Applying the Sociological Imagination to Same-Sex Marriage
I grew up in the 1990s when same-sex marriage was not yet an issue of national debate, but in my church these unions were officiated frequently. For me, gay marriage existed only in the context of my religious community, as I knew these couples were not considered married in the legal sense. My childhood experience was unique, but it nonetheless strikes me as odd sometimes that the secular position in today’s mainstream debate is associated with expanding marriage rights, and the religious position is more often associated with limiting them.
To ponder this personal irony is, for me, an exercise in sociological imagination. Introductory sociology classes vary greatly, but I would venture that most have in common the goal of helping students develop this attribute, described by C. Wright Mills in 1959 as the ability to understand personal experiences in connection with larger social issues and the historical and political processes which shape them. The controversy surrounding same-sex marriage is molded by power structures and sentiments which are neither absolute nor stagnant but instead particular to our time and place.
Modern proponents of gay marriage try to appeal to our sociological imaginations when they talk about being “on the right side of history.” Some have pointed to the similarity of religious arguments used to oppose interracial marriage in the 20th century and those used to oppose gay marriage today. Prior to the 1967 Supreme Court ruling which made laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional, defenders of such laws said interracial unions were unnatural and against God. Today these claims seem racist and un-Christian. Activists ask us to consider how religious opposition to same-sex marriage, too, will be understood by future generations.
The sociological imagination does not require that everyone arrive at the same conclusions, however. Years ago, a friend and I attended a presentation by a sociologist studying LGBTQ social movements. When the presentation turned to discussion and the discussion to same-sex marriage, the presenter said she was not too concerned with the issue. As a lesbian entering adulthood in the early 1980s, parents who disowned gay kids like herself were her most immediate representations of marriage, and she wondered why many of her peers were fighting so hard to be a part of that. My friend, who had married her wife a few months prior, disagreed; she did not think that one’s general opposition to marriage was reason to dismiss the cause. Hundreds of legal and economic benefits accompany marriage, as does the privilege of having others see your relationship as legitimate.
Both perspectives are prominent among LGBTQ folks and their allies, and each exercises the sociological imagination. Some sociologists have described marriage as an economic, political, and religious institution designed to maintain male dominance and control sexuality. Given this perspective, critics, like the social movements scholar I recalled above, view the social movement for marriage equality as, ironically, a socially conservative rather than a liberating one.
Alternately, many sociologists, while acknowledging the historical roots of marriage, observe that it is the product of socially constructed and agreed upon definitions which are variously maintained and altered over time. Marriage is not an objective fact but the result of individuals and communities agreeing, more or less, on what it means to be married. This definition has changed radically throughout history—so much so that today most Americans marry for love, as my friend did, and not to preserve their parents’ estates or their clans’ military alliances.
Sentimental shifts towards love and companionship are not the only changes. Some sociologists wonder if the anxiety which surrounds this issue is part of a more general ambivalence towards a variety of trends: Americans cohabitate before marriage and are waiting until nearly 30 to tie the knot; divorce rates hover around 40 percent; at the time of birth, the majority of first-time parents and those in their twenties are not married; and though we do not lament this change nearly as much as we did years ago, the majority of mothers today work for pay, including those who have children not yet school aged.
LGBTQ families have been a part of these changes for a long time, lesbians raising children at about the same rate as heterosexual couples. In most states, gays and lesbians also have the same rights to adoption. Not every sociologist shares my optimism about these trends. In 2012, University of Texas Austin sociologist Mark Regnerus published a condemning report on lesbian parents, claiming that their children were more likely to engage in deviant behavior. Amid criticism of Regnerus’s methods and funding sources, the American Sociological Association investigated the study and concluded that it was deeply flawed, right down to his conceptualization of what constitutes a lesbian parent, and should not have passed peer review.
More studies support gay parents. In 2012, a highly praised and publicized UCLA Law School study of children raised by lesbian parents found no instances of child abuse. (Nationally, a quarter of children experience abuse growing up.) But neither is this study immune to critique. Researchers followed lesbians who formed original families, thus utilizing costly reproductive technologies and adoption; it may then say more about the protective benefits of parental wealth than about lesbian parents, many of whom, nationally, are raising children from previous heterosexual unions and are not middle-class. Furthermore, should the propensity of one’s social category to, on average, raise children well—better than most even—determine one’s right to have children?
To opponents who believe that marriage is threatened by the expansion of rights to same-sex couples, I say this institution has already changed radically. Our churches have also changed and have, in fact, been forces for liberating change throughout our history; behind the abolition of slavery, behind women’s suffrage, and behind the Civil Rights movement, there were churches. And for years—decades even—in many liberal and mainstream Protestant churches, there has been gay marriage.