Psychology, Liberalism, and Activism: Challenging Discourses of 'Equality With' in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

By Riggs, Damien W. | Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Psychology, Liberalism, and Activism: Challenging Discourses of 'Equality With' in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

Riggs, Damien W., Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review


Current activism within the discipline of psychology, particularly with regard to the same-sex marriage debate, has at times been limited by the reliance upon liberal individualism. More specifically, the liberal assumption of 'equality with' may be seen to produce a number of negative outcomes that result from a focus upon singular axes of identity. In contrast to an understanding of activism that focuses on equality, this paper provides an examination of the American Psychological Association's resolution on same-sex marriage, and proposes that activists (both within the discipline and beyond) may benefit from engaging in analyses of how state sanction serves to 'domesticate' same-sex attracted individuals. By elaborating the notion of 'state moral minimalism', it is proposed that future resolutions may move away from a simplistic reliance upon the concept of 'equality', and may instead move towards an acknowledgment of the multiple ways in which oppression and privilege intersect.


The discipline of psychology has two quite distinct, and indeed paradoxical histories. The first history tells of a discipline "that would make a difference": that would not only "describe reality but [also] change it, and for the better" (Bradley & Selby, 2001, p. 84). The second history is of a discipline that "always serves to obscure larger social and political issues (sexism, heterosexism, racism, classism), converting them into individual pathologies by an insistent focus on the personal" (Kitzinger & Perkins, 1993, p. 6). In regards to the first history, Bradley and Selby suggest that psychology was originally conceived as a means to promoting social welfare, one that would necessarily start from a critique of the status quo. They propose that in moving away from these aims, the discipline at large has failed to take account of how individual oppression occurs in a broader social context. This point also informs Kitzinger and Perkins' critique of the discipline. They propose that the shift towards an individualised, acontextual approach to psychological research means on the whole that psychology is inherently unable to explore political issues, other than through an individualised lens.

In regards to the view of psychology held by Kitzinger and Perkins (1993), it is important to clarify that there are of course a wide range of psychological approaches that are indeed critical of mainstream psychology's focus on the individual (these include critical psychology: Fox & Prilleltensky, 1997, community psychology: Watts & Serrano-GarcÍa, 2003, and feminist psychology: Burman, 1998). Kitzinger and Perkins focus specifically on how psychology has often been complicit with the oppression of lesbians. My focus within this paper takes their critique as a starting place, but offers a more optimistic view of psychology's role in activism or advocacy (as does Kitzinger in her more recent work, such as Wilkinson & Kitzinger, 2005). My aim is therefore not to paint a view of psychology that ignores the vast differences that exist within the discipline, but rather to draw attention to the limitations that arise from employing an individualised approach to activism within the discipline of psychology, and the attendant problems that result from focusing primarily on single-issue identity politics. In other words, I seek to question some of the implications that might arise from the two competing understandings of the discipline of psychology as described above, and to investigate how the discipline of psychology on the whole is both a part of, and potentially an effective counter to, the ways in which individualisation can negatively impact upon particular marginalised groups. In order to do so, I focus on the example of same-sex marriage, and explore the ways in which debates over marriage rights have been taken up by the American Psychological Association (APA).

At the same time as I seek to explore the issues that may arise from any use of an individualised approach to activism in regards to same-sex marriage rights, I also wish to examine how the promotion of such rights within the framework of identity politics can work to further exclude or oppress certain groups of people.

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Psychology, Liberalism, and Activism: Challenging Discourses of 'Equality With' in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate


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