Suppressing and Softening Critique: The Impact of Legal Marriage on LGBTQ Communities

My PhD dissertation and now book research investigates how gaining the right to legally marry has impacted LGBQ people’s couple, family, and community relationships. While I share many of the critiques and concerns raised by academics and activists about the movement’s narrow focus on marriage, I also believe in the importance of having rigorous, empirical work that speaks to what legal marriage does, and does not, do for LGBQ people. My research explores the experiences of LGBQ people who do not identify as either academic or activist. It is based on in-depth interview data collected from 116 married and unmarried LGBQ individuals in Massachusetts in 2012-13, eight years after same-sex marriage became legal there. Understanding how non-academic, non activist LGBQ people experience marriage and how it impacts their relationships is vital for any productive conversation about the future of LGBQ politics. To productively address questions about how to move forward in the post-marriage political and social climate, we must understand what has already happened “after marriage.”

In this paper, I will address the normalizing consequences of legal marriage for LGBQ communities. In particular, I focus on one possible consequence of normalization – the suppression of critical debate within LGBQ communities. Focusing on the Baker v. State of Vermont decision that resulted in civil unions in Vermont in 2000, Bernstein and Burke (2013) showed that the marriage movement initially had the effect of opening up new public spaces for critical debates about same-sex relationships and marriage. However, Gilreath (2011) argued that by “the second decade of the twenty-first century” there is “nearly total capture of the debate by the mainstream Gay rights agenda.” (211). The result, Gilreath argues, is that “a Radical, revolutionary stance … is less often heard” (215). Duggan (2003) also suggested that that LGBQ people will mute their critiques of heteronormativity in return for access to social institutions like marriage. My findings lend empirical support to the idea that marriage suppresses critical viewpoints within LGBQ communities. During the stage of seeking marriage rights, there was a great deal of debate about whether marriage was the right political goal for the LGBQ community. However, now that marriage rights have been won and marriage becomes increasingly taken for granted, critical views are less often heard. I identify three mechanisms through which marriage suppresses and softens critical voices within LGBQ communities. I find that having access to legal marriage suppresses critical perspectives by making critiques of marriage seem more like “personal” criticisms of friends and acquaintances, and therefore less appropriate, and by shifting the focus away from an intellectual level of analysis toward the emotional experience of marriage. It also softens critical perspectives through mimetic processes, which make people who were once critical of marriage more desiring of it for their own relationships. Together, the findings further our understanding of the connection between marriage and normalization and the processes through which it impacts LGBQ communities.


Part of panel What's Actually Happening After Marriage? Organized LGBTQ Politics
October 2, 2016, 09:00–10:45