—Karen M. Dunak
With the Supreme Court considering the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, numerous reports recognizing the economic viability of the same-sex wedding industry, and the first legally recognized gay wedding being celebrated (and protested) in France, it’s no wonder issues related to same-sex marriage are experiencing a surge in media coverage.
A recent article in The Atlantic, for example, reports that with legal recognition of their unions, many contemporary same-sex couples are negotiating the traditions and terminologies associated with marriage. Like many of their opposite-sex peers, couples weigh the pros and cons of name change, consider the importance (or limitation) of language such as “husband” and “wife,” and decide what the affiliated cultural associations of marriage mean to them and their relationships.
Gays’ negotiation of tradition is not a new phenomenon. As I argue in my book As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America, queer couples have consciously negotiated the traditions associated with the white wedding for decades, even in the years before same-sex unions began to be recognized legally across the United States. Despite widespread views that the white wedding—with its acceptance of idealized gender roles, market prescription and participation, and religious expression—is a conservative and conformist site of American culture, many same-sex couples have used the celebration to express alternative views of life and love.
As they’ve celebrated, brides and brides, grooms and grooms have accepted, rejected, and amended established traditions, proving the wedding’s flexibility and relevance to contemporary life. At their base, same-sex weddings, especially those of the 1990s and early 2000s, challenged tradition and accepted authority by rejecting the notion that a wedding was celebrated by a man and a woman. Beyond the challenge of two men or two women standing before wedding guests, couples took a cue from their opposite-sex peers as they hand-picked elements of the celebration to fulfill individual desires for the wedding and personal visions of their relationships.
Some women challenged gendered expectations of assumed femininity by wedding in pantsuits, while others referenced the fulfillment of “childhood dreams” in their selection of long white wedding gowns. Many couples integrated witnesses’ participation into the celebration to reject what they saw as the unnecessary isolation of the couple being wed and to indicate the importance of community to their unions. Two San Francisco grooms wed in the early 1990s combined elements of Jewish liturgy with a country-western theme in a nod to both their faith and their personal aesthetic. The lack of established tradition in queer weddings meant couples felt free to create their own.
While offering opportunities for personal expression and fulfillment of individual desire, weddings have likewise served a political purpose. As The Atlantic piece suggests, the terminology of “husband” and “wife” or a shared last name communicate a vision of partnership and family with which many Americans are familiar. Such practices help to legitimate queer unions to the broader population. In a similar way, weddings provide a recognizable site where those uncertain about the nature of gay unions are presented with an image of love, commitment and dedication, all of which tend to increase the likelihood of support for marriage equality.
Queer couples’ willingness to celebrate their unions publicly and without apology has exposed the broader population—from members of the wedding industry to colleagues and students to friends and family—to the committed, loving relationships same-sex couples share. Wedding celebrations, where the language of love and commitment are so central, has weakened the resolve of those who are inclined to argue that queer unions weaken marriage as an institution. In this way, reconsiderations of tradition and meaning reach beyond the couple being wed to raise questions among and shape the views of a far larger audience.
Karen M. Dunak is Assistant Professor of History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She is the author of As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America (NYU Press, August 2013).