The Implications of a Turning Tide

By Mary Bernstein

My esteemed colleagues have noted the many recent victories regarding LGBT rights and same-sex marriage and that public support for same-sex marriage is growing stronger, especially among younger cohorts.  However, policy change and social acceptance are uneven and, arguably in states with constitutional defense of marriage acts (DOMAs), things may even be worse now in terms of policy than they were previously.

Despite the uneven nature of political progress across the U.S., if we take the view that the tide is changing and that same-sex marriage and increased political protection for lesbian and gay people is inevitable, then what are some of the long-term implications of these changes?  What are the likely political and cultural impacts of such tremendous successes?

Politically, it might seem that LGBT activists are working themselves out of a job.  If same-sex couples are allowed to marry and settle in the suburbs, then what is left to fight for?  Haven’t they completely assimilated?

Sociologist Steven Seidman (2003) argues that the “closet” once structured lesbian and gay life. Gay men and lesbians constantly had to monitor and conceal their identity and to negotiate if, when, and how to disclose their sexual identity for fear of repression.  Ironically, this state of fear led to the creation of lesbian and gay institutions, such as bars and bookstores, that fostered the creation of lesbian and gay identities and a lesbian and gay political movement.  While lesbians and gay men faced the loss of jobs, homes, and family, and were subjected to ostracism and violence, the era of the closet also helped to mobilize the lesbian and gay movement.

Are we moving toward a “post-gay” era (Ghaziani 2011)?  Perhaps in some places.  An undergraduate student who runs the University of Connecticut’s LGBT group AQUA– Allies and Queers Undergraduate Association recently told me that their purpose is vague.  She said that if anyone came to their meetings, they wouldn’t know based on the discussion that it was a group having to do with LGBT people.  Perhaps that is a function of living in the liberal state of Connecticut where we have co-parent adoption, protection from discriminatory firing on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and same-sex marriage.

Yet the fact remains that in the majority of states, same-sex marriage is banned either by statutory law or through constitutional amendments and, in 29 states, people can still be fired for being gay or lesbian.  The situation for transgender and gender-nonconforming people is even worse, especially with respect to bullying and even abuse by parents (Russo 2012).  In 34 states people can be fired for being transgender.  What this might mean is that LGBT activists will have to organize even more strongly in the most conservative and religious parts of our nation and to focus more on issues of youth and gender identity.

Given the strength of the Christian Right, and the strong correlation between religious fundamentalism, homophobia, heterosexism and anti-LGBT activism, it is unlikely that there will ever be complete acceptance of LGBT people.  However, if opposition to such policies as same-sex marriage among younger cohorts is indeed declining, will an LGBT identity and hence political movement disappear as a result?

Eventually, the need for an organized LGBT movement may decline.  But what of the challenge to cultural norms?  I have argued (Bernstein 2002) that the LGBT movement is both about gaining legal rights and about challenging what Michael Warner (2000) termed “heteronormativity”– that is, the assumption that everyone is heterosexual, appropriately gendered as “male” or “female,” corresponding to their physiological make-up.  Of course the idea that people are clearly biologically male or female is challenged by the existence of those who are intersexed as well as by the innumerable ways in which bodies, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, and genes are actually put together.

If same-sex marriage becomes the rule of the land, does that mean that the challenge to cultural norms has disappeared?  Does same-sex marriage mean, as Lisa Duggan (2002) and others have argued, that homosexuality becomes the new “homonormativity,” privatized behind a white picket fence where same-sex couples go to cook dinner and forget about politics altogether?

