This article was edited by David Demo.
The Power and Limits of Marriage: Married Gay Men's Family Relationships
Article first published online: 16 JAN 2013
Copyright © National Council on Family Relations, 2013
Journal of Marriage and Family
Volume 75, Issue 1, pages 191–205, February 2013
How to Cite
Ocobock, A. (2013), The Power and Limits of Marriage: Married Gay Men's Family Relationships. Journal of Marriage and Family, 75: 191–205. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.01032.x
- Issue published online: 16 JAN 2013
- Article first published online: 16 JAN 2013
- marriage and close relationships;
- qualitative research;
- social support;
Same-sex marriage has received much scholarly attention in the United States in the past decade. Yet we know little about how same-sex couples experience marriage. In this article, I present findings from in-depth interviews with 32 legally married gay men in Iowa. I focus on their experiences with families of origin and investigate the legitimating potential of same-sex marriage. The men had high expectations about the power of marriage to help them gain recognition and support, but their experiences with family members were more varied and complex than they expected. Although marriage often led to positive family outcomes, it also commonly had negative consequences, including new and renewed experiences of family rejection. This study complicates ideas about the legitimating potential of marriage for same-sex couples by illuminating both its power and limits in helping gay men gain status and support from their families of origin.
As of July 2012, same-sex couples could legally marry in six states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York) and the District of Columbia. The number of same-sex couples with access to legal marriage has grown rapidly in the past 8 years; nearly 50,000 same-sex couples have married since 2004 (Badgett & Herman, 2011). Many scholars have made important contributions to the ongoing debates about same-sex marriage in the United States (Chauncey, 2004; Clarke & Finlay, 2004; A. Sullivan, 2004; Wardle, 2003). Yet the lived experiences of legally married gay men and lesbians have received less empirical attention, meaning that social scientists know little about how gay men and lesbians actually experience marriage and how it impacts their lives.
Family scholars have found that marriage carries a potent cultural and symbolic power in the United States. Despite the growth and increased acceptability of unmarried cohabitation and childbearing, marriage remains both common and important to most Americans (Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001). Compared to other Western nations, a higher proportion of Americans get married and far fewer believe that “marriage is an outdated institution” (Cherlin, 2009, p. 3). Cherlin argued that although the practical importance of marriage has declined, its symbolic importance has increased (p. 139). Specifically, marriage has evolved from a marker of conformity to a marker of prestige, providing an opportunity to demonstrate to friends and family that a milestone in life has been reached (pp. 140–142). Moreover, marriage is a central component in the way Americans define what a family is and remains highly important for assigning family status to couples (Powell, Bolzendahl, Geist, & Carr Steelman, 2010).
These ideas about the symbolic power of marriage have informed theories about the potential impact of marriage on same-sex couples. Proponents of same-sex marriage have argued that not only will married same-sex couples gain a wide array of legal rights and privileges (Bennett & Gates, 2004), they will also gain important social benefits. Some have suggested that marriage could result in greater social acceptance for same-sex couples and help to combat the discrimination that they and their children can face (Meezan & Rauch, 2005). Others have seen marriage as a means of assimilating gay men and lesbians into the norms and institutions of the larger society and of “overcoming the kind of ‘stigma’ historically attached to homosexuality” (Herek, 2006, p. 617). Moreover, proponents have argued against domestic partnerships and civil unions precisely because they lack the unique social status and legitimating power of marriage (Wolfson, 2007). The legitimating potential of marriage has also been at the center of arguments against same-sex marriage. Queer theorists have critiqued marriage's “privileged relation to legitimacy” and argued that marriage would further delegitimize and stigmatize unmarried same-sex relationships (Warner, 1999, p. 96). Critics have viewed marriage as “an institution of normalization, wherein the married are rendered ‘normal,’ healthy, and moral, and the unmarried ‘abnormal,’ unhealthy, and deviant” (Green, 2010, p. 406).
Despite differing over its virtues, both proponents and queer opponents of same-sex marriage believe marriage has the potential to “normalize” and “legitimate” those same-sex couples who choose to marry. But recent research by Heath (2012) on marriage promotion demonstrated how the presence and visibility of gay men and lesbians challenge heteronormative understandings of marriage and prompts “boundary work to reinforce the outsider status of non-heterosexuals” (p. 178). She suggests that for gay men and lesbians “even as the paradoxes of visibility offer openings for inclusion, marital heterosexuality ultimately reinforces a boundary that becomes a form of social closure” (p. 183).
Yet no empirical research has specifically explored the legitimating power and limits of marriage for same-sex couples. Does marriage help same-sex couples gain greater social recognition and support or prompt “boundary work” and new forms of social exclusion? In this study of legally married gay men in Iowa, I address this question by focusing specifically on how gay men perceive getting married to have impacted relationships with their heterosexual families of origin.
Nationally, fewer gay men get legally married than lesbians (Badgett & Herman, 2011). This has also been true of Iowa. Of the 19,904 marriages taking place in the first year of legalization in Iowa (2009–2010), 2,020 (more than 10%) were known to be same-sex marriages. Of these, only 728 (36%) were male couples (data provided by Iowa Department of Public Health). Despite being a minority of legally married couples, research on the marital and family experiences of gay men is important. Gay men have often been excluded or underrepresented in family research (Biblarz & Savci, 2010). Yet literature on homophobia consistently shows more societal prejudice against gay men than lesbians (Herek, 2002). Therefore, gay men may face particular difficulties with regard to gaining recognition and legitimacy from marriage.
