Exploring the Implications of Marriage Equality on Creating Cultural Connections in a Socially and Politically Conservative Region of Virginia

Marriage equality has been met with reactions along the spectrum from celebration to resistance and rejection, largely attracting media attention at the anticipated polarities: happy same-sex couples and resistant heterosexuals championing one man-one woman policies. However, the complexity of affording civil rights to same-sex couples is felt and experienced in a multitude of ways among proponents and detractors within the sexual minority population as well as without it. Further, the question of cultural influence, the local and regional notions of marriage norms, provides a context for this lived diversity among LGBTQ people, and cannot be ignored in conversations about the way people move forward after marriage equality.

From a qualitative study conducted in the months leading up to marriage equality in Virginia, self-identified lesbian couples shared their thoughts and expectations of legal same-sex marriage in the socially and politically conservative Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Through thematic analysis designed to evoke key concepts (and not generalizations) emerged the constructs of being isolated in culture, where marriage equality provides the legal stroke of acceptance that allows homonormative (Duggan, 2002) couples to get on with their lives as full citizens, and being isolated from culture, where marriage equality weakens the social infrastructure that celebrates the unique experience and contributions of those whose relationships do not fit the narrow description of monogamous, heterosexual unions (Shrewsbury, 2015). With marriage equality in Virginia since October 6, 2015 and nationally since June 26, 2016, the time is right to follow up with the expectations held by couples within each group. This presentation builds on the foundational 2014 study conducted before marriage equality, and presents initial findings and correlations found in follow-up interviews with the same couples roughly two years later (and after marriage equality).

Relational-Cultural Theory frames this research, stating that people grow toward and in healthy relationship, which is profoundly affected by cultural influences (Jordan, 2010). Pairing the neuroscience of connection with this framework, Eisenberger & Lieberman’s (2005) Social Pain Overlap Theory “suggests social connections are so essential to the health and well-being of humans that they share a neurological pathway with physical pain” (Banks, 2010, p.171). The relational experiences of LGBTQ people in the aftermath of political progress are directly influenced by their cultural context in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, whose characteristics include rurality and high degrees of political conservatism, Christian religiosity, Southern racial complexities, and outdated tropes about sexuality.

In addition to race, class, native language, age, and religion, perceived gender and gender expression factor heavily into the capacity to connect across difference in order to garner necessary resources and engage in productive social networks within the dominant culture. The initial study uncovered a selective desire on the part of the lesbian couples to create connection to the dominant culture, layered with the complicated work of strategically disconnecting to survive that culture (Russell, 2009). The follow up study intends to further explore dimensions of queer blindness: the capacity of lesbians and their social networks to overlook sexual minority status in order live in connection according to the terms of the dominant culture (Shrewsbury, 2015). The more critical construct of performing heteronormativity in order to be “just like everyone else” provides a frame to understand conservative same-sex couples’ stake in the after-marriage conversation with activists who seek social progress.

The After Marriage Conference portends to galvanize conversation around the turning point of marriage equality to inform and direct LGBTQ scholarship and activism. The proposed academic presentation gives voice to the often invisible and isolated rural population who are affected differently than those in more urban areas with developed infrastructures. While this research focuses on self-identified lesbian participants, the two presented studies serve as a gateway to deeper, more inclusive work to be done in the region to better understand the lived experiences of gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer lives. The starting point to the after-marriage conversation in socially conservative areas begins with those most visible and accessible, and these studies provide a window into the experiences of lesbians willing to explore what it means to entertain legal marriage in their home contexts.    

Banks, A. (2011). Developing the capacity to connect. Zygon 46 (1):168-182.

Duggan, L. (2002). The new homonormativity: The sexual politics of neoliberalism. In R. Castronovo & D. Nelson (Eds.) Materializing democracy: Toward a revitalized cultural politics (pp. 175–194). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Eisenberger, N. I., and Leiberman. M. (2005). Why it hurts to be left out: The neurocognitive overlap between physical and social pain. In The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection, and Bullying ed. K. D.Williams, J. P. Forgas, &W. von Hippel, 109–27. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Jordan, J.V., Kaplan, A.G., Miller, J.B., Stiver, I., and Surrey, J. (1991). Women’s growth in connection: Writings from the Stone Center. New York: The Guildford Press.

Russell, A. C. (2009). Lesbians surviving culture: Relational-cultural theory applied to lesbian connection. Affilia, 24(4), 406–416.

Shrewsbury, K. M. (2015). “Just like everyone else”: Lesbians performing heteronormativity to create connection (Order No. 3718563). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1712354765).


Part of panel What's Actually Happening After Marriage? LGBTQ Couples and Families
October 2, 2016, 14:15–16:00