In this essay Nathan Palmer uses last week’s landmark supreme court ruling to discuss heteronormativity and what it means to embrace diversity.
Social change is often a painfully slow process until it becomes instantaneous. After decades of activism by marriage equality advocates and the LGBTQ community in general, the U.S. Supreme Court in an instant made the right to marry anyone, regardless of their gender or sexual identity, legal in across the country. For those concerned with social justice, this was a week to party.
Unfortunately, sociologists often make for crummy party guests. We tend to look at everything with a critical eye and I found myself unable to turn that voice in my head off Friday as I read through the Supreme Court’s majority opinion. This decision, which written by Justice Kennedy, provides good examples of something sociologists call heteronormativity and offers us a chance to think about what we mean when we use terms like equality and diversity.
It’s Either Marriage or a Lifetime of Loneliness
Reading through the majority opinion, which was written by Justice Kennedy, I was struck by the multiple times marriage was presented as the only way to avoid a “lifetime of loneliness.” Here is a good example inside the final paragraph.
- No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
Justice Kennedy clearly has an affinity for marriage. However, he also seems to be indirectly slamming non-marital relationships. If no union is more profound than marriage and the unmarried are “condemned to a life of loneliness,” then Justice Kennedy must not think too much about the millions of Americans who are cohabiting with their romantic partners. And while social scientists call it cohabiting, in reality many of these cohabiting couples are raising children, caring for elders, celebrating holidays, carrying on family traditions, and doing everything else every other family in America does.
Furthermore, over the last few decades the number of cohabiting couples has been on the rise. As of 2010 of all couples living together, 1 in 5 was not married. If life without marriage was so lonely and dreadful, we wouldn’t see a growing number of people opting into it.
While you might think we should give Justice Kennedy a little leeway to wax poetic in this landmark decision, you should keep in mind that this is a legal opinion. Every single word has the potential to set a legal precedent that all future courts will have to abide by. These documents are written to be painstakingly scrutinized for their meaning.
“Other people are not failed attempts at you.”
My wife has the quote above framed inside her office and it was the first thing to pop in my head as I read the Supreme Court’s majority opinion and watched the news on Friday. While many same sex couples were indeed waiting for the moment they could get married, many were not. Many gay and lesbian couples were and still are perfectly happy not being married.
It is heteronormative to assume that gay and lesbian couples ultimately want to be just like us. Heteronormativity is a term social scientists use to describe how heterosexual social norms become the standard that all others are judged by. At the heart of this phenomenon is the idea that heterosexuals are the ideal and that any deviation from heterosexual culture is inferior.
Terms like queer, genderqueer, and pansexual have emerged precisely because people within the LGBTQ community do not feel that their identities and lifestyles can fit within the popular narrow social definitions of love, sex, and family. To embrace diversity is not to allow a greater number of people the opportunity to be just like the majority group. Instead, embracing diversity means accepting and appreciating many different ways of living and expressing love.
In truth, the narrow social family ideals of a husband, wife, 2.5 kids, dog, and white picket fence isn’t something that many heterosexuals fit into these days. We are a nation of blended families, cohabiting partners, divorce & remarriage, and life long singletons (Klinenberg 2012). On Sunday I heard a cable news talking head say that after this supreme court ruling, “the family in America is dead.” To which I might add; The family is dead, long live the families.”[^Kath]
- Does your immediate family fit the social stereotype or does it deviate from it? Be sure to list all of the members of your immediate family in your answer.
- Describe in your own words another example of something that is heteronormative. Be sure to explain why it is heteronormative.
- Google the words genderqueer and pansexual. Now describe the terms in your own words.
- What does the phrase, “other people are not failed attempts at you,” mean to you? How do we treat people differently when we see them as a failed attempt at being us?
- Klinenberg, Eric. 2012. Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. New York: Penguin Press.
- National Center for Family and Marriage Research. 2010. “Trends in Cohabitation: Twenty Years of Change, 1987–2008.” http://ncfmr.bgsu.edu/pdf/family_profiles/file87411.pdf accessed June, 28, 2015.
In case you’re not up on Supreme Court lingo, a “majority opinion” is the document that details the Supreme Court’s ruling. So in this case the majority opinion was written in favor of allowing same sex marriages. ↩
The original quote from anthropologist Wade Davis was, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you: they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”
[^Kath]: I originally heard this phrase from Kathleen Gerson during a conference presentation. ↩