In our forthcoming edited book, (Not) The Marrying Kind (University of Minnesota Press), my co-editor Verta Taylor and I address this issue directly.  In conservative places such as Oklahoma, as Melanie Heath argues in her chapter (forthcoming), the act of marrying a partner of the same-sex is a highly charged symbolic and political act that forces the couple to become public.  Verta Taylor and colleagues’ study (2009) of couples who married during the “summer of love” when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom allowed same-sex couples to marry, in violation of California law, found that the act of marrying made these couples more political than they had been before.  People who were already involved in political organizing continued those activities.  They did not retire behind their picket fences. However, Arlene Stein (forthcoming) argues that in places such as Newark, New Jersey, which is a city with a population that is nearly 85% African American and Latino and where almost a third of the residents are below the poverty line, same-sex marriage is of little interest.  These groups face crime, poverty, racism, and structural discrimination and are the least likely to marry and thus the least likely to benefit from the turning tide.  These examples suggest that the political and social landscape of LGBT rights is diverse, inflected by a myriad of issues, including geography and region, race, ethnicity, and class.  Viewed in this way, achieving same-sex marriage should not put the LGBT movement out of business any time soon.

But what if we imagine the hypothetical: Perhaps not uniform acceptance of same-sex couples and of homosexuality, but at least the right to marry across every state in the U.S. and federal recognition of those marriages.  What then?

Here, I would argue that gender remains the final frontier and that as a result, LGBT identities will continue to exist.  LGBT identities may become more decentered, that is they may become one of many identities, rather than a master identity.  The history of sexuality teaches us that the sexual categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality are relatively recent inventions and are the complex result of legal, political and medical institutions as well as of claims by people seeking recognition and rights (Valocchi 1999).  The categories of transgender (Burke 2010) and intersexed (Preeves 2003) are even newer.  But as long as people are attached to notions of fundamental gender difference, then being with someone of the same gender will set same-sex couples apart from others.

Would national recognition of same-sex marriage challenge heteronormativity?  Getting married is a public announcement of a commitment to one’s partner of the same-sex. It also connotes a sexual relationship.  While the same-sex marriage movement has centered “love” over “sex” in defining same-sex relationships, “consummation” is an expectation of marriage.

Having children also forces lesbian and gay couples to be out in all parts of life– to school teachers, doctors, parents of their children’s classmates, to other pregnant couples in childbirth classes, etc.  Some queer activists consider same-sex couples with children to be a part of the new homonormativity, somehow making life harder for those who make different life choices– either not to marry, to have children as a single person or without being married, to be nonmonogamous (and of course I should note that marriage and monogamy are often not the norm for heterosexual couples; the main difference that I see is that same-sex couples are more honest about it (e.g., Ringer 2001; Green forthcoming)).  The discourse of hetero/homonormativity may leave some families, such as single-gay-dad-with-children families discursively marginalized.  And that is an important issue to address.  The marginalization likely stems not from the fact of sexual orientation, but from the challenge that they present to gender expectations of hegemonic masculinity and fatherhood.  Should the LGBT movement decide to engage in a fight to redistribute the privileges and symbolic power associated with “marriage” to other social relationships, the LGBT movement will remain strong.

But will achieving same-sex marriage at the national level change how LGBT people choose to live their lives?  Given high rates of divorce, remarriage, living alone, the development of polyamorous communities, etc., it is clear that there is not one heterosexuality and that the law itself has not kept heterosexuals from forming a variety of types of relationships, many of which are anything but heteronormative.  In fact legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon (1997) argues that the law generally lags behind the ways that people actually organize their intimate lives, including whom they call family.  So it may be that in allowing same-sex marriage, the law is simply catching up to how some same-sex couples are organizing their lives.

And what about the children?  Despite widespread homophobic fears that the children of same-sex couples will grow up to be either lesbian and gay or “confused” about their gender identity (often in itself a euphemism for being gay or lesbian), that simply isn’t the case. And many feminists would question the normative assumption that a clear gender identity is a necessary goal in itself.  Even Freud said that being gay or lesbian was only a problem if the person who was gay or lesbian was bothered by it (Abelove 1993).

