Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Pp 432 $25.00pb $75.00 cloth
Reviewed by Ken Plummer in the American Journal of Sociology Vol. 19, No 6, May 2014. p1765-7.
Gay Marriage was scarcely a whisper twenty years ago. Now it has become a global public issue. How can this can be? How has a movement and an argument (or ‘claims’ as social movement theorists like to say) so fired across the world that gay marriage has become such a global issue in such a short space of time? Detested and resisted in many African and Arab states as further evidence of Western decadence and imperialism, over 20 countries across the world have nevertheless legislated for it. As of July 2013, the growing list included: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, England and Wales, France, Iceland, New Zealand, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, and Uruguay; and there are many countries where it is ‘under development ’. Denmark was the first country in the world to legally recognize same-sex couples through registered partnerships in 1989; the Netherlands was the first to legislate Marriage in 2001. It is, as they say, a ‘sociological phenomenon’. And all the time, many from within the gay movement have either not wanted this development at all; or even actively resisted it..
Mary Bernstein and Verta Taylor’s timely study The Marrying Kind (shades of the 1952 George Kukor film?) looks at much of this resistance from within the schisms of the LGBT/ Queer Movement in Northern America. They start with a marvelous overview of these conflicts, providing a powerful introduction that clarifies six broad positions (gay liberation, lesbian feminism, queer activism, homo-normativity, beyond the closet and post gay), and outlines the three main arguments against gay marriage that are made by gay activists (‘normalization’, ’privatizing lesbian and gay identity’, and ‘misguided energy’). At the broadest level, the tension is an old and well-trodden one: between the assimilationists (mainly identified with the LGBT etc. movement) and the radicals, against normalization (most identified with queer theorists).
The individual contributors (Ellen Ann Andersen, Mary C. Burke, Adam Isaiah Green, Melanie Heath, Kathleen E. Hull, Katrina Kimport, Jeffrey Kosbie; Katie Oliviero, Kristine A. Olsen; Timothy A. Ortyl; Arlene Stein, Amy L. Stone and Nella Van Dyke) provide case studies where black and white divides are eschewed for findings which show that tidy or polar divides are misleading. What instead, they find is complexity, ‘marked by contradictory impulses and unintended consequences’ (p3). Of course there is nothing to be surprised at here: this has to be a basic law of sociological analysis – we can always expect contradiction, complexity, and unintended consequences. That is social life everywhere. The news would be if was not found. Still the beauty here lies in the detail.
The authors come from a range of backgrounds (from senior academics to doctoral candidates). They cover a range of states (California, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut as well as Canada – all sympathetic places; there is little here from the vast ‘heartlands’ except for a group of gays fleeing from of Oklahoma!). And they deal with a range of topics: mobilization and marital discord, the opposition to marriage, ‘marriage activism’, and finally the impact of the marriage equality movement (very considerable). The main thrust is to show a variety of responses towards gay marriage that are far from normalizing.
As well as queer scholars, these case studies should be of great interest to academics who work in social movement analysis. The gay/queer movement has to be one of the most successful of movements of the last decade; and much of the social movement conceptual apparatus is well illustrated here. The book would find a good home on any social movement reading list as there is much to learn from it.
But useful as the book is, it is also a surprsingly limited one. The USA has generally lagged behind many countries in the world, in both argumentations and implementations, of gay marriages. So a really significant weakness of this book is the total neglect of any mention, let alone analysis, of the wider global success or the ‘arguments within’ that have raged across the world. The editors have ignored Ulrich Bech’s admonitions that ‘from now all , all sociology should be global’; and simply avoid considering any of the major advances that have been taken on a global stage by a global movement. For me the central problem with this book is one of omission: its provincialism limits its insights to the narrow world of the recent United States. Yet the politics of same sex marriage goes back a long way (I think of the tremendously influential work of Boswell), and the world wide international gay movement where such debates have been both earlier and more advanced than many of those heard in the USA. There is nowhere here a sense of the Danish debate – and its pioneering work. Nor is the fact that gay marriages are now legal in twenty countries mentioned. In focusing on just the US, and just progressive states within it, the frame is very narrow; there is much to be learnt from the politics and sociology outside their country.