I received The Marrying Kind? in the post the day after the landmark Supreme Court decisions that overturned both Prop 8 and DOMA. Pending the scope of the question, “the marrying kind?,” I sensed that this book would be either wonderfully timely or unfortunately untimely, because the pace of political and legal progress concerning same-sex marriage has been astounding. No one can afford to be “tardy to the [wedding] party.”

Indeed, editors Mary Bernstein and Verta Taylor finished production on The Marrying Kind? before the two aforementioned Supreme Court decisions were made public during the final week of June. Thankfully the text, a collection of socio-political essays based on case studies and empirical research, approaches same-sex marriage as an inevitability; what drives this study is not if and when it will become a reality in every state, but how and why it has caused such tension within the LGBT and queer communities. As public opinion has grown increasingly favorable of same-sex marriage, why has the issue become more contentious for the communities it aims to “serve”?

In the introduction to their collection Bernstein and Taylor frame the debate by first articulating queer critiques of same-sex marriage and then consolidating the critiques into three main arguments. “Queer critics,” they write, “believe that marriage is much too narrow and confining a status to accommodate the different kinds of families and households and the innovative forms of intimacy, kinship, interconnection, and family that characterize queer communities” (15). The three main arguments they extract from these concerns are “normalization,” “decentering and privatizing lesbian and gay identity,” and “misguided energy” (that resources could be better spent on other issues), and the collection’s essays each address one or more of these arguments (17). Bernstein and Taylor, here, use the same critical, deconstructive method that queer critics employ in their challenge to or problematizing of same-sex marriage:

[T]he consequences of same-sex marriage and of the marriage-equality movement are far more complex and challenging than queer critics fear. Same-sex married couples make their sexuality visible and organize their intimate lives in a variety of ways, some more normative and others less so…. The extent of opposition to same-sex marriage…is a testament to the fundamental challenge that gay marriage presents to the cherished beliefs of the many (29).

Any argument about a socio-political issue such as same-sex marriage is fundamentally flawed if predicated upon universal logic—this is the underlying strategy of this deconstructive method. As Jeffrey Kosbie observes in “Beyond Queer vs. LGBT,” not only does complexity lie in determining the effects of same-sex marriage but in the constituency of the movement itself, which consists of the manifold “collective identities” of every individual activist (105). Many queer critics of same-sex marriage nevertheless advocate its legislative and legal implementation on a federal level. Kristine A. Olson arrives at a similar conclusion in “What Happens When You Get What You Want?,” an essay about how social movement activists work within institutional constraints: “My findings show that the assimilation/deconstruction dichotomy, which equates same-sex marriage with the promotion of heteronormativity, lacks an understanding of the diverse ways that activists define subversive politics” (370). Think about it: how many of you or your friends have said something along the lines of “I don’t want to get married, but I, and no one else, should be able to limit my ability to marry”? This is what Bernstein later terms “unity-through-diversity” (334).

More pointedly, both in the introduction and many of the essays, this book effectively calls out the privilege of those queer critics who fail to weigh the economic, social, and psychological benefits that motivate LGBTQ people to marry. “[M]arriage,” Adam Isaiah Thomas explains in “Debating Same-Sex Marriage,” “is regarded as an institution that bears in significant ways upon the self, the dyad, family formation, and one’s relationship to the larger social order,” the import of which cannot be undervalued, even if these social and psychological benefits cannot be quantitatively known (387). While at the same time a sizable number of essays also demonstrate that the aforementioned range of benefits is very much dependent upon race as well as socio-economics.

“[T]here is no one queer America,” Arlene Stein attests in “What’s the Matter with Newark,” an analysis of the factors that resulted in two statistically divergent cities in New Jersey (57). She continues, “studies that conceptualize sexuality in class and race-neutral ways are incomplete…. Being ‘just like everyone else’ requires economic and cultural capital that is out of reach for many low-income people of color and may not hold the same allure or meaning. The combined effects of racism, classed hierarchies, and cultural differences make the process of sexual identification more complex, and the potential benefits of marriage—both material and symbolic—fewer” (57-58).

Other essays in The Marrying Kind?, including Katie Oliviero’s “Yes on Proposition 8,” Taylor’s (et al) “Mobilization through Marriage,” and Bernstein and Mary C. Burke’s “Normalization, Queer Discourse, and the Marriage Equality Movement in Vermont,”  examine the political strategies and tactics, in addition to the sociological factors, of case studies of state marriage equality campaigns. In “Winning for LGBT Rights Laws, Losing for Same-Sex Marriage,” Amy L. Stone presents over thirty years of statistical analyses of statewide campaigns throughout the United States in order to outline how campaign tactics have changed as external factors, including conservative political opposition, have shifted their strategies (from attacks on non-discrimination protections to attacks on same-sex marriage) in order to weaken the LGBT movement.

The Marrying Kind? serves as a deliberate counterweight to last year’s widely acclaimed Barnard S&F volume “A New Queer Agenda.” (Nor do I think it is a coincidence that two queer scholars who Bernstein and Taylor quote in their introduction are two of the lead editors of this particular S&F volume.) Grounded in empirical research and ethnographic analyses, it complicates theoretical arguments that both advocate and challenge the same-sex marriage movement. What these essays demonstrate is that context is everything; the motivations behind and the effects or consequences of the same-sex marriage movement are more substantive than how the movement complicates or whitewashes the radical queerness at the heart of the LGBT movement. Generic categories of “race,” “class,” “sex,” and “gender” hold indeterminate force that only becomes actualized in the place and time of a person’s existence. This book helps us realize that the question of same-sex marriage concerns more than a perceptual or superficial politics that breezily dismisses same-sex marriage because it’s “not queer/not cool.” The Marrying Kind? substantively advances the debate concerning the politics, sociology, and economics of same-sex marriage.

 

The Marrying Kind?
Edited by Mary Bernstein and Verta Taylor
University of Minnesota Press
Paperback, 9780816681723, 384 pp.
June  2013



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  • Lou Kief

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