Same-Sex Marriage: The Cultural Politics of Love and Law

By Levitsky, Sandra R. | Law & Society Review, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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Same-Sex Marriage: The Cultural Politics of Love and Law


Levitsky, Sandra R., Law & Society Review


Same-Sex Marriage: The Cultural Politics of Love and Law. By Kathleen E. Hull. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. 294 pages. $75.00 cloth; $29.99 paper.

Same-sex couples today rely on a variety of cultural practices to define their relationships as marriages-from public commitment rituals to private ring exchanges to the use of marriage-related terminology to refer to their partners or relationships. Such practices suggest that many same-sex couples embrace the cultural aspects of marriage even when they cannot obtain the legal status and benefits derived from state recognition. Drawing on data from interviews with more than 70 gays and lesbians in committed relationships, as well as participant-observation of commitment rituals and content analysis of public debates over same-sex marriage in Hawaii and Vermont, Hull provides a compelling analysis of how gays and lesbians understand the relationship between the cultural and legal dimensions of marriage.

The book makes two main arguments. First, Hull argues that the case of same-sex marriage highlights law's distinctive cultural power, beyond its capacity to deliver specific rights and protections to individual citizens. In explaining their support for legal recognition of same-sex relationships, virtually all of the gays and lesbians in her study cited the practical benefits of legal marriage-access to health insurance or Social security benefits, tax benefits, and decisionmaking authority in hospitals. But many participants also spoke of the cultural legitimacy that legal marriage would bring to same-sex relationships, articulating the belief that equal legal treatment of their relationships would lead to greater social acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Comparing these justifications for legal recognition with the arguments made in public debates over same-sex marriage, Hull makes the striking observation that same-sex couples' interest in the symbolic benefits of legal recognition was better represented in the public discourse of opponents than of supporters of same-sex marriage. Public advocates for same-sex marriage relied heavily on the rhetoric of rights and equality but frequently downplayed the cultural legitimacy effects of legal recognition. By contrast, opponents of legal recognition viewed the relationship between law and culture as obvious - indeed, it was precisely the cultural legitimacy conferred by legal recognition that they feared. In this sense, Hull finds an ironic parallel between the views of public opponents of same-sex marriage and those gays and lesbians who sought legalized marriage for its legitimating effects: both groups viewed the cultural message of state recognition as one of inclusion and acceptance, and while opponents acknowledged and feared this legitimacy effect, many gays and lesbians actively pursued it.

That Hull's participants believed in law's perceived symbolic power to legitimize, normali/e, and equalize same-sex relationships is not in itself a novel rinding. This assumed causal relationship between official law and broader social transformation lies at the heart of Scheingold's 1974 articulation of the "myth of rights." But where some sociolegal scholars have argued that the cultural belief in the power of rights is something that can be mobilized as a political resource in social reform efforts, Hull's findings suggest that in the case of same-sex marriage, rights discourse alone-stripped of substantive arguments for marriage as a moral or social good-fails to fully resonate with many gays and lesbians.

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