Relationships With Families of Origin
In the past two decades, knowledge about gay and lesbian family life, particularly committed relationships and parenting, has grown exponentially (for a review, see Biblarz & Savci, 2010). Nevertheless, this scholarship is mostly focused on the families that gay men and lesbians create rather than their relationships with families of origin. An exception has been research on the experiences of gay and lesbian youths coming out to family members, which has stressed the risks they face in initial disclosures and the resulting disruptions and negotiations in parent–child relationships (D’Augelli, 2005; Savin-Williams, 2001). Very little research has moved beyond these initial disclosure experiences to explore the relationships adult gay men and lesbians have with families of origin over the life course (Heatherington & Lavner, 2008).
Since the publication of Weston's (1991)Families We Choose, conventional wisdom has been that gay men and lesbians adapt to rejection from families of origin by constructing “families of choice” and relying on them to provide the kinds of support their families of origin will not. But more recent research points to the continued importance of families of origin to adult lesbians and gay men. Oswald found that attending family events and rituals, such as weddings, results in both new experiences of exclusion for gay men and lesbians (2000) and new opportunities for inclusion and reentry into one's family of origin (2002a). Families of origin also appear to be particularly important to gay men and lesbians as they undergo key transitions in the life course. Lewin (1998) observed an “urge to carve out a place in one's (biological) family” among gay men and lesbians having commitment ceremonies (p. 122), and Goldberg and Smith (2011) found that families of origin “occupy a socially meaningful role in many lesbians' and gay men's lives as they begin to form families of their own” (p. 148). Several studies with gay men and lesbians have found that becoming parents improves relationships with families of origin (Bergman, Rubio, Green, & Padron, 2010; Gartrell et al., 2000; M. Sullivan, 2004). The current study extends this literature by focusing on gay men's experiences with families of origin during a newly available life course transition, legal marriage.
Because they are exposed to the same cultural messages about the status and importance of marriage as heterosexuals, it is not surprising that a majority of gay men and lesbians surveyed said they would like to marry someday (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2001). In the absence of legal marriage, many have sought other ways to create marriage-like unions, such as through commitment ceremonies (Hull, 2006; Lewin, 1998). Yet researchers have found that same-sex couples recognize the “unique power of law as a cultural resource” and desire legal marriage (Hull, p. 142). Even when legal alternatives such as civil unions or domestic partnerships are available, a majority of those who have them say they would have married if they could have (Rothblum, Balsam, & Solomon, 2008).
Same-sex couples have used commitment ceremonies “intentionally” to strengthen family resilience (Oswald, 2002b). But without full legal marriage, they have had only limited success in gaining the support they desire from heterosexual family members. Couples in Hull's (2006) study on commitment ceremonies consistently highlighted the family support they received, but, when pressed for details, it was clear they often dealt with disappointment (p. 65). Similarly, Lewin (1998) found couples having commitment ceremonies faced much resistance from family members who were hesitant to attend, urged them to make ceremonies modest, and refused to bring children or pose for photographs. She concluded, “Lesbian and gay weddings are, more frequently than heterosexual weddings, occasions that mark the collapse or the unreliability of family ties” (p. 121). These weddings had no legal status, but Balsam and Beauchaine (2008) also found having a legally recognized civil union did not significantly increase family support. This may be because these civil union couples did not reside in states where their unions were legally recognized. It is also possible that without the term marriage, these unions lacked the same cultural power to legitimate relationships.
Researchers have found that gay men and lesbians have high expectations for legal marriage. Participants in Lannutti's (2007) web-based survey, conducted immediately after the Massachusetts decision to legalize same-sex marriage, believed marriage would result in greater acceptance and legitimacy from heterosexuals, especially families of origin. Goldberg and Kuvalanka (2012) also found that the (adolescent and emerging adult) children of lesbian, gay, and bisexual parents thought legal marriage offered important “symbolic benefits” for their families. Specifically, they believed it would help mark their parents' relationships as “intelligible and legitimate” and was a means of overcoming stigma and minimizing the stressors that their families face in the broader, heterosexist society.
Less research has directly explored the impact of legal marriage on same-sex couples' relationships with families of origin. In a survey conducted 5 years after same-sex marriage legalization in Massachusetts, 42% of respondents agreed that their family was more accepting of their sexual orientation; 62% stated that their family was more accepting of their partner now they were married (Ramos, Goldberg, & Badgett, 2009). Likewise, interviewees said marriage helped bring them closer to their families, created extended families, and “transformed” how family members felt about their relationships (Schecter, Tracy, Page, & Luong, 2008, p. 414). The current study extends this research literature by offering a more focused exploration of the impact of marriage on family relationships. I draw on qualitative research to capture a wider range of marital experiences and investigate the relationship between marriage and family recognition, legitimation, and support in greater depth.
Sample and Recruitment
The findings presented in this article are drawn from interviews with 32 legally married gay men in Iowa, conducted in 2010 and 2011. My criteria for inclusion in this study required that participants had to be legally married and residing in Iowa and that both spouses agreed to take part in separate interviews. Denied the right to marry within their own states, many couples travel to Iowa to get married. But having the state you live in recognize your marriage adds a layer of legal and social validity to the union, and I wanted to capture this in my interviews. Recruitment began in December 2009, 8 months after same-sex marriage legalization went into effect in Iowa, and continued until August 2010. I recruited participants using three methods. First, I contacted gay men's community organizations and asked them to advertise the study to their members. Second, I contacted potential participants directly via groups on an online social networking website. Online groups ranged from Iowa Pride networks to pub-crawl events and chorus communities. Finally, I employed snowballing techniques as the study progressed. No incentive was offered for participation.
