Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Power and Limits of Marriage: Married Gay Men's Family Relationships

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Power and Limits of Marriage: Married Gay Men's Family Relationships

Article excerpt

Same-sex marriage has received much scholarly attention in the United States in the past decade. Yet we know little about how samesex couples experience marriage. In this article, I present findings from in-depth interviews with 32 legally married gay men in Iowa. I focus on their experiences with families of origin and investigate the legitimating potential of same-sex marriage. The men had high expectations about the power of marriage to help them gain recognition and support, but their experiences with family members were more varied and complex than they expected. Although marriage often led to positive family outcomes, it also commonly had negative consequences, including new and renewed experiences of family rejection. This study complicates ideas about the legitimating potential of marriage for same-sex couples by illuminating both its power and limits in helping gay men gain status and support from their families of origin.

Key Words: bisexual, gay, kinship, lesbian, marriage and close relationships, qualitative research, sexuality, social support, transgender.

As of July 2012, same-sex couples could legally marry in six states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York) and the District of Columbia. The number of same-sex couples with access to legal marriage has grown rapidly in the past 8 years; nearly 50,000 same-sex couples have married since 2004 (Badgett & Herman, 2011). Many scholars have made important contributions to the ongoing debates about samesex marriage in the United States (Chauncey, 2004; Clarke & Finlay, 2004; A. Sullivan, 2004; Wardle, 2003). Yet the lived experiences of legally married gay men and lesbians have received less empirical attention, meaning that social scientists know little about how gay men and lesbians actually experience marriage and how it impacts their lives.

Family scholars have found that marriage carries a potent cultural and symbolic power in the United States. Despite the growth and increased acceptability of unmarried cohabitation and childbearing, marriage remains both common and important to most Americans (Thornton & Young -DeMarco, 2001). Compared to other Western nations, a higher proportion of Americans get married and far fewer believe that "marriage is an outdated institution" (Cherlin, 2009, p. 3). Cherlin argued that although the practical importance of marriage has declined, its symbolic importance has increased (p. 139). Specifically, marriage has evolved from a marker of conformity to a marker of prestige, providing an opportunity to demonstrate to friends and family that a milestone in life has been reached (pp. 140- 142). Moreover, marriage is a central component in the way Americans define what a family is and remains highly important for assigning family status to couples (Powell, Bolzendahl, Geist, & Carr Steelman, 2010).

These ideas about the symbolic power of marriage have informed theories about the potential impact of marriage on same-sex couples. Proponents of same-sex marriage have argued that not only will married same-sex couples gain a wide array of legal rights and privileges (Bennett & Gates, 2004), they will also gain important social benefits. Some have suggested that marriage could result in greater social acceptance for same-sex couples and help to combat the discrimination that they and their children can face (Meezan & Rauch, 2005). Others have seen marriage as a means of assimilating gay men and lesbians into the norms and institutions of the larger society and of ' Overcoming the kind of 'stigma' historically attached to homosexuality" (Herek, 2006, p. 617). Moreover, proponents have argued against domestic partnerships and civil unions precisely because they lack the unique social status and legitimating power of marriage (Wolfson, 2007). The legitimating potential of marriage has also been at the center of arguments against same-sex marriage. Queer theorists have critiqued marriage's "privileged relation to legitimacy" and argued that marriage would further delegitimize and stigmatize unmarried same-sex relationships (Warner, 1999, p. …

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