as property, hence subject to dilution of value, is a question worth discussing, I think.


  4. While I absolutely agree that same-sex marriage would undermine traditional gender roles in ways that upset the, well, traditionalists, I also think that what upsets them is something that they share with ALL people who enter into marriage: a desire to have their couplehood validated by the outside world. Same-sex marriage would declare same-sexers to be as legitimate in the way of couplehood as heteros. This is, of course, about traditional gender roles, but I also think that it is about religion and a whole host of other issues. All of it, of course, could be solved if we simply abolished marriage altogether as any sort of contract. Cease the legal and societal recognition — and hence privileging — of couplehood completely.

    While I agree that my fellow homos should be able to marry if they choose, what I most object to is that couples of any variety are privileged in a million daily ways (see Bella DePaulo’s recently published *Singled Out*); if you love each other, that should be enough. No more flatware, no more celebrations for non-accomplishments, no more discounts, no more tax breaks. Revel in your love together and be done with it. Feminist legal scholar Martha Albertson Fineman called for this in the early 1990s — long before the queer theorists got on board. She was right then, and she remains right now. Enough squabbling about who should be able to get married — let’s just get rid of marriage!


  5. Well, Homostorian Americanist, I agree with you–weddings are the height of vanity and narcissism–but I’m not sure that abolishing marriage would necessarily de-privilege coupledom (homo or hetero.) This Marxist feminist resents the institution of marriage as much as anyone. And, people will still want their big parties and all the presents…

    Coupledom–separate from weddings and marriage–will probably always be fetishized and regarded as a privileged status, because it signals to the world that somebody wants you, no matter how strange or undesirable you or your partner might seem to others. As a wise friend of mine said to me, upon the wedding of a colleague of hers, “they give me hope, because it shows that there really is someone for everyone!”

    Random thought: Coupledom seems to relate to the status that even very small children get from having a “best friend,” and all of the jealousy and exclusivity that can result from that.


  6. While Historiann is probably right that people will want to be in couples no matter what, surely she must also concede that if the federal and state governments would get out of the business of acknowledging that one’s affectionate/romantic/sexual entanglements *mattered* in some particular legal way (over 1000 ways, according to historian Nancy Cott), whether or not one was in a couple would become far less meaningful. Then maybe a whole lot of us would stop spending so much time hoping, as Historiann’s colleague was doing, that there actually *needed* to be someone for him or her. In other words: it might make it a little more OK for single people to remain single and not feel that there was something fundamentally wrong with them. And would also allow for a proliferation of different kinds of equally “legitimate” relationships that might otherwise be stifled today but could well be more useful and meaningful for many people than couplehood.

    I must say that this is the single issue that I’m always amazed does not get more support from feminists, the very people who have so insightfully criticized the institution of marriage. I feel like feminists suffer from the same romantic blind spot that seems to color the rest of America when it comes to weddings and marriage. It’s not enough that one’s own individual marriage can be feminist and egalitarian — the sum total of even those “good” marriages has effects for all those people who are not married. These are the very lessons we’ve learned about all other state institutions and systems of power but ones that feminists seem to have a hard time grappling with in relation to the institution of marriage.

    I should reiterate: I’m not calling for an end to couplehood (an impossibility), simply the derecognition on a legal and societal level that it matters in some significant way (in the form of what we call –and legally recognize as — marriage).


  7. HA–I agree completely. I’m just suggesting that coupledom is probably rooted in our animal instincts to be part of a pack, and to seek approval from others. And in our packs, there’s a cache in having an “exclusive arrangement” among lovers and friends. (At least among straights, that seems to be the case.) One caveat, however: while I think the state has no business “registering” and tacitly approving of some people’s romantic and/or domestic arrangements (while tacitly disapproving others), I think the board shifts when there are children involved. I think the state might be the best guarantor of children’s rights–not ideal certainly, but proabably better than leaving it to churches or individuals. Human reproduction is too fun and easy to leave it up entirely up to the reproducers to deal with the consequences.

