Things I’ve Worked On: Reflections on the Meaning of Marriage

In the wake of the 5-4 decision by SCOTUS guaranteeing nationwide marriage equality, I think it’s a worthwhile thought experiment to reflect on the meaning of marriage and what this ruling signals for the gay community going forward. Is this another step towards heteronormativity, particularly for LGBT individuals who are otherwise priveleged? And if so, how will such individuals begin voting, spending, campaigning etc. down the road–e.g., with or against other disenfranchised groups?

Regardless of one’s opinion on state- and society-conferred marriage and its repercussions, I think we can all agree, or at least hope, that this victory will clear the way and free up money for other LGBT causes, such as the plight of trans POC.

Below are the thoughts of a few prominent LGBT scholars on the meaning of marriage and family from a paper I wrote a while back. The writing is a bit all over the place (I specifically remember the prompt being unduly burdensome, e.g., forcing me to make comparisons where none exist), but the ideas covered are interesting.


Lee Edelman is the Fletcher Professor of English Literature at Tufts University. His research interests include literary theory (including queer theory and post-structuralism), film studies, and modern poetry. Originally an academic of American poetry, he has since played a significant role in the rethinking of queer theory, focusing strongly on the negativity of the position in relation to mainstream society. He received his PhD, MPhil, MA, and BA all from Yale University. Other notable works of his include Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory and Transmemberment of Song: Hart Crane’s Anatomies of Rhetoric and Desire.

Katrina Kimport is a qualitative sociologist who work focuses on gender, sexuality and social movements, primarily within the contexts of heteronormativity, abortion, and their intersection. Kimport is currently an Associate Professor at the University of California, San Francisco and a research sociologist with ANSIRH, part of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health. She received her BA from Yale University and her PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Other notable works include Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age.

David Rayside is a Canadian professor of Political Science and associate of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, combining and studying these topics in relation to Canada, the United States, and Europe. Rayside began as a gay activist with groups such as The Body Politic and the Right to Privacy Committee. His academic career has had a strong focus on the entry of gay and lesbian politics into mainstream politics. He received his BA from Carleton University and his MA and PhD from the University of Michigan. Other notable works include On the Fringe and Queer Inclusions, Continental Divisions.

Ruth Vanita is a professor at the University of Montana, teaching courses in the Humanities and Literature. Her works focus on Gender and Sexuality in 20th century fiction and same-sex love in Western countries and Indian literary traditions. She is a founder of Manushi, India’s first nationwide feminist magazine. During her time with the magazine, she brought attention to the rights of women in relation to marriage, abuse, inheritance, and land ownership. She received her PhD from Delhi University in India. Other notable works include Gender, Sex and the City,Gandhi’s Tiger, and Sita’s Smile.

Marriage & Family in a Queer & Comparative Perspective

We should begin this discussion by theoretically establishing the meaning of same-sex marriage. Two of the reviewed authors, Katrina Kimport and Lee Edelman, discuss this issue rather directly. In “Remaking the White Wedding? Same-Sex Wedding Photographs’ Challenge to Symbolic Heteronormativity” (2012), Katrina Kimport explores the symbolic assimilation of same-sex couples to the traditional heteronormative “white wedding” narrative, which can be characterized as a ritual where “only specific combinations of sex, gender, and sexuality performances are acceptable” (Kimport 875). Kimport explores the topic through wedding photographs taken during the brief period San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome issued same-sex marriage licenses. In her paper, Kimport essentially asks the following questions: To what extent are these same-sex couples symbolically accepting or rejecting heteronormative narratives? And, perhaps in a more auxiliary fashion, to what extent are either possible? She ultimately comes to the conclusion that “we cannot simply argue that same-sex marriage always challenges or never challenges heteronormativity” (Kimport 895).

Kimport begins her paper with a discussion of heteronormativy, the view that “evidence of a body’s gender is taken as evidence of the body’s sex and sexuality as well; evidence of a body’s sex is read as proof of gender and sexuality, and so on” (Kimport 877). Within this understanding, LGBT individuals, in the form of tropes, such as butch lesbians, are simply confused (e.g., the lesbian thinks she is a man).

Kimport then turns her attention to heteronormativity within same-sex weddings, focusing on lesbian couples with bride-groom archetypes because “to the extent that these photographs enact wedding normativity, they conform to heteronormative conventions about weddings and are thus an important starting point for thinking through how the fact that the subjects are of the same sex matters to the (re)production of heteronormativity through weddings” (Kimport 882) (i.e., to replicate wedding normativity). She chooses two couples with one partner displaying a non-normative gender presentation and two couples with both partners displaying normative gender presentations (e.g., long hair, makeup, and jewelry) for her analysis.