With the exception of one participant, all the men identified as White. The predominance of White participants could reflect the fact that racial minorities marry at lower rates than White same-sex couples (Carpenter & Gates, 2008). As it is prohibited in Iowa to collect race or ethnic data on couples who marry, I have no way of knowing the racial diversity of the larger population of same-sex married couples. It could also reflect the difficulties of recruiting non-White gay research participants (Moore, 2011). The sample is also fairly well educated, with just over two thirds having at least a bachelor's degree, and fairly religious, with two thirds having some current religious affiliation (mostly Protestant). Most of the men lived in urban areas or “clusters” (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002). The sample is much more varied with regards to age, income, and relationship duration. Ages ranged from 21 to 70, with a mean of 44. Annual individual incomes ranged from below $10,000 to above $200,000, with the median between $30,000 and $40,000. Couples were together for an average of 9½ years prior to marriage, but relationship lengths ranged from as little as 4 months to as much as 30 years. Just under a third of couples previously had a commitment ceremony or civil union. Only one couple had a child while in their current relationship, but just over a quarter of the sample had children from previous heterosexual relationships. About a third of the men had also been previously married to women. At the time of the interviews, participants had been legally married for between 6 and 13 months.
Data Collection and Analysis
I collected data using an in-depth semistructured interview method. I interviewed each spouse separately, because marriage is composed of two individuals who may experience the relationship differently. Indeed, I found that partners often had divergent family experiences. In presenting my findings, I therefore treat the men as individuals and explore their relationships with both their families of origin and their husbands' families of origin. Including both spouses was advantageous because it allowed me to draw on information from both partners to gain a more complete picture of their family experiences. All interviews were conducted via telephone. Participants were asked to do the interview in private, without their spouses present in the same room. Telephone interviewing is often used in research with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) populations (Goldberg & Smith, 2008; Pfeffer, 2010) but has advantages and drawbacks. Indirect, rather than face-to-face interviewing can be advantageous for research involving marginalized groups, because it provides greater anonymity and allows them to be more open than they would be in person (Eeden-Moorefield, Proulx, & Pasley, 2008). But it does not allow the interviewer to read facial expressions or body language, which may provide additional insights. Interview lengths ranged from 45 minutes to 3 hours.
Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Transcripts were analyzed using an inductive method of open coding in which themes emerged from participants' responses rather than prior conceptual categories (Charmaz, 2006). Initial thematic codes were identified and then aggregated and organized into more specific subcategories. Analytic memos were written to elaborate and theorize each major code and to identify patterns across and within codes. In the data reported below, pseudonyms have been assigned to all participants and identifying information removed or altered.
In the following sections, I first describe participants' expectations about the social and symbolic benefits they would gain from legal marriage. I then describe the positive family outcomes they perceived to result from marriage, including greater recognition and legitimacy, support, and new forms of family inclusion. Next, I highlight the men's negative family experiences and show how they both re-experienced and encountered new experiences of family rejection in response to their marriages. Finally, I discuss how the impact of marriage on family relationships was ongoing, opening up new opportunities for family change over time.
Expectations of Legal Marriage
When I asked the interviewees why they had sought legal marriage, in addition to giving personal reasons such as commitment and love, a majority of the men discussed the social benefits they had hoped to gain. Daniel (age 40), who had been with his partner 10 years prior to marriage, wanted other people to see and understand his relationship more clearly. He explained, “We had had people look at us with speculations about who we are to each other” but “everybody understands immediately what you are talking about when you say husband, wife, or spouse … and so we wanted to get that.” Nathan (age 40), with his partner 11 years prior to marriage, told me that although “I knew we would be together no matter what, whether it was legal or not,” marriage would help other people to “recognize we have devoted our lives together.” Drawing on cultural ideas about the social prestige of marriage, Mike (age 68), with his partner 8 years prior to marriage, said: “The public element was for us probably the most important thing simply because we wanted to be seen together as a successful loving gay couple.” A few men also more specifically cited gaining support from families of origin as a primary reason for marriage. Alex (age 29) told me that marriage was something he and his partner of 6 years felt they “needed to do for our families,” to make them “view our relationship as a serious one.”
Those men who had previously had commitment ceremonies or civil unions (n = 10) attached greater social expectations to their legal marriage than to their previous commitments. They described previous unions as ways to express commitment, gain God's blessing, or access legal protections, but not as means to gain social or familial recognition and support. Of note is that, with the exception of one couple, these men had not invited family to previous ceremonies, but did invite them to their legal weddings. Moreover, just over a third of the men who had not had a previous ceremony said that they had chosen to wait for legal marriage because they thought other unions lacked social status and support. Robert (age 22), with his partner 3 years prior to marriage, said that having a commitment ceremony had “never really interested me because when I commit myself to someone that's good enough, but when legalized marriage started coming into the picture it started to dawn on me that one day it will be recognized.” But, as I describe next, the men's experiences of marriage were more varied and complex than they had expected. Although their hopes for greater recognition and support were often met, many of the men were also disappointed when marriage made little difference to their family relationships or taken aback and confused when it unexpectedly changed them for the worse.
Perceived Positive Family Outcomes
Just over two thirds of the men in this study (n = 21) perceived that getting legally married had a positive impact on their relationships with families of origin. The men discussed three kinds of positive family outcomes: greater relationship recognition and legitimacy, new expressions of familial support, and additional family inclusion and belonging.
Relationship recognition and legitimacy. Many of the men in this study felt that other people recognized and understood their relationship differently once they were married. This perception mainly applied to family members, whom they believed now saw their relationship as more “legitimate,”“solid,” and “real.” Some felt this added recognition and legitimacy resulted from the permanence associated with marriage. Steve (age 36), with his partner 1.5 years prior to marriage, explained:
I think it more solidified for [my mother] that this was real, they went through all this, and they really are a couple. Before I had a partner that I lived with but we had never had a ceremony or anything. And I think she, as much as she accepted him, it wasn't anything permanent in her eyes. And now that this was done, this is permanent.
