Impacting on Intimacy: Negotiating the Marriage Equality Debate




marriage, citizenship, rights, intimacy, queer

How to Cite

Raj, S. (2011). Impacting on Intimacy: Negotiating the Marriage Equality Debate. M/C Journal, 14(6).
Vol. 14 No. 6 (2011): impact
Published 2011-11-06


How do we measure intimacy? What are its impacts on our social, political and personal lives? Can we claim a politics to our intimate lives that escapes the normative confines of archaic institutions, while making social justice claims for relationship recognition? Negotiating some of these disparate questions requires us to think more broadly in contemporary public debates on equality and relationship recognition. Specifically, by outlining the impacts of the popular "gay marriage" debate, this paper examines the impacts of queer theory in association with public policy and community lobbying for relationship equality. Much of the debate remains polarised: eliminating discrimination is counterposed to religious or reproductive narratives that suggest such recognition undermines the value of the "natural" heterosexual family. Introducing queer theory into advocacy that oscillates between rights and reproduction problematises indexing intimacy against normative ideas of monogamy and family. While the arguments circulated by academics, lawyers, politicians and activists have disparate political and ethical impacts, when taken together, they continue to define marriage as a public regulation of intimacy and citizenship. Citizenship, measured in democratic participation and choice, however, can only be realised through reflexive politics that value difference. Encouraging critical dialogue across disparate areas of the marriage equality debate will have a significant impact on how we make ethical claims for recognising intimacy.

(Re)defining Marriage

In legislative terms, marriage remains the most fundamental means through which the relationship between citizenship and intimacy is crystallised in Australia. For example, in 2004 the Federal Liberal Government in Australia passed a legislative amendment to the Marriage Act 1961 and expressly defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. By issuing a public legislative amendment, the Government intended to privilege monogamous (in this case understood as heterosexual) intimacy by precluding same-sex or polygamous marriage. Such an exercise had rhetorical rather than legal significance, as common law principles had previously defined the scope of marriage in gender specific terms for decades (Graycar and Millbank 41). 

Marriage as an institution, however, is not a universal or a-historical discourse limited to legal or political constructs. Socialist feminist critiques of marriage in the 1950s conceptualised the legal and gender specific constructs in marriage as a patriarchal contract designed to regulate female bodies (Hannam 146). However, Angela McRobbie notes that within a post-feminist context, these historical realities of gendered subjugation, reproduction or domesticity have been "disarticulated" (26). Marriage has become a more democratic and self-reflexive expression of intimacy for women. David Shumway elaborates this idea and argues that this shift has emerged in a context of "social solidarity" within a consumer environment of social fragmentation (23). What this implies is that marriage now evokes a range of cultural choices, consumer practices and affective trends that are incommensurable to a singular legal or historical term of reference.

Debating the Politics of Intimacy and Citizenship

In order to reflect on this shifting relationship between choice, citizenship and marriage as a concept, it is necessary to highlight that marriage extends beyond private articulations of love. It is a ritualised performance of heterosexual individual (or coupled) citizenship as it entrenches economic and civil rights and responsibilities. The private becomes public. Current neo-liberal approaches to same-sex marriage focus on these symbolic and economic questions of how recognising intimacy is tied to equality. In a legal and political context, marriage is defined in s5 Marriage Act as "the union between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life." While the Act does not imbue marriage with religious or procreative significance, such a gender dichotomous definition prevents same-sex and gender diverse partners from entering into marriage. For Morris Kaplan, this is a problem because "full equality for lesbian and gay citizens requires access to the legal and social recognition of our intimate associations" (201). Advocates and activists define the quest for equal citizenship by engaging with current religious dogma that situates marriage within a field of reproduction, whereby same-sex marriage is seen to rupture the traditional rubric of monogamous kinship and the biological processes of "gender complementarity" (Australian Christian Lobby 1). Liberal equality arguments reject such conservative assertions on the basis that desire, sexuality and intimacy are innate features of human existence and hence always already implicated in public spheres (Kaplan 202). Thus, legal visibility or state recognition becomes crucial to sustaining practices of intimacy.

