By Mary Bernstein
As the U.S. awaits the imminent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges which might legalize same-sex marriage throughout the country, it is important to take time to consider what this means for the LGBT movement, LGBT identities, and LGBT communities. Despite enormous grassroots support among LGBT people for same-sex marriage, there has been much criticism of the pursuit of same-sex marriage by queer activists that stems from concerns that many groups of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) are being left behind, while those who are most “homonormative” become accepted and, as a result depoliticized. This concern is translated into fear that LGBT people are marching en masse to the suburbs where they will be enclosed behind white picket fences, sipping homonormative Kool-Aid and failing to realize that heteronormativity and homophobia are alive and well.
In my SWS presidential address (here), I consider the everyday lives of same-sex couples with children, a subject about which queer critics are strangely silent. This silence of queer critics regarding same-sex couples with children is partly a function of a failure to look at the everyday lives of LGBT people, whether in cities, suburbs, or elsewhere. While official marriage equality discourse may be relatively conservative, I am interested in thinking about the lived reality of same-sex couples with children and how same-sex marriage may propel them to be more “out” about their relationships and lives. What happens in public spaces ranging from schools and playgrounds to hospitals and neighborhoods does not simply reproduce heteronormativity; the very presence of gay and lesbian couples, especially those with children challenges assumptions that everyone is heterosexual. Recent court cases have begun to acknowledge what rigorous research has demonstrated; namely that the gender of the parents or even having two parents present is not necessary to producing healthy well-adjusted children.
What are the underlying concerns about how the state regulates intimate relationships? Will same-sex marriage address structural inequalities or mainly benefit white, middle-class people? I agree that access to marriage will not benefit all people in the same way. But nonetheless the pursuit of same-sex marriage is supported by a broad array of LGBT people. It is impossible to escape regulation. The question is not whether the state should regulate intimate relationships, but how the state should regulate them.
When couples do not have access to the state, as in the case of cohabiting couples, they often turn to the state for help when their relationships end. The weaker party, generally the woman in heterosexual relationships, tends to make out poorly in these cases. So a lack of state regulation is not necessarily beneficial and may exacerbate existing inequalities.
So what will happen to the LGBT movement once same-sex marriage is achieved throughout the U.S.? If one looks at projects sponsored by the Arcus Foundation, one of the largest funders of LGBT activism, the preponderance of grants are given to projects and organizations specifically composed of people of color or those seeking racial justice. And a closer look at the largest national LGBT organizations suggests an emphasis on a broad range of issues.
So here’s hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court decides Obergefell v. Hodges in a way that allows same-sex couples throughout the U.S. access to marriage. Once same-sex marriage is achieved there will still be much to do and the good news is that activists are already doing it. LGBT and queer people have a multiplicity of identities, and achieving same-sex marriage will perhaps open up even more space to expand the LGBT political agenda to find concrete policy solutions that support all families and to work in pursuit of broad intersectional goals of structural change, social justice, and the common good.
Mary Bernstein is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. She serves as a deputy editor for Gender & Society and past president of Sociologists for Women in Society. Her SWS Presidential Address “Same-Sex Marriage and the Future of the LGBT Movement” is published in the June 2015 issue of Gender & Society.