Based on the positions and appearances of the four couples, Kimport comes to the conclusion that weddings at least partially reify heteronormativity. However, her reasoning begs a number of questions about this conclusion. For example, one picture (Figure 2) consists of a “groom” holding a wedding license and a “bride” holding a bouquet, with both individuals dressed in suits. Kimport argues that the wedding license is a masculine object and the bouquet is a feminine one, consistent with the appearances of the two individuals, in support of her argument. This conclusion may be apt; however, we must remember the hastiness of Mayor Newsom’s decision to issue licenses, which Kimport acknowledges. Therefore, it must be asked to what extent is the wedding photograph enforcing a heteronormative narrative, and to what extent are these individuals simply wearing their nicest clothes to a wedding on short notice? Is the wedding itself a perpetuation of heteronormativity? Or, were these women simply expressing their already established identities? It is impossible to answer these questions given Kimport’s symbolic scope.

By contrast, Kimport also claims that the mere existence of same-sex couples is a direct affront to heteronormative conventionality. For example, considering the fact that a female is playing the masculine groom role in these pictures, she argues that “if anyone can perform masculinity, the claim that gender is divined from a preexisting sexed subject is untenable” (Kimport 888). Likewise, the fact that the two women are in fact couples brings into question the meaning of difference: “the combination of [the “groom’s”] nonnormative sexuality with [the “bride’s”] normative gender display disrupts heteronormative assumptions and complicates discursive assumptions about the readability of appearance and the obviousness of “difference”” (Kimport 892). In other words, same-sex marriage “exposes the arbitrary relations among sex, gender, and sexuality” (Kimport 893). She later expands on this argument by asserting that “in contemporary society, the more visible nonnormative sexuality and the more varied gender displays, the less stable heteronormativity and social assumptions about essentialized sex, gender, and sexuality” (893). Kimport argues that the same-sex nature of the couplings inherently challenges heteronormativity.

But this supposedly inherent affront to heteronormative conventionality may not be much of an affront at all. Specifically, the heteronormativity-destabilizing virtue of same-sex couples engaging in the traditional wedding narrative seems trivial in light of the argument Lee Edelman makes in “The Future is Kid Stuff” (2004) that the Child has created a societal Ponzi scheme of sorts, a position to which queerness positions itself in opposition. Edelman argues that “queerness can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one” (Edelman 17). Importantly, queerness does not position itself in opposition to a specific identity but rather positions itself in opposition to the notion of identity itself.

According to Edelman, our society and politics have become entirely child centric: “That Child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention” (Edelman 3). Edelman provides an abundance of modern narratives latent with pronatalist tendencies, including The Children of Men, Annie, Harry Potter (specifically, in relation to the character of Voldemort). The protagonists of these stories are often pitted against the menacing prospect of no future (and no children). For example, Edelman argues that in The Children of Men “if, however, there is no baby and, in consequence, no future, then the blame must fall on the fatal lure of sterile, narcissistic enjoyments understood as inherently destructive of meaning and therefore as responsible for the undoing of social organization, collective reality, and inevitably, life itself” (Edelman 13).

Queerness, then, positions itself in opposition to this child centrism. It is the name of “the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism” (Edelman 3). Queerness “figures, outside and beyond its political symptoms, the place of the social order’s death drive” (Edelman 3). More radically, “queerness attains its ethical value precisely insofar as it accedes to that place, accepting its figural status as resistance to the viability of the social while insisting on the inextricability of such resistance from every social structure” (Edelman 3). Queerness does not guarantee a happier or more fulfilling alternative. In fact, Edelman argues that queerness aligns itself with “Lacan’s characterization of what he calls “truth,” where truth does not assure happiness, or even, as Lacan makes clear, the good. Instead, it names only the insistent particularity of the subject, impossible fully to articulate and ‘tendin[ing] toward the real’” (Edelman 5). Queerness, then, is acquiescence to truth in lieu of identity or the Symbolic.

Edelman’s argument most closely approaches the topic of same-sex marriage as a political effort when he discusses queerness in relation to politics and partisanship. The role of politics is to name “the social enactment of the subject’s attempt to establish the conditions for this impossible consolidation by identifying with something outside itself in order to enter the presence, deferred perpetually, of itself” (Edelman 8). Politics enforces identity and the Symbolic, the antithesis of queerness. He goes into further detail describing the two main political ideologies’ oppositions to queerness: “Conservatives acknowledge this radical potential, which is also to say, this radical threat, of queerness more fully than liberals, for conservatism preemptively imagines the wholesale rupturing of the social fabric, whereas liberalism conservatively clings to a faith in its limitless elasticity” (Edelman 14). Edelman argues that queerness is not a liberal byproduct. Liberal politics is simply more willing to accept alternative lifestyles into the realm of conventionalism.

In fact, queerness is “the ‘side’ outside all political sides, committed as they are, on every side, to futurism’s unquestioned good” (Edelman 7). Therefore, entering into a same-sex but otherwise traditional marriage, to some extent, de-queers an individual. The process of an individual’s rights taking on a normative identity demands heteronormativity: “Such refusals [of difference] perform, despite themselves, subservience to the law that effectively imposes politics as the only game in town, exacting as the price of admission the subject’s (hetero)normalization, which is accomplished, regardless of sexual practice or sexual “orientation,” through compulsory abjuration of the future-negating queer” (Edelman 26).