Problematising the broader social impact of a civil rights approach through the perspective of queer theory, the private/public distinctions that delineate citizenship and intimacy become more difficult to negotiate. Equality and queer theory arguments on same-sex marriage are difficult to reconcile, primarily because they signify the different psychic and cultural investments in the monogamous couple. Butler asserts that idealisations of the couple in legal discourse relates to norms surrounding community, family and nationhood (Undoing 116). This structured circulation of sexual norms reifies the hetero-normative forms of relationships that ought to be recognised (and are desired) by the state. Butler also interrogates this logic of marriage, as a heterosexual norm, and suggests it has the capacity to confine rather than liberate subjects (Undoing 118-20). The author's argument relies upon Michel Foucault's notion of power and subjection, where the subject is not an autonomous individual (as conceived in neo liberal discourses) but a site of disciplined discursive production (Trouble 63). Butler positions the heterosexuality of marriage as a "cultural and symbolic foundation" that renders forms of kinship, monogamy, parenting and community intelligible (Undoing 118). In this sense, marriage can be a problematic articulation of state interests, particularly in terms of perpetuating domesticity, economic mobility and the heterosexual family. As former Australian Prime Minister John Howard opines:

Marriage is … one of the bedrock institutions of our society … marriage, as we understand it in our society, is about children … providing for the survival of the species. (qtd. in Wade)

Howard's politicisation of marriage suggests that it remains crucial to the preservation of the nuclear family. In doing so, the statement also exemplifies homophobic anxieties towards non-normative kinship relations "outside the family". The Prime Ministers' words characterise marriage as a framework which privileges hegemonic ideas of monogamy, biological reproduction and gender dichotomy. Butler responds to these homophobic terms by alluding to the discursive function of a "heterosexual matrix" which codes and produces dichotomous sexes, genders and (hetero)sexual desires (Trouble 36). By refusing to accept the binary neo-liberal discourse in which one is either for or against gay marriage, Butler asserts that by prioritising marriage, the individual accepts the discursive terms of recognition and legitimacy in subjectifying what counts as love (Undoing 115). What this author's argument implies is that by recuperating marital norms, the individual is not liberated, but rather participates in the discursive "trap" and succumbs to the terms of a heterosexual matrix (Trouble 56).

In contradistinction to Howard's political rhetoric, engaging with Foucault's broader theoretical work on sexuality and friendship can influence how we frame the possibilities of intimacy beyond parochial narratives of conjugal relationships. Foucault emphasises that countercultural intimacies rely on desires that are relegated to the margins of mainstream (hetero)sexual culture. For example, the transformational aesthetics in practices such as sadomasochism or queer polyamorous relationships exist due to certain prohibitions in respect to sex (Foucault, History (1) 38, and "Sex" 169). Foucault notes how forms of resistance that transgress mainstream norms produce new experiences of pleasure. Being "queer" (though Foucault does not use this word) becomes identified with new modes of living, rather than a static identity (Essential 138). Extending Foucault, Butler argues that positioning queer intimacies within a field of state recognition risks normalising relationships in terms of heterosexual norms whilst foreclosing the possibilities of new modes of affection. Jasbir Puar argues that queer subjects continue to feature on the peripheries of moral and legal citizenship when their practices of intimacy fail to conform to the socio-political dyadic ideal of matrimony, fidelity and reproduction (22-28). Puar and Butler's reluctance to embrace marriage becomes clearer through an examination of the obiter dicta in the recent American jurisprudence where the proscription on same-sex marriage was overturned in California:

To the extent proponents seek to encourage a norm that sexual activity occur within marriage to ensure that reproduction occur within stable households, Proposition 8 discourages that norm because it requires some sexual activity and child-bearing and child-rearing to occur outside marriage. (Perry vs Schwarzenegger 128)

By connecting the discourse of matrimony and sex with citizenship, the court reifies the value of marriage as an institution of the family, which should be extended to same-sex couples. Therefore, by locating the family in reproductive heterosexual terms, the court forecloses other modes of recognition or rights for those who are in non-monogamous relationships or choose not to reproduce. The legal reasoning in the case evinces the ways in which intimate citizenship or legitimate kinship is understood in highly parochial terms. As Kane Race elaborates, the suturing of domesticity and nationhood, with the rhetoric that "reproduction occur within stable households", frames heterosexual nuclear bonds as the means to legitimate sexual relations (98). By privileging a familial kinship aesthetic to marriage, the state implicitly disregards recognising the value of intimacy in non-nuclear communities or families (Race 100).

Australia, however, unlike most foreign nations, has a dual model of relationship recognition. De facto relationships are virtually indistinguishable from marriage in terms of the rights and entitlements couples are able to access. Very recently, the amendments made by the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws - General Reform) Act 2008 (Cth) has ensured same-sex couples have been included under Federal definitions of de facto relationships, thereby granting same-sex couples the same material rights and entitlements as heterosexual married couples.

