26 November 2010

Book Review: Why Marriage?

George Chauncey is an American historian and professor of history at Yale University in the United States. He wrote this book shortly after the 2004 US Presidential election which focused as an issue, same-sex marriage.

I was going through my library looking for books that I had bought or received and never read or for books to reread and I stumbled across this little volume. I remember buying it and not reading it. As a committed queer theorist at the time, at that time, I was deeply ambivalent about the marriage question feeling that the 'revolutionary' call of gay liberation was being suffocated by the marriage proponents.

I remember asking myself why the terms of the conversation were yes for same-sex marriage or no for same-sex marriage and the question of marriage not being the focal point.

In any event, I have discussed some of this at other points and I would refer readers to my post on Michael Warner's Trouble with Normal if you'd like to hear an additional thought on the topic.

Chauncey is certainly not Andrew Sullivan and thankfully so. Like my friend, a retired Supreme Court justice, he is practical. He starts with the premise that marriage is not a static institution and many of the claims regarding "traditional" in "traditional marriage" are really references to the whole hierarchical, male-dominated property-right regime of pre-Capitalist Europe.

He shows why same-sex marriage is so hotly contested, not because of a real threat to heterosexuality or marriage from loving, committed relationships of same-sex couples, but because of four changes in American society that have altered our understanding of marriage, that has made same-sex marriage conceivable and that conceivability is the underlying threat:
Four fundamental changes in marriage since the nineteenth century have made the right to marry seem both more imaginable and more urgent to lesbians and gay men. In its own time each of these changes seemed as momentous as the prospect of same-sex marriage does today. First, the right to choose one's partner in marriage, no matter how much that choice distressed one's family, ethnic community, and co-religionists, came to be seen as a fundamental civil right. Second, the sharp differences in the marital roles assigned husbands and wives declined, so that it became easier to imagine a marriage between two people of the same gender. Third, marriage became a crucial nexus for the allocation of public and private rights and benefits, so that the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage imposed increasingly significant economic and legal consequences. Finally, the power of any one religious group to impose its marriage rules on others, while never strong, sharply declined.
The book goes into tremendous historical detail, relevant and easily contextualized, to understand exactly how same-sex marriage was an inevitable consequence of the modernization of family life in the U.S. (and elsewhere). It is the third point, more than any other, however, that Chauncey focuses on for Why Marriage? as opposed to other things.

The story is complicated and the U.S. has really linked social security services to recognized family forms. He goes into detail which is fascinating. The main thrust was the consequences of that married/family structured social security net and two phenomena: gay men's experiences when friends and partners died of AIDS and lesbian's experiences of trying to raise children. It turned out that "private biases may be outside the reach of the law, but the law cannot directly, or indirectly, give them effect[,]" did not apply to same-sex couples. (Chauncey citing Palmore v. Sindoti, 466 U.S. 429 (1984))

Many lifetime partners were denied hospital visitation with their partner in the last days, hours or minutes of the partners life. Once dead, the hospital would turn to the families of the dead and not the partner and would exclude the partner from any participation. Well crafted wills were contested by families claiming that the partner had 'unduly influenced' the dead partner to defeat the will of the dead partner. Chauncey does summarize many of the more publicized cases that were reported in the mainstream media in the 1980s and 1990s.

At the same time, lesbian mothers were stripped of their parental rights, harassed and discriminated again. In one case, the commonwealth of Virginia's legal system terminated a mother's parental rights (already a single mother) because lesbianism is a "class 6 felony." Chauncey goes into the more publicized cases that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s.

But these experiences and the shifts in the role and purpose of marriage in American society answered the question of Why Marriage? While right-wing gay activists were claiming that marriage would "civilize" gays and lesbians, many gays and lesbians looked to marriage as a legally recognized institution to eliminate the uncertainty and unnecessary suffering associated with a non-legitimate relationship.

I always was fascinated by the recycling of arguments that evangelical, fundamentalist Christians used in the 1940s-1960s against desegregation and integration of Black Americans. In the 1950s, the main sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not homosexuality, as has been played up in recent decades. In the 1940s and 1950s, fundamentalist preachers claimed it was race-mixing and interracial marriage!

In a sermon the late fundamentalist preacher leader Jerry Falwell gave in 1958, he said: "If we mix the races in schools, in churches, the ultimate end will be the social mixing which can only lead to marital relationships." In the 1950s, it was widely believed that the tempter of Eve was not a serpent but a Black man. In the late 1990s when US senators debated same-sex marriage, Southern senators referred to Noah and "one male and one female" for proof that God intended heterosexual couples to "be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth." Yet, in the 1950s, that same argument was used extensively to oppose racial integration. Chauncey cites one 1954 pamphlet: "God destroyed 'all flesh' in that part of the world for that one sin... Only Noah was 'perfect in his generation' ... so God saved him and his family to rebuild the Adamic Race."

He does not use this to say that LGBT struggles are the same as Black America's struggles. Only, in the limited instance of opposing same sex marriage, the same Biblical stories are brought out that were used against integration and desegregation.

This small volume is worth reading for LGBT advocates anywhere in the world and for those interested in looking to the causes and conditions of a same-sex marriage movement. It is a great complement to How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism.

The version I read was a 224 page paperback published by Basic Books (December 13, 2005), ISBN-13: 978-0465009589. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was at abebooks.com (and its for the hardcover at $1).


  1. in the folds of my mind, catharsis finds its sublimates in many forms... today a book review. =P