The permanence associated with marriage also improved relationships with family members who had previously not supported them at all. Paul (age 48), with his partner 7 years prior to marriage, stated: “Marriage has eliminated their hopes we would break up. Now the family knows they have to deal with us, they understand this isn't going away and we’re going to have to cope with it. It gives legitimacy to our relationship and even they can't fight that.”
Other men suggested that marriage had helped to define their relationship as one based on love rather than sex. Andrew (age 70), with his partner 23 years prior to marriage, believed that after he got married his daughter had an “epiphany” about his relationship because, in her mind, marriage was not just about “who we choose to have sex with” but rather “who we choose to love and be with.” Even though Andrew had been with his partner for so long, marriage enabled his daughter to see their relationship “in a different light.” Despite the long-term and committed nature of these men's relationships, their family members were only able to perceive them as “permanent” and “about love” in the context of marriage.
The added recognition and legitimacy granted by marriage might sound familiar to heterosexuals, but gay men's marital experiences occur in a different context and carry different meanings. Heterosexual couples are free to get married and signal the importance of their relationships whenever they decide. By contrast, gay men have only recently gained access to marriage and may have been in a relationship for many years without a way to accurately communicate its significance to others. Some of the men felt that the rings they had worn for years had little meaning outside their own relationship and described how attempts to classify their relationship as “married” had faced strong resistance. Tom (age 49), with his partner 10 years prior to marriage, told me that “for many, many years, up until weeks before the marriage,” if he referred to his partner Daniel as his husband in front of other relatives, his mother would whisper, “please don't call him your husband.”
Prior to marriage, it had also been easier for some family members to ignore the men's relationships and pretend they did not exist. But marriage and the terminology of “husband” made their relationships more visible. Chris (age 61), with his partner 31 years prior to marriage, believed marriage gave his relatives “permission” to more openly acknowledge his relationship:
Especially relatives that didn't know [we were a couple] even though we have been together for so long [laughs]—you know I would write to them and tell them about him and everything but they, it's like now they have gotten permission to [acknowledge the relationship], that's it's okay now because someone said it was.
Marriage also helped some men to be more confident discussing their relationships with family members. Brian (age 60), with his partner 7 years prior to marriage, admitted that “calling each other ‘husband’ has allowed us to be more honest and forthright, rather than dancing around the issue that this was my ‘friend.”’Powell et al. (2010) found that marriage defines relationships and helps make them “count.” Yet these examples show that the added recognition granted by marriage uniquely affects perceptions of gay couples because their unmarried relationships are less visible and often ignored and devalued.
Expressions of familial support. In addition to feelings of greater recognition and legitimacy, many men also discussed receiving more explicit expressions of support from family members. Their family members may have already supported their relationship before they married, but they had not expressed it so openly before, and several of the men believed that without marriage it is unlikely they ever would have. Tim (age 37), with his partner 11 years prior to marriage, explained:
Many of them hadn't said that before we got married. You know, even though I think their actions showed they supported us, you know, many people didn't actually tell us that …. I think many of those people already felt that way, but just us getting married, they had to acknowledge that and felt the need to tell us.
Just having family members attend the wedding was regarded as a significant sign of support. Some recognized this was not an easy decision for their family members. Alex (age 29), with his partner 6 years prior to marriage, recounted how his husband's grandparents had debated attending their wedding because of their Catholic religious beliefs:
They told his dad, “You know, we love them, but we just can't do it. It's against everything we believe in.” And his father told them, “You know, whatever, they’ll probably understand.” [But then] they called him on Father's Day and said, “We decided that we’re just going to put it behind us because we really enjoy them and we’re really proud of them, and we want to be there.”
Alex thought it was “really cool” that they chose to show support, despite disagreeing with same-sex marriage. Regardless of their initial hesitation or views on same-sex marriage, the important thing for him was that they ultimately decided to attend the wedding.
Weddings also created other opportunities for family members to express support. Several men discussed how family members had written thoughtful messages in cards or said things during wedding rituals, such as receiving lines and speeches. Some men solicited these kinds of support. Ryan (age 59), with his partner 11 years prior to marriage, asked his guests to write a message in their wedding album instead of bringing a gift. Despite being solicited, this led to unexpected expressions of family support. Ryan told me:
My dad; I sometimes thought he was out of it, but he wrote this most beautiful message that told us how proud of us he was that we were taking this step, and now he didn't have three sons, he had four sons, and it was enough to make you cry. … I might have lived my entire life and not had this opportunity, and they wouldn't have had the opportunity to congratulate me, so for them it was a big deal to take advantage of it.
Descriptions like these of family members expressing support and pride suggest that, as in heterosexual marriage, these men's marriages were regarded as significant life course events and achievements, and signaled to others a willingness to take an important “step” in their lives.
It is not clear if expressions of support translated into increased provision of instrumental support. Rather, the kind of support these men described was symbolic. But several men told me that receiving these expressions of support improved the quality of family relationships. Ryan told me that before the wedding he and his brother “didn't talk very much.” Now, after his family “all made a point of saying how proud they are that we made this move,” they had “become closer.” Similarly, Dominic (age 65), with his partner 6 years prior to marriage, said he had not expected his older brother to come to the wedding, but he did and now their relationship is “incredibly better than it was.” His brother was planning to visit and spend a week with them, whereas before the wedding they “barely talked to each other.”
Family inclusion and belonging. It was also common for the men to experience new forms of inclusion and connectedness in their husbands' families as a result of marriage, even among those who had been with their partner for many years. For some, like Andrew (age 70), this involved being welcomed as “part of the family” for the first time:
After the wedding his brother came up to me and said welcome to the family, even though I'd been essentially a part of the family for 23 years. It really felt like it had changed the nature of that relationship.