While comprehensive de facto recognition operates uniquely in Australia, it is still necessary to question the impact of jurisprudence that considers only marriage provides the legitimate structure for raising children. As Laurent Berlant suggests, those who seek alternative "love plots" are denied the legal and cultural spaces to realise them ("Love" 479). Berlant's critique emphasises how current "progressive" legal approaches to same-sex relationships rely on a monogamous (heterosexual) trajectory of the "love plot" which marginalises those who are in divorced, single, polyamorous or multi-parent situations. For example, in the National Year of Action, a series of marriage equality rallies held across Australia over 2010, non-conjugal forms of intimacy were inadvertently sidelined in order to make a claim for relationship recognition. In a letter to the Sydney Star Observer, a reader laments:

As a gay man, I cannot understand why gay people would want to engage in a heterosexual ritual called marriage … Why do gay couples want to buy into this ridiculous notion is beyond belief. The laws need to be changed so that gays are treated equal under the law, but this is not to be confused with marriage as these are two separate issues... (Michael 2)

Marriage marks a privileged position of citizenship and consumption, to which all other gay and lesbian rights claims are tangential. Moreover, as this letter to the Sydney Star Observer implies, by claiming sexual citizenship through the rubric of marriage, discussions about other campaigns for legislative equality are effectively foreclosed. Melissa Gregg expands on such a problematic, noting that the legal responses to equality reiterate a normative relationship between sexuality and power, where only couples that subscribe to dyadic, marriage-like relationships are offered entitlements by the state (4).

Correspondingly, much of the public activism around marriage equality in Australia seeks to achieve its impact for equality (reforming the Marriage Act) by positioning intimacy in terms of state legitimacy. Butler and Warner argue that when speaking of legitimacy a relation to what is legitimate is implied. Lisa Bower corroborates this, asserting "legal discourse creates norms which universalise particular modes of living…while suppressing other practices and identities" (267). What Butler's and Bower's arguments reveal is that legitimacy is obtained through the extension of marriage to homosexual couples. For example, Andrew Barr, the current Labor Party Education Minister in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), noted that "saying no to civil unions is to say that some relationships are more legitimate than others" (quoted in "Legal Ceremonies"). Ironically, such a statement privileges civil unions by rendering them as the normative basis on which to grant legal recognition. Elizabeth Povinelli argues the performance of dyadic intimacy becomes the means to assert legal and social sovereignty (112). Therefore, as Jenni Millbank warns, marriage, or even distinctive forms of civil unions, if taken alone, can entrench inequalities for those who choose not to participate in these forms of recognition (8).

Grassroots mobilisation and political lobbying strategies around marriage equality activism can have the unintentional impact, however, of obscuring peripheral forms of intimacy and subsequently repudiating those who contest the movement towards marriage.  Warner argues that those who choose to marry derive pride from their monogamous commitment and "family" oriented practice, a privilege afforded through marital citizenship (82). Conversely, individuals and couples who deviate from the "normal" (read: socially palatable) intimate citizen, such as promiscuous or polyamorous subjects, are rendered shameful or pitiful. This political discourse illustrates that there is a strong impetus in the marriage equality movement to legitimate "homosexual love" because it mimics the norms of monogamy, stability, continuity and family by only seeking to substitute the sex of the "other" partner.  Thus, civil rights discourse maintains the privileged political economy of marriage as it involves reproduction (even if it is not biological), mainstream social roles and monogamous sex. By defining social membership and future life in terms of a heterosexual life-narrative, same-sex couples become wedded to the idea of matrimony as the basis for sustainable intimacy and citizenship (Berlant and Warner 557). Warner is critical of recuperating discourses that privilege marriage as the ideal form of intimacy. This is particularly concerning when diverse erotic and intimate communities, which are irreducible to normative forms of citizenship, are subject to erasure.