Edelman ends his argument stating that it is important to note that the Symbolic can neither win nor lose, which is particularly resounding in the context of gay marriage. And while we are fighting for equal rights, which is certainly a worthy cause, we should rebel against the institutions of social oppression: “Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized” (Edelman 29).

Differently from Kimport and Edelman, David Rayside and Ruth Vanita explore gay marriage from historical perspectives. In “‘Living the Way We Want’: Same-Sex Marriage in India” (2007), Ruth Vanita offers a historical overview of same-sex commitments and the value of “love marriage” (Vanita 359). Her argument is that “the debate about same-sex marriage, both in India and the West, is really a debate about the value of erotic love (unlinked to procreation)” (Vanita 357).

She begins with stories about lesbian couples who married or committed suicide in a declaration of their love. The reason more lesbian women married or committed suicide than gay men in India is because men are afforded greater financial and physical latitude and are not forced into the uncomfortable situation of publicly acknowledging same-sex attractions. Although they were not legally wed, the few personal belongings these lesbian couples had were shared, stemming from a desire to “‘share everything’” (Vanita 343).

The part of this paper I found most interesting and perhaps most problematic begins in her short section on the similarities and differences between same-sex and cross-sex couples. She concludes that “same-sex and cross-sex couples are more alike than different” (353) and suggests that we might as well confer all the same rights to same-sex couples in the form of marriage. In doing so, she dismisses the idea of abolishing civil marriage as unrealistic, which is academically problematic. She specifically targets feminists and queer theorist who take issue with the notion of marriage: “Several feminists and queer theorists in the West argue that marriage is a heterosexist, patriarchal institution not worth recovering because its history is fraught with the oppression of women and children” (Vanita 355). She supports her opposition to this claim by arguing that “this assumes that marriage has always everywhere been only oppressive” (Vanita 355). Vanita is at least partially mischaracterizing the opposition to civil marriage. Not all people who support the elimination of marriage believe that all marriages have been entirely unhelpful; they simply acknowledge its dark history and support a less burdened alternative. And yet she dismisses these arguments under the guise of pragmatism.

Vanita ends her paper by stating that “it is important…to remember that these are real marriages, even if the state chooses to shuts its eyes to that reality” (Vanita 360). Vanita would perhaps argue that the act of civil marriage does not imbue much meaning, symbolic or otherwise, into a relationship. Such commitments exist independently before marriage.

In “The United States in Comparative Context” (2007), David Rayside traces the predominance of the Family Regime. He argues that “the top rung in rights, obligations, and social respect is occupied by married heterosexual couples with children, followed by cohabitating or de facto heterosexual couples, monogamous same-sex couples, and then those that deviate more obviously from the marital norm” (Rayside 342). He goes on to say that this order is reinforced not only by government regulations but also by churches, newspapers, company benefits, and advertising campaigns.

Although this regime has changed in recent years (e.g., de jure female equality and divorce accessibility), same-sex marriage still sees uneven acceptance, particularly in the United States. Rayside compares the European and Canadian contexts with the United States. He finds that there are a number of reasons gay marriage has not caught on as profoundly in the United States as in other Western countries, including the lack of power of labor unions, the political system, and the nationalism that exists in the United States.

Rayside ends his essay with the following: “There is no American policy takeoff, and that is unusual, but there is unrelenting pressure for greater equity, applied against great odds. That, too, is unusual” (Rayside 361). This statement begs a number of questions about the future of the American same-sex movement. I wonder how or if Rayside would amend this argument today, particularly given activity over the last week. Facebook has become a barrage of red equal signs, and a large number of prominent politicians have come out in support of same-sex marriage. Kimport also rightly points out that heteronormativity may be a short-term acceptance of mainstream sensibilities. That is, the gay community might not want to scare straight Americans. It will be interesting to see how same-sex marriage evolves over time in this respect. In addition, we do not know how the LGBT community will change once it is given full marriage rights. Will it mark the beginning of an abandonment of their queer roots as a position in opposition to the Child? Or will it simply mark the beginning of the march toward full equal treatment under the law?


Edelman, Lee. “The Future Is Kid Stuff.” In No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, 1–31. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004.

Kimport, Katrina, “Remaking the White Wedding? Same-Sex Wedding Photographs’ Challenge to Symbolic Heteronormativity.” Gender and Society 26/6 (2012): 874–99.

Rayside, David. “The United States in Comparative Context.” In Craig Rimmerman and Clyde Wilcox, eds., The Politics of Same-Sex Marriage, 341–64. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Vanita, Ruth. “‘Living the Way We Want’: Same-Sex Marriage in India.” In Brinda Bose and Subhabrata Bhattacharyya, eds., The Phobic and the Erotic: The Politics of Sexualities in Contemporary India, 342–00. Calcutta: Seagull Press, 2007.

“Katrina Kimport.” ANSIRH.

Rayside, David. “Biography.”

“Ruth Vanita.” University of Montana.

“Lee Edelman.” Tufts University.

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