Earlier this year, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling on the subject of same sex marriage: States are required to marry, and to recognise the marriages of, same-sex couples. (I don’t want to get into the politics of sex, gender, and identity here, so suffice it to say that I am not in love with this term, but I use it as shorthand and also for reason of familiarity; it’s easy for people who don’t spend their days buried in queer theory to relate to.) The decision was an important moment in US history and I’m not going to deny that, because everyone who wants to be able to get married should be able to, and the fact that marriage rights were denied to some people on the grounds of bigotry was infuriating—though I still strongly feel that marriage equality was focused on to the detriment of other important LGBQT issues, and I’m looking at you, Human Rights Campaign, with your white men’s club and hyperfocus on marriage as the last frontier.
Setting these issues aside, however, there’s something else about the cleaving to marriage that troubles me, and it has much to do with marriage as an institution. The queer movement in recent years has been moving in the direction of heteronormativity, suggesting that the only way to be accepted and to fit in as a genuine member of society is to act as straight as possible. Quite literally, people don’t care if we’re gay, so long as we act straight in public. Marriage as an institution is bound up in some very complicated issues, and it troubles me to see people fixating on marriage as a social accomplishment when it’s so tied to heterosexuality and certain social and structural oppressions.
But I’m not surprised to see heteronormativity spreading across the queer community in light of the fact that it’s a lively and thriving part of pop culture as well. When gay characters are depicted, those who conform to heterosexual notions of what a relationship should look like, what makes a relationship authentic, what makes a partnership socially acceptable, are rewarded. Those who do not are punished. Even when it comes to pop culture with a strongly queer presence on the creator side, not just the consumer side, heteroconformity—adhering to these social attitudes as though they are aspirational norm—is a troubling and everpresent theme.
Being a person of any sexuality shouldn’t mean having to have a particular kind of relationship. Yet, it does, particularly for LGBQT couples, who are saddled with the burden of having to justify their existence to a heterosexual world—should they stray outside the boundaries of heteronormativity, they’ll be facing an added weight, and society won’t let them forget it. Thus the praise for couples that pursue marriage or home ownership or parenting, and the frowning on people who do not because these goals in life don’t interest them—just as some heterosexual people aren’t particularly drawn to them. Yet, the stigma is much heavier for those who are already facing social criticism for having relationships that don’t conform to social standards.
Pop culture reinforces that, heavily. We have Cyrus Beene on Scandal, for example, and his heavily idealised wedding. We have David and Keith on Six Feet Under, and again the notion of wedding and family as the ultimate accomplishment. Willow—her bisexuality erased—shacks up with Tara and the two effectively foster Dawn while Buffy is dead. So many depictions of the LGBQT community within pop culture look like this, of people in monogamous, romantic relationships, living together, pursuing marriage, wanting children. They’re striving towards a heterosexual social ideal, modeling heteronormativity for viewers: The Gays, they’re just like you!
What if LGBQT people are not, in fact, just like you, though? Isn’t that okay? We go on and on about a society in which it’s okay to be gay and we’re all diverse and accepting of people’s differences and maybe that should start with both shaking off the yoke of insisting that there’s only one kind of acceptable relationship (heterosexual, monogamous, house, married, children), and extending that to a shift into an acceptance of queerness and a recognition that while some LGBQT people really do want marriage and family, others don’t, and that doesn’t make them bad people, or outliers, or freaks. It just makes them people.
For that to happen, we also need to see a pop cultural shift, because society takes heavy cues from pop culture. One reason same-sex marriage became such a juggernaut was because it became one in pop culture as well. Characters were either getting married or bemoaning the fact that they couldn’t marry, taking the matter to court or moving to places where they could marry. Their experiences reflected those of some real-world couples struggling with a world in which their relationships weren’t legally recognised, but they also reflected back onto the real world, forcing the United States’ hand on the issue of same-sex marriage. Who could live in a post-Ellen society and oppose gay marriage for long?
Campaigners indubitably won something in June, and it’s important to acknowledge that. But that win, and the pop culture around us, continued to reinforce the meme that relationships only matter if they’re the right kind of relationships, and if people behave the right way in them. That’s the wrong way to approach things, as it is only in breaking away from these strictures that we will find true freedom.