Daniel (age 40), with his partner 10 years prior to marriage, shared a similar story:
I usually don't go down to where Tom's mom lives for Christmas, but I wanted to go down this year, just because we had had the wedding ceremony. This was the first time she'd mentioned me as son-in-law, and she usually doesn't pray at her events or dinner, but she did, and she thanked God for her son-in-law.
Recall that before they married, Daniel's mother-in-law had asked his husband Tom to stop referring to him as his “husband.” Having the title of “in-law” also helped forge closer relationships with other family members who shared this position. For example, Nathan (age 40), with his partner 11 years prior to marriage, said he had become much closer to his husband's sister-in-law because now they shared this “common joke of being the in-laws.”
Many of the men also reported that family members showed more interest in their partner once they were married and started including him in new ways. Chris (age 61), with his partner 30 years prior to marriage, said his relatives started asking about his husband more, asking how he was or what he was doing. He insisted, “They weren't asking those things before.” Brian (age 60), with his partner 7 years prior to marriage, told me that his husband's Mormon family had recently added him as a Facebook friend. When I asked why he thought they had not done that before, he replied that “even though they weren't friendly to the idea of a same-sex couple being together” now they had to “wrap [their] heads around treating us as a married couple.” He added, “Without legal marriage it would either take a lot longer for that to happen or may never have happened.” Patrick (age 31), with his partner 6 years prior to marriage, said his sister had started including his husband on family e-mails. He explained that now she saw that “this is actually a serious relationship” and so she thinks he should be included in communications. For some, being married also changed the way they felt about their place in the husband's family. They felt more “confident” and “at ease” around their husband's family now. This newly felt confidence also led them to “speak up at family discussions” and express their views more openly.
Although most men reported more inclusion in their husbands' families, being married also made some feel they belonged more in their own families. For example, Jake (age 59), with his partner 23 years prior to marriage, re-imagined his place in his family in the following way:
I was just looking a couple of hours ago, watching while he was working outside and thinking, “He's my husband!” You know? I'm, I'm like my brothers and sisters [pause]. I feel like I'm more, in a way, a part of my own family because that's happened. Just that I—like them—I'm married. I'm less an outsider.
These examples provide striking reminders of the power of marriage to define family status and belonging, something gay men and lesbians are excluded from when they are denied the right to marry. They underscore how marriage automatically defines someone as family in a way that years of commitment and shared experiences may not. Nevertheless, as I show next, the men's marriages were also commonly resisted and rejected by family members. These experiences caused a great deal of pain, no matter how supportive other family members had been.
Perceived Negative Family Outcomes
Half of the men (n = 16) described some kind of negative experience with families of origin surrounding their marriages. These were not a different subsection of the sample than those who had experienced positive family outcomes. Rather, the same men experienced both positive and negative family outcomes in response to their marriages. These men discussed two broad types of negative family outcomes: re-experiencing rejection from already unsupportive family members and new experiences of rejection from family members who had previously seemed supportive.
Re-experiencing rejection. Even if the men's family members had made it clear that they did not support the relationship long before they decided to get married, some men admitted that the prospect of marriage led them to hope for greater acceptance. Carl (age 21), with his partner 3 years prior to marriage, gave this description of asking his parents for support despite their history of being uncomfortable with his relationship:
[My parents] were working on the roof of their house and I'm trying to sit there while they’re working and ask them for support. I just remember them very clearly saying, “No, absolutely not, why would you expect that?” I expected it but hoped for something else, you know? I was hoping I'd say it and they'd say great, good for you, we’ll be there.
Allowing themselves to hope for greater acceptance often led to renewed disappointment. In this way, getting married forced some men to face the conditional nature of their family bonds again and to relive the pain they felt when they first came out to family members.
These men did not necessarily expect that marriage would transform the way their family members felt about their relationships. In the excitement of getting married, some just allowed themselves to hope for support, as Carl did. Others believed that the wedding was a sufficiently important occasion that unsupportive family members would set aside their disapproval and be there for them, if only for the day. Frank (age 66), with his partner 6 years prior to marriage, believed his brother and sister-in-law would attend his wedding even though they did not support his relationship or same-sex marriage. He even sent them a “special note” saying how much he hoped they would attend, but they refused. I asked Frank if he was expecting that response. He replied, “I don't know if I was expecting that; no, I really thought they would come, even though they are very religious; I was really feeling like they would be supportive of me in spite of that.” He expected familial support would surpass reservations about same-sex marriage, or that it could be offered temporarily “in spite of” them on his wedding day.
New experiences of rejection. In the aforementioned examples, even though it was a painful experience, rejection largely reiterated preexisting ideas about an unsupportive family member. Yet more common were situations in which men assumed they had supportive relationships with family members and were then forced to reassess them in light of negative reactions to the marriage. Just as marriage led some family members to more openly express their support, it led others to more openly express their disapproval.
Most unexpected statements of rejection came in response to the wedding invitation. Brian (age 60), with his partner 7 years prior to marriage, discussed how he felt when his children refused to attend his wedding. Although his children were “very religious,” Brian was confident he and his husband had a good relationship with them, as they had recently taken his children on vacation. He wrote them a letter acknowledging their beliefs but explaining that his wedding was “a very important day” and asking them to come. His children's pastor advised them not to attend “lest it appear they condone same-sex marriage.” When his son called to tell him that none of his children would be at the wedding, Brian was devastated.
[I had not expected that reaction because] they are with Paul and me a lot…. I left the restaurant when my son called, crying…. I let, 24, 48 hours go by and I drafted a letter [explaining that] it was my hope that you could love me unconditionally, just as I love you unconditionally and just be here to hold my hand [crying] on the most important day of my life. And so I got another call from my son, and he said, “Gosh, Dad, we didn't mean to hurt your feelings. You know, we see from the letter that you’re pretty disappointed that we’re not going to be there.” [Laughs] Well, that's an understatement.