Furthermore, empirical evidence suggests that being raised by same-sex couples has no negative psychiatric impact and may actually benefit children.  According to Dr. Nanette Gartrell, a psychiatrist who teaches at the UCLA School of Law, the children of planned lesbian families score better in measures of “academic, social and psychological competence than a comparable group raised in more traditional homes…”  (Quoted in Belkin 2011).  A study by Psychologist Abbie E. Goldberg finds that the children of same-sex couples do tend to be “less conventional and more flexible when it comes to gender roles and assumptions than those raised in more traditional families” (Quoted in Belkin 2011; see also Stacey and Biblarz 2001). While for some, the latter finding may be proof of lesbians and gay men’s unfitness for parenting, I contend that for those who want to promote gender equality, these are exciting findings.  Rather than producing a new “homonormativity,” lesbians and gay men with children may be producing a new generation poised to pursue and enact gender equity and perhaps other forms of social justice as well.

And this indeed constitutes a profound challenge to heteronormativity.


Abelove, Henry.  1993.  “Freud, Male Homosexuality, and the Americans.”  Pp. 381-393 in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin.  New York:  Routledge.

Belkin, Lisa. 2011.  “Let My Parents Marry.”  New York Times June 16, 2011.  Accessed 3/15/12.

Bernstein, Mary.  2002.  “Identities and Politics: Toward a Historical Understanding of the Lesbian and Gay Movement.”  Social Science History 26(3):531-581.

Bernstein, Mary and Verta Taylor (editors).  Forthcoming.  (Not) The Marrying Kind?  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Burke, Mary 2010.  Transforming Gender: Medicine, Body Politics, and the Transgender Rights Movement.  Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Connecticut.

Duggan, Lisa.  2002.  “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism.”  Pp. 175-194 in Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, edited by Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson.  Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Ghaziani, Amin. 2011.  “Post-Gay Collective Identity Construction.”  Social Problems 58(1): 99-125.

Glendon, Mary Ann.  1997.  The Transformation of Family Law: State, Law, and Family in the United States and Western Europe.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Green, Adam. Forthcoming.  “Debating Same-Sex Marriage.”  In (Not) The Marrying Kind?  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, edited by Mary Bernstein and Verta Taylor.

Heath, Melanie. Forthcoming.  “The Long Journey to Marriage: Same-Sex Marriage, Assimilation, and Resistance in the Heartland.”  In (Not) The Marrying Kind?  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, edited by Mary Bernstein and Verta Taylor.

Preeves, Sharon E.  2003.  Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self.  New Brunswick, NJ:  Rutgers University Press.

Ringer, R. Jeffrey.  2001.  “Constituting Nonmonogamies.” Pp. 137-151 in Queer Families, Queer Politics: Challenging Culture ad the State, edited by Mary Bernstein and Renate Reimann.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Russo, Juniper. 2012.  “Transgender Children ad Risk for Child Abuse.”  Yahoo News  Accessed March 12, 2012.

Seidman, Steven. 2003.  Beyond the Closet: The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life.  New York: Routledge.

Stacey, Judith and Timothy J. Biblarz.  2001.  “(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?”  American Sociological Review 66(2): 159-183.

Stein, Arlene.  Forthcoming.  “What’s the Matter with Newark? Race, Class, Marriage Politics, and the Limits of Queer Liberalism.”  In (Not) The Marrying Kind?  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, edited by Mary Bernstein and Verta Taylor.

Taylor, Verta, Katrina Kimport, Nella Van Dyke, and Ellen Ann Andersen. 2009.  “Culture and Mobilization: Tactical Repertoires, Same-Sex Weddings, and the Impact on Gay activism.”  American Sociological Review 78(Dec): 865-890.

Valocchi, Stephen. 1999.  “The Class-Inflected Nature of Gay Identity.”  Social Problems 46(2): 207-224.

Warner, Michael. 2000. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics & the Ethics of Queer Life.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, LGBT Activism: Has the Tide Turned?

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