Compulsory Marriage and Queer Existence

This conference presentation takes up the socio-historic case of marriage as a rights granting institution that is reserved for only some U.S. citizens. Inclusion in the After Marriage conference provides a space for my contribution to the critical inquiry into the, June 2015, federal Marriage Equality legislation. State-level backlash from passing this piece of legislation appears to be the impetus for U.S. anti-transgender bills that have ramped-up in the months and year since Marriage Equality passed. I would like this work to be considered for an academic presentation.

Interesting, isn’t it, that 1970s Gay Liberation included pushback against the institution of marriage; however, with the rise of the (some might say “conservative”) Human Rights Campaign, same-sex marriage rights became the focal point of the current LGBTQ Rights movement. The same-sex marriage rights movement, similar to its historical-social-cousin: the miscegenation rights movement that legalized interracial marriage, catalyzes and illuminates the rigid boundaries that protect those who are able (and willing) to access the institution of marriage and its many privileges.

Western/American culture dictates that marriage is an important and logical event in the human life course and indicates a shift from childhood to adulthood. Further, Western/American culture prescribes a clearly gendered-relationship pattern that situates marriage as the central tenant in legal family formation—considered by some to be the very foundation of American society. Significance placed on marriage in this way highlights its cultural importance.

Same-sex couples are now able to get married in the majority of US states. That this has been a great hurdle for so many gays and lesbians sometimes obscures the fact that access to the institution of marriage has been publicly fought over for more than a century. For example, in the late 19th-early 20th century suffragists fought a similar battle over equal rights (and won!) and access to property within the institution of marriage for (most) women. However, as suffragists and their allies were excited by new legislation that gave women property rights and the right to vote in 1920, those for whom this legislation did not apply stood in stark relief. Equal access to voting rights and rights within marriage were reserved for land-owning men and their wives (mostly white husbands and wives); thusly, leaving out those who could not accumulate enough capital to own land (primarily black men and their wives/families).

It is important to highlight the heterosexual/heteronormative arrangement of marriage here. Despite the fact that same-sex couples are now able to marry, by presenting themselves as normative, unlike those queers involved with Gay Liberation in the 70s, queers today must present themselves as marriageable, too. Homonormativity through marriage, thusly, becomes the taken-for-granted, suffocating, and unrealistic (for some) way of being the “right kind of queer.” Robson (2009) praises Rich’s (1980) critique of compulsory heterosexuality though condemns Rich’s (1980) conflation of heterosexuality and marriage. According to Robson (2009), marriage is at least if not more a political institution as heterosexuality. Robson (2009) contends that a variety of forces impose, manage, organize, propagandize, and forcefully maintain the political institution of marriage.

Since Marriage Equality passed in June 2015, same-sex couples are no longer the focus of discrimination from conservative groups (or at least not as often). Instead, backlash seems to have taken the form of discrimination against transgender individuals around their use of public restrooms. There have been at least 17 anti-trans bills introduced at the State level since Marriage Equality passed. Marriage Equality did not create equality within the LGBTQ community. In fact, it seems that Marriage Equality has created a new problem and similarly profound ways of reproducing inequalities for our non-married LGBTQ community members. Where do we go from here and with whom?


Part of panel Constructing and Transcending Homonormativity
October 2, 2016, 14:15–16:00