Despite acknowledging their father's disappointment, they did not attend the wedding. Brian explained his feelings this way:
Having family embrace you and acknowledge that this is a legitimate marriage is for them to show up and celebrate with you on the most important day of your life. If they don't, it's non-acceptance. … You’re less than other family members.
Many other men also expressed surprise that family members they had assumed to be supportive refused to attend their weddings. Toby (age 35) and his husband Ethan (age 26), together 5 years prior to marriage, had visited Toby's sister and brother-in-law regularly. So Toby was confused when his brother-in-law said he “supported same-sex marriage” but was “having some real trouble with it and wasn't sure he was going to come.” This caused a lot of “tension” between them all. Aaron (age 30), with his partner 6 years prior to marriage, was hurt when his brother would not let his children attend his wedding, even though he is godfather to one of them. Gordon (age 26), with his partner 3 years prior to marriage, was surprised when an uncle who had always been nice to them sent him a letter explaining that he “respected us but didn't want to see it.” Gordon said when he sees his uncle he will talk to him but “it will never be the way it was before.”
Other men had similar experiences, in which family members expressed love while also letting them know they did not approve. Carl (age 21), with his partner 3 years prior to marriage, described a call he received from his husband's aunt on their wedding day:
Robert's always been close to his aunt, and he remembers her telling him that she would always love him no matter what…. Well, on our wedding day, I got a phone call from her; Robert was not at the house, and she was saying, you know, “Tell Robert that I love him even though this is not what I would hope for him, that I still love him” [emphasis by interviewee]. That surprised me. Of course I never told Robert until later that she didn't approve, I just said that she loved him; I didn't want to ruin the wedding day.
In fact, Robert's aunt was true to her word. She offered love despite her disapproval of his marriage. But love was not always enough for some men in this study, who could no longer view family members in the same way if they failed to support their marriages.
In the above instances, family members expressed a general disapproval of same-sex marriage, but the men's narratives also revealed more specific instances of disapproval, in which family members reacted negatively only if and when the men appeared to ask for too much acceptance. If the men asked their families to actively participate in their weddings or if they displayed their marriages too openly, then it was not uncommon for family members to react with indignation. For example, some family members refused to pose in wedding photos and got angry about the public nature of newspaper wedding announcements, suggesting they felt embarrassed by ordinary wedding rituals. For one man, just referring to his “husband” in casual conversation provoked anger. At a family gathering about a year after his marriage, Jake (age 59), with his partner 23 years prior to marriage, asked his nephew, with whom he had always got on well, if he had seen his husband anywhere. His nephew got very close and aggressively demanded, “Don't you ever say that word again.” In these cases, it seems that when the men engaged in particularly public or heterosexual marital practices, they crossed the limits of what their families were willing to tolerate and triggered their anger.
Legal marriage also made the men's relationships too real for some men's family members, who could no longer ignore aspects of the relationship about which they felt uncomfortable. Frank (age 66), with his partner 6 years prior to marriage, told me that his brother had asked that when he and his husband visit they “honor his home and abstain [from sex],” whereas before the wedding they had stayed in his guest room many times without being told how to behave. Frank decided to visit his brother only during the day and stay somewhere else; he said that now his relationship with his brother is “very different.” In this example, sharing a room was an ambiguous behavior before the wedding, but marriage had unambiguously defined their relationship as sexual, making Frank's brother uncomfortable. When I asked Frank for an explanation, he suggested the legitimacy marriage gave their relationship could also help explain his brother's behavior:
I think that being married defines that it's supposed to be legitimate, that we are equal to them, and before they could look kind of down on us as we have this thing going and we just have to forgive them, but now when the state supports us then it becomes a real different issue and if they then go along with it they are then condoning a sin much more.
The additional definition and legitimacy marriage conferred on Frank's relationship made him lose acceptance because his relationship became more difficult to ignore or “condone.”
The Ongoing Impact of Marriage on Family Relationships
As has been recognized in other research, no action or inaction on the part of families of origin is irrevocable, and rejection and acceptance are not static conditions (M. Sullivan, 2004, p. 126). Several of the men's narratives about marriage highlighted the ongoing impact of marriage on family relationships. Negative reactions were not always cause for the abandonment or disintegration of family relationships. Rather, they were sometimes interpreted as a sign that the relationship required more work. When Brian talked about his children's decision not to attend his wedding, he recognized it was a “pivotal point” in his relationship with them:
I think that was a point in life, where, you know, sometimes a crevasse forms, and a chasm forms that can't be crossed anymore. That's where sometimes you get these situations, familial situations where people say “I'm not going to talk to my brother for 20 years.” You know? And I think that moment could have been that with my kids.
But equally important was the way he responded over the months that followed. Despite being immensely hurt, he saw it as a sign that he still had to “work on” his relationship with them. At the time of the interview, he was planning another family vacation with his children.
Family issues that surfaced in response to the marriage continued to evolve over time. In some cases, the disapproval and anger that surfaced over the marriage eventually opened up opportunities for negotiation with family members. Robert (age 22) and Carl (age 21), together 3 years prior to marriage, endured many arguments with Robert's grandparents about their marriage. For example, Robert's grandfather had been furious when Carl decided to take on “his family name” (emphasis by interviewee). These issues came to a head some time after their wedding when they asked Carl not to be in a professional family picture. Robert refused to be in it, insisting his grandparents include both of them or get neither. It was at this moment, after months of resistance, that his grandmother reevaluated her behavior. She conceded that if someone had requested the same of her she would have reacted the same way and convinced his grandfather they were being unfair. Offering a summary of his relationship with his husband's grandparents, Carl stated: “At first it was rocky, but once we got out to sea a little bit everything calmed down and now it's fantastic.” Still, his evaluation may have been an overstatement because at Christmas they gave him gifts but only the grandmother's name was on them. Carl said he “didn't make a big deal about it; the fact I got gifts was important to me.”
