Radically complicating society’s romance narratives

One of many disturbing aspects of the public discussion of marriage equality is the focus on the respectability and moral virtue of the people who would like to get married, should the rest of the country (or the parliament) let them. Innumerable posts of images of couples, and their children, along with captions extolling the details of their personal virtues and commitment to one another, are currently spread across the feeds of Australian social media accounts. The narrative of marriage as an ultimate expression of romantic love and kinship was also a focus of a number of the speeches given at the Rally for Marriage Equality held in Melbourne a couple of weeks back. Many speakers expressed their desire to marry their partner, to publicly announce their love and commitment to one another, or to attend the legally legitimised wedding of a family member. This was emphasised by the ‘mass illegal wedding’ that followed the march.

In this way, marriage is presented as the ultimate symbolic legitimisation of a relationship, as performed for a social circle, and the wider community, through a legal contract of union. This gesture, regardless of the gender identity of those who perform it, appears to reinforce and perpetuate the socially fetishised model of long-term heterosexual monogamy. We can see that this is the case because heterosexuality is never called upon to justify its legitimacy in relation to marriage, or in society generally. In other words, no-one requires excessive virtue, children, charity work and ten years together for a heterosexual couple to earn their worthiness to sign marriage documents. Same-sex marriage, then, becomes a mimicry of the heterosexual archetype.

This strategy is designed to produce an image of normal, non-threatening and virtuous same-sex couples, in order to appeal to and, therefore, reaffirm a socially conservative position that negates the validity of other relationships and forms of kinship. This effect was discussed in the article ‘Marriage stinks’, recently published in Overland, which raised important issues relating to the normalisation and centralisation of marriage within the LGBTQI community. As the authors note, the language around marriage equality focuses on ‘love’ and the gesture of marriage as symbolic of that love between two people. This reflects a desire, particularly within younger generations of the LGBTQI community, for the performance of traditional forms of relationships, and a desire to replicate the romance narratives most people in our society are raised on.

The desire for marriage equality reflects a desire for social conformity at odds with the history of twentieth-century LGBTQI politics. The oppressive notion of marriage, as applied to same-sex relationships seems perverse, given the labour and strategy that has contributed to the political activism that has sought to liberate the LGBTQI community; a focus on marriage rights has, in many ways, seemed like a betrayal of those separatist principles.

So it unsurprising, then, that the desire for recognition by the legal institution and mainstream community from which they’ve long been excluded has nauseated an older LGBTQI generation. As a group, they fought hard for the right to live differently and separately from conservative social traditions, and to build a strong LGBTQI community based on configurations of kinship at odds with traditional family structures.

It was reported in the Star Observer, for instance, that around 37% of those in the LGBTQI community intended to boycott the marriage equality postal survey. Obviously, a number of people who have responded this way are reflecting frustration with the manner in which the survey is being conducted: it is well-known that the Marriage Act can be amended via a parliamentary vote. But a percentage are also planning to abstain from voting on the basis that marriage produces a hierarchy of relationships, and provides a legitimacy and potential for assimilation that is at odds with the rationale of LGBTQI politics and community that was an invaluable lifeline in the 1980s and 1990s when that same generation were surviving violent homophobia, the HIV crisis, and widespread social exclusion and rejection. At the Melbourne rally, one of the speakers asked this group simply to abstain from voting, but I want to make a case for those people to enthusiastically vote yes.

The definition of marriage in the Australian Marriage Act was notoriously amended in 2004, but the precedential case that was referred to in order to define marriage in Australia (Hyde v Hyde 1866) contained approximately the same definition. Those in the LGBTQI community who are less invested in the idea of marriage support the campaign for marriage equality because the wording of the definition, specifically the phrase ‘between a man and a woman’, is discriminatory, and denies individuals the right to choose to marry their same-sex partner. For those people, their support for the Equal Love campaign is motivated by discrimination under law (as it is for many), and a desire for equal legal treatment.

But rather than focusing on this gendered language in the Marriage Act, I want to address the remainder of the definition – which, if the latest governmental announcements are to be believed, will remain unchanged in the event that the result of the non-binding postal survey is yes, and the definition is thus amended by parliament. The words either side of ‘man and woman’, specifically ‘union … to the exclusion of all others’, provides the potential for the legal recognition of a relationship between same-sex partners that excludes the (legal, financial, sexual) intervention of others. And this is why same-sex marriage should be more enthusiastically supported by those who reject the tradition of marriage.

The capitalist and religious traditions of marriage are arranged around the social and legal formalisation of kinship, primarily for financial purposes: marriage has been used to ensure the continuation of property ownership by an established patrilineage. In other words, solidifying social and political connections and passing wealth onto one’s children, ensuring legacy, hence the use of language like ‘union’ and ‘exclusion’. While we understand this to imply sexual union and monogamy, in the definition provided by the Marriage Act, there is no indication of the nature of that union, or who might be excluded from that relationship.

In our current social context, a same-sex relationship between two people is fairly common, and is not understood as particularly challenging or radical to mainstream culture. A committed, long-term same-sex relationship is understood as mimicking a similarly configured heterosexual relationship, and these kinds of partnerships perpetuate social conservatism that further excludes other forms of relationships (as the authors of ‘Marriage stinks’ note). The prominent queer theorist Lisa Duggan popularised the use of the term ‘homonormativity’ to reflect and critique this phenomenon (in relation to the more popularly understood term ‘heteronormativity’). But homosexuality is, simultaneously, the most radical form of being queer, insofar as to be in a same-sex relationship is an absolute rejection of the possibility of heterosexual relationship. Nothing heterosexual can be recuperated from an exclusively same-sex-attracted partnership.

The tradition of marriage that positions women as chattel is undermined by the prospect of two women (or female-identifying people) marrying. The legal exclusion of the possibility of male imposition into any intimate facet of a relationship radically undermines the transactional foundation marriage itself, by using the legal structure of the institution to exclude the intervention. Similarly, the gesture of two men marrying undermines the articulation of a hierarchical relationship between the traditional domination and feminine subservience in the marriage contract. While this is not, and should not be, a central concern for LGBTQI activists, by liberating marriage from the oppressive character of its tradition, marriage equality allows for a less rigid understanding of roles within heterosexual marriage as well.

Therefore, the legally recognised ‘union … to the exclusion of all others’ of two people of the same sex is an absolutely radical notion that challenges the expectation and primacy of value attributed to heterosexuality, upon which the dynamic hierarchies of social relationships are built. Marriage equality provides same-sex partners with the capacity to not only have their relationship but also their intention to exclude the possibility of the intervention of others and heterosexuality in general, formally and legally recognised, and performed for an audience.

In other words, yes, marriage stinks. But it doesn’t have to.


Image: Week 4/52: Warehouse

Erin K Stapleton

Erin K Stapleton teaches in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include gender, sexuality, philosophy and visual cultures.

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