Que(e)rying the Future of Ethics and Politics

By connecting liberal equality arguments with Butler and Warner's work on queer ethics, there is hesitation towards privileging marriage as the ultimate form of intimacy. Moreover, Butler stresses the importance of a transformative practice of queer intimacy:

It is crucial…that we maintain a critical and transformative relation to the norms that govern what will not count as intelligible and recognisable alliance and kinship. (Undoing 117)

Here the author  attempts to negotiate the complex terrain of queer citizenship and ethics. On one hand, it is necessary to be made visible in order to engage in political activism and be afforded rights within a state discourse. Simultaneously, on the other hand, there is a need to transform the prevailing hetero-normative rhetoric of romantic love in order to prevent pathologising bodies or rendering certain forms of intimacy as aberrant or deviant because, as Warner notes, they do not conform to our perception of what we understand to be normal or morally desirable. Foucault's work on the aesthetics of the self offers a possible transformational practice which avoids the risks Warner and Butler mention because it eludes the "normative determinations" of moralities and publics, whilst engaging in an "ethical stylization" (qtd. in Race 144). Whilst Foucault's work does not explicitly address the question of marriage, his work on friendship gestures to the significance of affective bonds. Queer kinship has the potential to produce new ethics, where bodies do not become subjects of desires, but rather act as agents of pleasure.

Negotiating the intersection between active citizenship and transformative intimacy requires rethinking the politics of recognition and normalisation. Warner is quite ambivalent as to the potential of appropriating marriage for gays and lesbians, despite the historical dynamism of marriage. Rather than acting as a progressive mechanism for rights, it is an institution that operates by refusing to recognise other relations (Warner 129). However, as Alexander Duttmann notes, recognition is more complex and a paradoxical means of relation and identification. It involves a process in which the majority neutralises the difference of the (minority) Other in order to assimilate it (27). However, in the process of recognition, the Other which is validated, then transforms the position of the majority, by altering the terms by which recognition is granted. Marriage no longer simply confers recognition for heterosexual couples to engage in reproduction (Secomb 133). While some queer couples may subscribe to a monogamous relationship structure, these relationships necessarily trouble conservative politics. The lamentations of the Australian Christian Lobby regarding the "fundamental (anatomical) gender complementarity" of same-sex marriage reflect this by recognising the broader social transformation that will occur (and already does with many heterosexual marriages) by displacing the association between marriage, procreation and parenting (5).

Correspondingly, Foucault's work assists in broadening the debate on relationship recognition by transforming our understanding of choice and ethics in terms of "queer friendship." He describes it as a practice that resists the normative public distinction between romantic and platonic affection and produces new aesthetics for sexual and non-sexual intimacy (Foucault, Essential 170). Linnell Secomb argues that this "double potential" alluded to in Foucault and Duttman's work, has the capacity to neutralise difference as Warner fears (133). However, it can also transform dominant narratives of sexual citizenship, as enabling marriage equality will impact on how we imagine traditional heterosexual or patriarchal "plots" to intimacy (Berlant, "Intimacy" 286).


Making an informed impact into public debates on marriage equality requires charting the locus of sexuality, intimacy and citizenship. Negotiating academic discourses, social and community activism, with broader institutions and norms presents political and social challenges when thinking about the sorts of intimacy that should be recognised by the state. The civil right to marriage, irrespective of the sex or gender of one's partner, reflects a crucial shift towards important democratic participation of non-heterosexual citizens. However, it is important to note that the value of such intimacy cannot be indexed against a single measure of legal reform. While Butler and Warner present considered indictments on the normalisation of queer intimacy through marriage, such arguments do not account for the impacts of que(e)rying cultural norms and practices through social and political change.  Marriage is not a singular or a-historical construction reducible to state recognition. Moreover, in a secular democracy, marriage should be one of many forms of diverse relationship recognition open to same-sex and gender diverse couples. In order to expand the impact of social and legal claims for recognition, it is productive to rethink the complex nature of recognition, ritual and aesthetics within marriage. In doing so, we can begin to transform the possibilities for articulating intimate citizenship in plural democracies.


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Author Biography

Senthorun Raj, University of Sydney

Senthorun (Sen) Raj is an activist, writer and social networker with a passion for human rights, sexuality theory, gender studies and postcolonial studies. He completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) majoring in Gender and Cultural Studies, and wrote his thesis on queer asylum seekers and the law at the University of Sydney. In 2008-09 Sen completed a summer research fellowship at the Australian National University on a project titled 'Just Joking' exploring homophobia, racism and hate speech. Sen is currently working as a Senior Policy Advisor for the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (NSW) and is the NSW President of Amnesty International Australia. He writes regularly for the Sydney Star Observer , The Age, and The Punch and has published articles on human rights, sexuality and refugee law, intimacy and citizenship, gay male domestic violence and racist humour.