Being married also empowered several men to challenge discrimination from their family members. In the year after their marriage, they stood up to their families in ways they had never done before. Jake (age 59), with his partner 23 years prior to marriage, explained how being “disinvited” from a family reunion after they got married because they would “disrupt it” made him realize he would not tolerate homophobia anymore:
I'm more assertive about gay issues because in a way now it affects my marriage. Anything that has to do with gay people, whether me or somebody else, affects my life and it affects Sam's life. And don't mess with that [laughs]. Just do not mess with that [more seriously] because I will not tolerate it. I didn't have quite that edge before. I feel more protective of him in that way now. You can't talk that way about my husband.
Examples like these illustrate that both the men and their family members underwent changes in their thinking and behavior over time. The men's marriages did not always automatically grant them the recognition, legitimacy, and support they had hoped for. Instead, marriage sometimes acted as a catalyst for changes to family relationships that then required ongoing work.
Gay Men's Relationships With Families of Origin Across the Transition to Marriage
The frequency and emotion with which the men described experiences with their families confirms what others have found about the continued importance of families of origin to adult gay men and lesbians (Oswald 2000, 2002a). In accordance with previous literature, my findings about marriage also demonstrate that family relationships may undergo significant changes as gay men and lesbians experience key transitions in the life course (Goldberg & Smith, 2011; Lewin, 1998; M. Sullivan, 2004). Indeed, my findings suggest that marriage can be a significant turning point for gay men's relationships with families of origin. Part of the change was internally motivated—once married, some men developed new expectations about how they wanted to be seen and treated by their families. But a large part of the change was external: their marriages prompted heterosexual family members to express views on the relationship more openly, offer and withdraw support, and develop new ways to integrate and exclude the couple in family activities. In turn, these varied responses to their marriages provided the men with new and often unexpected information about the strength and fragility of their family relationships, resulting in reassessments and changes that were both immediate and ongoing.
According to Powell et al. (2010), Americans draw on both marriage and parenthood to define family status. Yet the kind of experiences gay men have with families of origin when they get married may be very different than those experienced when they become parents. Previous research found that, in terms of family outcomes, children seem to be the central drivers of change for new parents. Gay and lesbian parents often experienced that families come together for the child and unite around that “common interest” (Bergman et al., 2010), and this occurred regardless of feelings about the parental relationship. By contrast, in the case of marriage, it is the changing status of the adult relationship that impacts family change. Celebrating a marriage requires that family members show direct support for same-sex couple relationships, something that, as my findings illustrate, is still difficult for some to do. Moreover, whereas some family members refuse to recognize same-sex relationships even in the context of marriage, children are likely much harder to ignore. Therefore, marriage and parenthood may create and disrupt family bonds in somewhat different ways. More research is needed to further elucidate the family experiences gay men and lesbians have across these life course transitions.
My findings also offer much more varied and complex findings than previous literature on same-sex marriage, which has highlighted only its positive impact on family relationships (Ramos et al., 2009; Schecter et al., 2008). In contrast, I found that although getting legally married did, in many cases, lead to new positive experiences with families of origin, it also commonly had negative consequences, including renewed rejection and the loss of family support. Moreover, gains from marriage were not always automatic. Sometimes the men had to fight for the status they expected to gain from marriage, and this took time.
There are several possible explanations for the higher levels of family rejection I found compared to previous scholarship. Survey research (Ramos et al., 2009) provided participants less opportunity to report on varied family experiences because it allowed only for responses about how accepting or supportive one's “family” is in general. Moreover, when survey participants responded they “somewhat agree” their families were more supportive post-marriage it was interpreted as expressing only agreement. Participants in previous research may have also been reluctant to disclose negative marital outcomes, either because they were too painful to discuss or because they were reluctant to offer information that could be misused by opponents of marriage equality. I found some evidence of this. When I asked the men directly how their families responded to their marriage, the vast majority gave general statements about how supportive they were, even though half then recounted at least one instance in which a family member reacted negatively. Hull (2006) also found something similar about commitment ceremonies. Finally, the greater prominence of rejection in this study may reflect the focus on gay men and the fact that they face more societal sexual prejudice than lesbians (Herek, 2002).
The Legitimating Potential of Same-Sex Marriage
The finding that married gay men experience both greater support and greater rejection warrants further attention and consideration. To date, marriage has largely been seen as a way of overcoming stigma and gaining greater recognition and legitimacy for same-sex couples (Herek, 2006; Meezan & Rauch, 2005). But my findings highlight the ways marriage might also result in increased rejection and loss of support; these negative marital experiences should not be downplayed. To be clear, this is not an argument against same-sex marriage. Rather, my findings suggest more work is needed to fully understand both the legitimating power and limits of marriage for same-sex couples and their families.
Many of the men in this study had internalized cultural expectations about the legitimating power of legal marriage, echoing findings in previous literature about what same-sex couples and their children hoped to gain from marriage (Goldberg & Kuvalanka, 2012; Lannutti, 2007). To some extent, these high expectations are born out. More than two thirds of the men in this study perceived that marriage helped them gain recognition, legitimacy, support, and inclusion from families of origin. In particular, my findings highlight that some heterosexual family members are only able to perceive their gay kin's relationships as “permanent” and “about love” in the context of legal marriage, despite the long-term and committed nature of many of these men's relationships. My findings also illustrate that the added recognition granted by marriage uniquely affects gay couples because their unmarried relationships are less visible to and more often ignored and devalued by others.
