Thursday, 13 March 2014

Sociologists at York and same-sex marriage

Written by Dr Paul Johnson

Today, 13th March 2014, is a very significant and special day for one of my colleagues, Celia Kitzinger: it’s the day that she will be married. As a result of the commencement of provisions in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, the marriage that Celia solemnized with her partner, Sue Wilkinson, in Canada (British Columbia) on 26th August 2003 will become recognized as a marriage in English law. For those of us who have longed for and dreamed about equal access to marriage for same-sex couples, today will be a day to celebrate. And, for us as sociologists, it will also be a day to reflect back on the social and legal conditions that resulted in Celia and Sue’s marriage finally being recognized in their home country.

As is now well known, when Celia and Sue returned to England from Canada their marriage was not recognized under English law (although it was, eventually, as a result of the enactment of the Civil Partnership Act 2004, deemed to be a civil partnership). Supported by the human rights organization, Liberty, Celia and Sue took legal action and, in July 2006, the President of the Family Division of the High Court, Sir Mark Potter, rejected various arguments about why their marriage should be recognized. In doing so, Potter made a number of statements about marriage that, to the sociologist, are especially interesting. For example, Potter stated that ‘the majority of people, or at least of governments, not only in England but Europe-wide, regard marriage as an age-old institution, valued and valuable, respectable and respected’ and to accord same-sex relationships the title and status of marriage would be to ‘fly in the face’ of international law and to ‘fail to recognise physical reality’. Just 7 years after Potter’s judgment, Parliament changed English statute law so that it does recognize the ‘physical reality’ of same-sex relationships and accords them the title and status of marriage (although this doesn’t hold true of Church of England canon law, which maintains that marriage is an exclusively heterosexual union).

For sociologists, this transformation is dramatic and interesting! Over the coming decades much will be written about how the hegemonically heteronormative interpretation of marriage that underpinned Potter’s judgment could give way to a counter-view subscribed to by enough Parliamentarians to enable a change in the law. There are many ways of understanding such a change, and I’m sure that many voices will emerge on the subject over the years ahead. There will be those who will see the change as the final victory in the progressive development of gay and lesbian rights. And there will also be those who see it as the further ‘co-opting’ of same-sex couples into heteronormative and/or patriarchal structures. For those sociologists long critical of marriage, the introduction of same-sex marriage will be regarded as the evolution of an undesirable social institution. And for sociologists like me, who are interested in law and human rights, the focus will be on examining how the human right to marry that is currently enjoyed by opposite-sex couples (like that found in Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights) might be extended to same-sex couples.

Aside from the social and legal research that will continue to be done, there is also the question of how we, as sociologists, personally react to this social change. We are, after all, ‘ordinary’ people and, to paraphrase a now famous line by my colleague, Stevi Jackson, even sociologists get married. Personally, I see the question of whether same-sex couples should have a right to marry as very different to questions about the social, cultural and moral value of marriage. I make this distinction in a similar way to the one I would draw if an individual were deprived of an opportunity, on the grounds of their sexual orientation, in some form of employment of which I was critical (I’m a life-long vegetarian, but I'm pleased that abattoirs can’t refuse to give people jobs because they are gay). In addition to that, my view of marriage is, like everyone else’s, bound up with my own biography: having lived through various changes to the criminal law relating to what were once called ‘homosexual acts’, the rise and fall of ‘Section 28’, the battle over adoption by same-sex couples, the resistance to equalities legislation in respect of sexual orientation, and many other legal changes, I can’t see the end of discrimination in marriage as anything but positive. It saddens me (and sometimes annoys me) when I hear or read so-called ‘radical’ voices that are critical of same-sex couples who want to marry and suggest that ‘homonormativity’ should be resisted. Like most sociologists, I understand these views and the politics on which they are founded. But the costs of maintaining social differences based on sexual orientation, especially when they are established in law, are high and I’m very happy to see them go. Taking the ‘hetero’ out of the ‘normativity’ of marriage is a welcome day for me.

Whatever sociologists say about marriage over the years ahead, I think the one thing that the vast majority of us will agree upon is that excluding couples from marriage on the grounds of sexual orientation is fundamentally wrong and today, for same-sex couples like Celia and Sue, that wrong has been put right.
Sociologists at York have produced a wide range of research relating to sexual orientation/identity and marriage, including:
The Sociology Department will host the event ‘Celebrating Same-Sex Marriage Equality: Sociologists and social change’ on March 28th. Full details here

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