The Trouble with Tiaras: Facing Marriage Equality Head-on

On Sunday June 26, 2011, my wife and I, along with our daughter and son-in-law, were on the M15 bus traveling downtown to Chinatown for dinner. We had just left the celebration of a lifetime at the annual LGBT Pride Parade in Manhattan. Adorned with the requisite Mardi Gras-style beads and various commemorative stickers from organizations and politicians participating in the parade, I also chose to wear a tiara that included a cardboard cutout declaring “Bride to Be” in reflective pink script and shiny silver background with fuchsia garland for emphasis atop a short white tulle veil. As we sat down, a little girl, about 5 years old, wearing her own purple tiara, said to the adult sitting with her, “Oooh she has a tiara on too! Why is she wearing a tiara?” The woman sitting with her said: “Well her tiara says: ‘Bride to Be’ and that means she is getting married!” And the little girl said, looking at me sitting next to my wife, Robin, “Who is she getting married to?” The woman next to her replied, “Hmmm, I don’t know.”  In this moment, I was at once feeling satisfied and extremely uncomfortable. Satisfied in the knowledge that because of marriage equality, this woman could no longer say that I was to get married to some nice man. Satisfied in the fact that I had, in fact, just become the worst nightmare of proponents of traditional marriage and yet uncomfortable at the fact that in some pretty, pretty princess of a 5 year old’s mind, I was being forced into the cutout of a traditional, hetero-normative fairy tale that I had worked years as a feminist teacher and scholar to dismantle.

Critics of “marriage equality,” on all sides of this issue, had warned me about this. I stood in the halls of the Capitol Building in Albany being preached to and literally facing down Reverend Ruben Diaz as chants of “one man, one woman” flew past me. Proponents of traditional marriage fear that with marriage equality comes the redefinition of marriage and they are right. The fight for marriage equality is forcing American society to examine what marriage is and the inclusion of same-sex couples into the definition of marriage will, in fact, change the meaning of marriage in the United States to one that will “support a more pluralistic vision for state recognition of family connection”(p. 38), as Suzanne A. Kim writes in her recent Harvard Journal of Law & Gender article entitled: “Skeptical Marriage Equality.” Marriage equality will extend the fight that began in the 1960s to diminish the gender-hierarchical structure within marriage and promote egalitarianism overall.

Thus far, the powerful impact of marriage equality in New York has emphasized the more practical nature and purpose of marriage. Some committed monogamous, same-sex couples in New York look forward to being able to be legally married for all the rights and protections that marriage affords. Theories and critiques aside, the common everyday lives of thousands of New Yorkers have changed as many people intend to use the institution of marriage as a form of protection from the hostilities of the state and of their “born into” families and neighbors. 

Constitutional law views marriage as a fundamental right and so for the LGBTQ community to be denied this right is to relegate us into the category of non-deserving. This denial maintains the dominance of heterosexual pairings and this heterosexism puts heterosexuals automatically in the position to be the authoritative voice of who can and cannot have access to this right. And while civil marriage has been defined as separate from “holy matrimony”, opponents to marriage equality often nevertheless base their opposition to changes in civil law in a religious dogma that denies same-sex couples access to marriage. Religion then becomes the sole realm of heterosexuals; heterosexuals own God and spirituality and once again LGBTQ peoples are denied participation in defining spirituality, morality and righteousness.

The biggest victory of marriage equality is its emphasis on choice, consent and full participation of all parties in this legal contract (and in society, in general). As Nancy F. Cott points out in the Boston Review (January/February 2011), the United States’ definition of marriage was based in the revolutionary idea that two individuals, of their own free will, could enter into a voluntary allegiance to each other. This free consent, was the mark of a free person and thus after Emancipation, for former slaves, entering into marriages was often the first act of citizenship and served as recognition of their capacity to give full consent and participate fully in society. The choice to be able to enter lawfully into a state-sanctioned marriage for same-sex couples can have the same kind of significance.

Yet it is exactly this, the privileging of the marriage contract, that LGBTQ skeptics of marriage equality fear. Besides all the critiques of reifying the necessity of subordination to the state and to each other, of defining the private realm as something separate from the public —exclusive of “extra-marital space”, of forcing a heteronormative definition of “normalcy” on queer relations, skeptics of marriage equality fear it because it has the potential to exclude individuals and groups of individuals who choose to live outside the bounds of marriage, and from all the rights and privileges that marriage affords. 

At first consideration, it does appear inescapable that marriage is inherently heteronormative.  As New Yorkers prepare for same-sex weddings, inane questions like, “Who’s the bride?” or “Who’s wearing the dress?” demonstrate queer theorists’ worst nightmares of the LGBTQ community being shackled to definitions of sexual relations that must be disciplined and controlled by the state and based on the heterosexual model (Kim, 2011).

The outcome of marriage equality will be a much-needed and continued tension from the standpoints of both traditional marriage and queer theory. The definition and necessity of marriage must continue to evolve. This then requires many moments of satisfaction juxtaposed to moments of discomfort on all sides of this issue. Inevitably, marriage equality will force all of us to be a little more honest — with each other, with our children, with our families and with ourselves. The process of defining affiliations reveals the potential for building kinship models that go beyond the demand that marriage serves to define “the family unit”. Seeking definition in loving, sexual relationships builds trust and bonds between individuals and requires open communication and mutual respect. In the end, LGBTQ relationships are now allowed to enter the “mainstream” imaginary and as a result, we may, at times, embody princesses with purple tiaras and the happily ever-afters of five year olds while the queerer models of marriage will force the none too quiet contemplation of heterosexuals as to what legitimizes commitment and what components are necessary for lasting unions. 

References

Cott, N. F. (January/February 2011). No Objections: What history tells us about remaking marriage. Boston Review. (http://www.bostonreview.net/BR36.1/cott.php; accessed: 6/27/2011).

Kim, S. A. (2011). Skeptical marriage equality. Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, 34 (1), Winter 2011, pp.
37 – 80.

Dr. Kathleen M. Cumiskey is an Associate Professor in Psychology and Women, Gender and Sexuality Program at the College of Staten Island/CUNY. She is an active member of the LGBTQ community on Staten Island and has an international reputation for being a scholar of the study of mobile communication and its impact on social interaction. A lifelong activist, she and her wife Robin Garber were married in Toronto, Canada in 2006. Together they own a LGBTQ used bookstore on Staten Island, called Bent Pages. Their store is the last remaining LGBT bookstore in all of New York City.

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