In addition, many of the men in this study described receiving other kinds of “symbolic” benefits from marriage, including more explicit expressions of support. Weddings in particular appear to create new opportunities for others to show support for same-sex relationships, through attendance and participation, thoughtful gifts and messages in cards, as well as reception toasts and speeches. For some men, this marked the first time they had received clear expressions of support from their heterosexual family members. Further research should investigate whether marriage also leads to more tangible kinds of family support for same-sex couples, such as financial or practical support. Many men in this study also recounted new experiences of inclusion in their partners' families after marriage. They were officially welcomed into the partner's family for the first time, referred to with family terminology, such as “son-in-law,” and included in family communications and events. In addition to defining relationships as “legitimate,” for these men marriage automatically defined them as family, even though years of commitment and shared experiences had not. These findings offer striking examples of the power of marriage to define family status and belonging (Powell et al., 2010).
Just fewer than half of the men described some negative marital experience they had with families of origin. These findings also offer insight into the legitimating potential of marriage for same-sex couples. Support and rejection were not either/or situations, in the sense that some men's families reacted positively and other men's negatively. Most men experienced both positive and negative family outcomes. Moreover, there were no simple patterns to explain variation in family experiences, such as how old the men were or how long they had been with their partners. Therefore, it is not something about the individual men or their particular marriages that explain differing family responses. Instead, I suggest that my findings reflect two different characteristics of marriage in the United States, which for gay men might operate in tandem and in tension with one another: marriage as a powerful cultural ideal and legitimating institution (Cherlin, 2009) and marriage as an institution that maintains and reproduces heterosexuality (Ingraham, 2008). The men's marriages opened up new opportunities for family recognition and inclusion, while simultaneously prompting “boundary work” (Heath, 2012) from their family members to maintain categories of difference between them and reassert the normalcy and privilege of heterosexual marriage. Their experiences illustrate that gay men's marriages can be both a means of obtaining legitimacy and a challenge to heterosexual relationships as the only legitimated family form.
Notably, most instances of rejection were related specifically to the men's weddings and did not necessarily represent complete rejection of them or their relationships. To be sure, some men's family members had already rejected them long before their wedding; their marriage made little difference. But more common were instances in which weddings provoked disapproval from family members who had previously been supportive. Ingraham (2008) offers a useful conceptual frame for understanding this. She argued “weddings are concentrated sites for the operation and reproduction of organized heterosexuality” (p. 3) and “rituals of heterosexual celebration” (p. 28). But a “heterosexual imaginary,” a way of thinking that relies on romantic and sacred notions of heterosexual behaviors as naturally occurring, usually prevents people from seeing how heterosexuality is socially constructed through weddings and marriage. Same-sex weddings can be conceptualized as instances of disruption to the “heterosexual imaginary,” provoking resistance and backlash from others, even one's own family members. Weddings not only make homosexual relationships more visible, they also celebrate them as “natural” and legitimate. This could help explain why family attendance at their weddings was so important to the men in this study and was experienced as a qualitatively new kind of support, and why family members who were previously supportive refused to attend the weddings or let their children attend.
Although I have drawn on existing marriage and sexualities literatures to offer some preliminary analysis of my findings, I remain cautious in interpreting the men's family experiences for several reasons. First, the findings focus on gay men's subjective perceptions of their family experiences and may not reflect how their family members actually felt or behaved. More family scholarship is needed to investigate how heterosexuals experience same-sex marriages and the meanings they attach to them. Future research should also seek more nuanced understandings of the determinants of gay men's experiences with families of origin. For example, it might explore the role religion plays in heterosexuals' reactions to same-sex marriage or investigate whether gay men's family members reside in states that recognize same-sex marriage and how this impacts their responses.
This study is also limited by its focus on men and Iowa, as well as its fairly well-educated, religious, and predominantly White sample. Findings should not be generalized to other populations who may have different experiences of marriage. As qualitative research, it was not the intended purpose to produce statistically generalizable results. Instead, findings should be used to inform theory about same-sex marriage and generate new hypotheses about an as-yet sparsely investigated area of family scholarship. Subsequent research on same-sex marriage should seek to expand this sample and discern how the experiences of other populations, particularly lesbians, compare to the experiences of the men in this study. Moreover, family acceptance may be of greater importance to married gay men than those who choose not to marry. Future research on same-sex marriage would benefit from investigating differences across married and unmarried groups and broadening the scope of inquiry to explore how unmarried gay men and lesbians experience same-sex marriage legalization.
This study contributes to our knowledge of how adult gay men experience relationships with families of origin across a newly available life course transition, legal marriage. My findings provide powerful evidence of the continued importance of families of origin to gay men and illustrate how changes in relationship status impact both previously supportive and unsupportive family relationships. The men's narratives also contribute to our understanding of the legitimating potential of same-sex marriage. By incorporating them into such an accepted schema of American life, marriage often helped the men gain recognition and support for their relationships, demonstrating its potential to alter attitudes toward same-sex relationships. But the men's marriages were also frequently rejected, most likely because they challenged ideas about the naturalness and importance of heterosexuality. In discussing debates over same-sex marriage, Walters (2001) recognized that a “new era of visibility” produces two kinds of realities for gay men and lesbians: “the hopeful moments of rights and inclusion and the fearful moments of victimization and reaction” (p. 340). The personal family experiences of the men in this study both reflect and illuminate these broader social trends.
Thanks to Kristen Schilt, Mario Small, Barbara Risman, Amy Brainer, and the members of my writing group at the University of Chicago for all their valuable suggestions. Special thanks also to the men that participated in this study for their time and insights.
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