Ludger H. Viefhues-Bailey on Romance and Same-Sex Marriage

Between a Man and a Woman?In the aftermath of New York’s gay pride parade which celebrated the recent passage of same-sex marriage, we are posting an excerpt from Ludger H. Viefhues-Bailey’s Between a Man and a Woman?: Why Conservatives Oppose Same-Sex Marriage.

In the book Viefhues-Bailey examines conservative Christian rhetoric regarding marriage and the ways in which their arguments call for certain norms regarding gender and look to marriage as providing a basis for stability. Here is an excerpt from the chapter, “America and Respectable Christian Romance.”

On one side of the debate about marriage for same-sex partners, we hear the argument that Americans have the fundamental right to choose one’s life partner. As Alaskan judge Peter Michalski stated, “The relevant question is not whether same-sex marriage is so rooted in our traditions that it is a fundamental right but whether the freedom to choose one’s life partner is so rooted in our tradition.” Judge Michalski here relies on the romantic ideal of freely chosen love. Given how central this ideal is to the formation of a middle-class subjectivity and citizenry, it is clear that the state has an interest to protect and foster this freedom of choice.

However, the argument assumes that same-sex desire shapes itself according to the American codes of romance. In order to enter the arena of legal rights (and public acknowledgment), gay and lesbian relationships have to talk about themselves in a specific narrative script. And according to Mark D. Jordan, this is what happens increasingly:

“Identities for same-sex desires have been written by many regimes and their agents, including preachers, inquisitors, judges, and physicians. Today they get written increasingly by the purveyors of romance, those charming successors to the preachers, inquisitors, and physicians. They are . . . wedding preachers who want to preside over every coupling of ‘identical genitals.’ They do so not only by direct prescription, but by reinforcing romance in the imagined space of queer subculture.”

In the attempts to romanticize every instance of same-sex desire, a line is drawn to define what is and what is not appropriate. Only couplings that are embedded in truly romantic relationships count; neither the fleeting encounters between the massage therapist and the family man nor the ménage à trois involving partners of the same sex fulfills the script of romance. As in Evelyn Higginbotham’s analysis of black politics of respectability, entrance into the realm of acceptable desire involves adhering to a set of middle-class norms. These are the norms that make sexual desire into an instance of respectable romance.

Let us recall that the script of true romance promises to the couple fulfillment in each other and holds out for them the hope of finding their destiny. Yet it requires also the presence of true desire, leading to true love and thus stable sexual identities. And importantly, this quest for sexual identity is itself framed in romantic terms. We have to voyage to discover our true nature through the perils of coming out or through the sequence of Christian conversion, conviction, and belief.

I do not wish to belittle the importance of this narrative; after all, our inner lives are shaped by it, and it would be close to impossible to discard it. Yet I question Cott’s claim that the exalted status of coupled love in our society is simply a given and demands no explanation. It is true that “love is exalted in our society—it is the food and drink of our imagination. Sexual love has even more of a halo, because we assume that an individual’s full subjectivity blossoms in the circle of its intimacy.” Yet these ideals are not simply there (as if given by nature). They are shaped by a multifaceted discourse in which language about our most intimate selves resonates in political and religious registers. The political pressure of forming a national identity binds together the many idioms—racial, medicinal, literary, legal, and theological—that create the modern language of love. The language of love in turn resonates over all these registers. It affects how we experience ourselves and how our subjectivity is formed.

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