    Feminists are just (or almost?) as enmeshed in marriage as anyone else. Since third-wave feminism is all about “choice,” we’re not allowed to say that some choices are more valid or more feminist than others. So, we all have to affirm each others “choices!” Kum-bye-yah! (Kind of stupid, but perhaps it’s better than getting into fistfights over whose life is more ideologically correct…) For the most part, mainstream feminism has focused on reforming marriage rather than blowing up the nuclear family (Andrea Dworkin, may she rest in peace, aside). I don’t know if our project of reforming marriage by showing people other ways of being married from the inside out is working or not. Mostly, I would say it’s not, looking at the way traditional gender roles tend to be adopted by straights after marriage. Same-sex marriage would probably be the most dramatic re-shaping of marriage in my lifetime.


  8. Funny note about coupledom historiann…
    Some weeks ago my partner’s father took a picture of us at a family event and recently gave me a copy…Its really the only nice picture of us so in order not to lose it I put it on the refrigerator at the home I share with two other women, I had intented to get a frame and put it in my bedroom. However, two days later, I noticed that one of my roommates had also placed a picture of her boyfriend and herself on the refrigerator. Realizing that this young woman is fairly insecure and often feels the need to compete, my other roommate and thought this was very silly and laughed over the photo’s mysterious appearance. However, by the end of the week, she too had placed a picture her boyfriend and herself on our refrigerator. When I asked her why, she simply said she didn’t want her boyfriend to think that she didn’t value their realtionship as much as her roommates did theirs. I really had no intention of “showing off” my coupledom and “privledged,” although I now realize that is exaclty how my act of publicaly dispalying my photo was interpreted.

    Personally, I completely agree with your anaylsis of weddings historiann. But whenever I say I don’t want a wedding, people either tell me I will feel differently when I meet the “one,” or ask me why I don’t want to celebrate “the happiest day of my life.”


  9. Mary–good story.

    It’s not bad to want a wedding. I should not have proclaimed, as I did above, that (all) “weddings are the height of vanity and narcissism.” That’s unfair. For many people (especially many women), it is the only day of their lives when they’re at the center of attention. They may not have had the opportunity for multiple graduation ceremonies, for example, so I don’t think they’re all bad. (Besides, if you decide to marry, you may find that you can’t STOP other people from giving you parties. That’s what family members want to do, and it’s usually out of a generous impulse to celebrate you and to make the new family member feel welcome and appreciated.)

    But if you don’t want a wedding, then stick to your guns and do what you want to do.


  10. Oh I agree. I am not hostile to people who want weddings either. I think, that like you, all women (and men for that matter) should do what they want. I guess I should have clarified that as well, I just assumed that bloggers would infer that from your original post where you write “So let’s agree to just bitch and gossip about each other privately like we always have, deal with our own happy and/or screwed-up (or happily screwed-up) marriages, and get out of the way of other people’s civil rights–the way adults do in a free society,” that you weren’t going to boycott weddings any time soon. Personally, I would rather not deal with the whole ordeal, and I feel that some people still do not take relationships seriously until someone walks down the aisle.


  11. Homostorian Americanist completely agrees with Historiann that things change once kids are involved, but only to a point. H.A. does not believe that the state needs to be involved in the business of regulating marriage in order to get at the best interests of the child, just regulating (and monitoring, privileging, etc.) the relationship between parents and children, though that, of course, need not have anything to do with marriage or couplehood of any variety (something that same-sex couples discovered long ago). Homostorian Americanist’s favorite legal theorist, Martha Albertson Fineman, makes just this point in her brilliantly titled *The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family, and Other Twentieth-Century Tragedies.*

    H.A. does happen to disagree, however, about the notion that affirmation of couplehood (and desire for said affirmation) is somehow hard-wired — mores and values change over time. This is why H.A. is a homostorian, so that he may study why and how they have done so. This is one value that could change as well. In some circles, it already has.

    Greetings from Boston!


  12. Hey–good points. I should have said that the state should only be involved when one or the other parent (or both) are unwilling or unable to care for children appropriately. The state is the last line of defense for kids whose parents are crapping out on them.

    Love that Fineman title!


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