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Same-sex marriage refers to a union by two people of the same sex that is legally sanctioned by the state, where identical rights and responsibilities are afforded same-sex and heterosexual married couples. The term ”gay marriage” is popularly used to refer to same-sex partnerships or cohabiting relationships that are formally registered in some way as a ”civil union” (variously known as civil partnerships, registered partnerships, and registered cohabitation), although the latter are in fact legally distinct from marriage. The term is also sometimes employed to talk about unregistered same-sex couple cohabitation or partnerships acknowledged through commitment ceremonies. A growing number of states currently afford same-sex couples the opportunity to participate in marriage. As of late 2010 these include Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, and Argentina. In addition, same-sex marriages are recognized in Mexico City, Mexico and in the USA in Massachusetts, Vermont, Iowa, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia. Same-sex marriages from other countries are honored (though not for domestic citizens) in Israel, Mexico (though they are performed in Mexico City), as well as in the USA in New York, Maryland, and Rhode Island (see the following websites for detailed information on changing status in different countries: www.marriageequality.org; www.samesexmarriage.ca; www.stonewall.org.uk). Civil unions, civil partnerships, and registered cohabitation, which include some exemptions from the automatic rights and responsibilities afforded heterosexual married couples, are the most common forms of legal recognition. They offer some of the symbolic and material advantages associated with marriage, but with more limited legal status. At a global level, most same-sex partners must currently rely on ”do-it-yourself” affirmation and commitment ceremonies, or seek religious blessings where available.
Same-sex marriage and civil unions have become high-profile political issues in many countries since the early 1990s. In Europe the number of states that have extended, or are planning to extend, legal recognition to lesbian and gay relationships through civil unions has increased steadily since the first civil partnership legislation was passed in Denmark in 1989. Elsewhere, Australia, Argentina, Brazil,
New Zealand, South Africa, and other countries have either nationwide or regional legal facilities for the recognition of same-sex partnerships or cohabiting relationships. In the United States, the issue of same-sex marriage has been an especially contentious one. While some states have introduced legislation to recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions, other states have enacted constitutional amendments that explicitly forbid same-sex marriage, or have passed legislation that bars civil union-type recognition. This points to the strength of support and opposition that the issue of same-sex marriage can generate in the US and most other countries where the issue is debated. On the one hand, some constituencies see same-sex marriage and civil unions as an ultimate marker of social and political tolerance. On the other hand, some groups view the issue as indicative of the decline in religious and moral values in an increasingly secular world. Amongst conservative religious and social groups especially, same-sex marriage is often interpreted as an attack on the primacy and ”naturalness” of the heterosexual married bond that is assumed to underpin a stable society.
A number of social developments have influenced the current focus of lesbian and gay politics on same-sex marriage. AIDS, some theorists argue, was a catalyst in mobilizing a new lesbian and gay relational politics in the 1980s. This was initially focused on the recognition of same-sex partners’ caring commitments, and protecting ”rights” in relation to property and next-of-kin issues. Community responses to AIDS facilitated the institution building and political confidence that made same-sex marriage seem like a realizable political objective. Since the 1980s new possibilities have opened up for lesbian and gay parenting (through self and assisted insemination, surrogacy, fostering, adoption, and so on) and a growing number of same-sex couples are choosing to parent. Same-sex marriage is seen as a crucial strategy for recognizing and protecting co-parenting commitments.
Another social development is the changing nature of heterosexual marriage itself. The separation of marriage from the needs of reproduction and women’s increasing economic independence from men are transforming the meanings of heterosexual marriage. Some theorists cite statistics on divorce, cohabitation, single parenting, and solo living as an indication of the fragility of the institution of marriage. The recognition of same-sex marriage can therefore be interpreted as an attempt to reinvigorate or reinvent an ailing institution. A different perspective suggests that the changing role of welfare states can explain the political support that same-sex marriage has received from unexpected quarters. Some argue that as welfare states seek to shift social and care responsibilities back onto individuals and their families and communities, the recognition of same-sex marriage makes sense as it formalizes the responsibilities of lesbians and gay men for their partners and families.
- Sullivan, A. (ed.) (1997) Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con – A Reader. Vintage Books, New York.
- Weeks, J., Heaphy, B., & Donovan, C. (2001) Same-Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments. Routledge, London.
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