Unequal in the Eyes of the Law – Response: At What Cost? Marriage Law in the United States

The morning of June 26, 2013, I sat cross-legged on the floor, anxiously toying with the engagement ring on my left hand and refreshing the various news sites open on my laptop. I thought, with outrage, that if the “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) was upheld, my wedding ceremony would be nothing more than a futile and insulting mimicry of the “right” to love and marry.

Proponents of gay marriage sought to help LGBTQ people gain rights within the political, social, and legal systems in place within the United States. This was an assimilationist strategy employed across “rights” movements throughout history, and it trickles into every facet of our daily lives as well: parents use the desire for their children to fit in, for example, to justify enforcing binary gender roles.[1] Assimilation is thus viewed as a necessary condition for happiness.[2] Judith Butler has (rather famously) described gender as “what is put on, invariably, under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure.”[3] Who hasn’t experienced both the anxieties and pleasures of gender performance? Similarly, when the Supreme Court rejected DOMA, I began saying, with pleasure, “now I can have a real wedding.”

Michael Warner has critiqued the current tendency of LGBTQ organizations to attempt to “win acceptance by the dominant culture, rather than to change the self-understanding of that culture.”[4] My desire for a gay wedding, a real gay wedding, relied on an inherently paradoxical assimilationist understanding of what makes for a pleasurable life. In this way, we might think of the “law” as both the literal and symbolic proxy for cultural “norms,” proscriptions, and phantasmatic circulations of power. As Lisa Duggan writes, “the history of civil rights struggles in the United States shows us that formal legal equality does not provide more resources, greater political power or better lives. Too often, legal equality is an empty shell that hides expanded substantive inequalities.”[5] If we take anything away from the continuance of often-obscene race and gender stratifications in the United States, it is that acquiescing to heteronormative culture in the form of legal same-sex marriages necessarily involves sacrificing radical queer potential. This sacrifice is ultimately inimical to the interests of everyone on the “outside” of heteronormative power. And, as Cathy J. Cohen has asserted, this is in fact “most of us.”[6]

With the approach of my now federally recognized wedding date—October 12, 2014—the anxiety I felt on June 26th returned with full force: white dress shopping, music selections, invitations—who walks down the aisle first? The decisions my partner and I were making were highly gendered, raced, and classed. To make matters worse, many of our choices were attempts to “de-gay” ourselves and the wedding. It became increasingly clear that the pleasures afforded by an assimilationist approach to our lives were constantly subject to failure. With this said, I understand why parents choose to encourage, and at times demand, the gender role conformity of their children. I also understand why the legally afforded “rights” won by the gay rights movement are important—and for many, absolutely necessary—to building and sustaining happy lives. Yet, as Audre Lorde has famously argued, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”[7]

There is a cost to social, cultural, and legal “recognitions”: acclimatization within –  and to –  a heteronormative framework ultimately leaves an imperfect and unequal structure intact.

My partner and I postponed our wedding. As proponents of liberationist agendas argue, it is only with the complete destabilization of marriage—and the legal restrictions surrounding it—that we will begin to achieve meaningful equality.

-Sarah O’Connor


[1] Emily Kane, “No Way My Boys Are Going To Be Like That! Parents’ Responses To Children’s Gender Nonconformity,” Gender & Society 20 (2): 149-176.

[2] Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

[3] Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40 (1988): 519-531.

[4] Michael Warner, The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 50.

[5] Urvashi Vaid, Lisa Dugan, Tamara Metz, and Amber Hollibaugh, “What’s Next for the LGBT Movement?” The Nation, June 27, 2013, accessed September 22, 2014, http://www.thenation.com/blog/175015/whats-next-lgbt-movement.

[6] Cathy J. Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 3 (1997), 457.

[7] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde (Random House: Crossing Press, 2007), 112.