OPINION: Fifteen years of same-sex marriage tell a tale of both love and loss

by Abigail Ocobock | University of Notre Dame
Monday, 20 May 2019 09:11 GMT

Supporters of gay marriage rally after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the U.S. Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry at the Supreme Court in Washington June 26, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Same-sex marriage has changed LGB+ relationships both for better and worse

Abigail Ocobock is assistant professor of sociology at Notre Dame University in Indiana, USA

This May marks the 15-year anniversary of Massachusetts legalising same-sex marriage, the first U.S. state to allow gay weddings.

Today, all young LGBT+ people in the U.S. enter their first relationships with the option to marry right from the start. Many can’t remember or imagine anything different. 

“It’s just what we’ve always known,” they told me. 

As U.S. data guru Nate Silver once noted of same-sex marriage, “change doesn’t usually come this fast”. 

It’s now time to take stock. What difference has same-sex marriage really made? 

That’s what I wanted to find out, as I interviewed 120 of the country’s LGB+ marriage trailblazers in Massachusetts. I write  only of lesbians, gay men and bisexual people here because no trans people took part. Research on their experiences is still sorely lacking.  

Beyond the more than 1,000 legal benefits gained, the fight for marriage equality was premised on the idea that getting married offers a host of other, less tangible benefits: dignity, legitimacy and belonging, to name a few. 

Pete Buttigieg, presidential hopeful, and mayor of South Bend, Indiana - my hometown - recently ascribed marriage the power to make him “a better person”. and bring him “closer to God”.

Most people I met also focused on the positive gains from marriage. Yet my research makes clear that the ability to marry has changed LGB+ relationships both for better and worse. 

The story of same-sex marriage, at least so far, is one of both love and loss. 

Participants regularly broke down in tears of happiness as they spoke about how marriage had made them feel more confident and secure in their relationships.

But their relationships had also lost something important - the freedom from marriage. 

The young LGB+ people I met couldn’t conceptualise commitment without it and saw little point investing in relationships that weren’t marriage-bound. I heard about many that had ended over a partner’s disinterest in marriage. 

On the good side, people also shared emotional stories of recognition they experienced from their families. They marvelled at the ways marriage helped family members see their relationships as more “real” and “serious,” and recounted wedding speeches full of love from people who had once refused to acknowledge their sexuality.

But, just as often, getting married reopened old wounds of familial rejection, as people they had assumed accepted them refused to come to their weddings.

They also celebrated how much easier the language of “husband” and “wife”  made it to come out to heterosexuals. 

“Now you don’t even have to say you’re gay, you can just introduce your partner casually like straight people do,” one woman explained. 

And, regardless of whether or not they got married, they spoke of transformations in their self-esteem once marriage became legal. Indeed, many exhibited a kind of fierce, fighting spirit in their social interactions with heterosexuals. Marriage may not have done anything to reduce the prejudice they faced, but it changed the ways in which they addressed it. 

But the greater self-esteem and social inclusion they experienced with heterosexuals was coupled with sadness for the loss of LGB+ community connections. Older people especially grieved for the groups that had once meant so much to them but had now closed their doors, as marriage “reduced demand” for activities organised around sexual orientation and safety. 

And while some stood to gain legitimacy from marriage, others lost it. Those who didn’t want to conform to heteronormative relationship standards felt policed in a post-marriage world. People who had once felt free to critique marriage as an institution risked offending their married friends if they dared to express any reservations about it. 

Of course there are also things marriage has done little to change. Millions of LGBT+ people still live in states where they can be fired or denied housing because of their sexuality or gender identity. 

Overall, the changes marriage has brought have been far reaching and profound. As we look back on the past 15 years, we should take time to celebrate the opportunities and experiences it has given people but also mourn what has been lost.