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Impacting on Intimacy: Negotiating the Marriage Equality Debate

Impacting on Intimacy: Negotiating the Marriage Equality Debate

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Published by Senthorun Raj
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.
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.

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Published by: Senthorun Raj on Dec 31, 2011
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02/06/2013

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M/C Journal, Vol. 14, No. 6 (2011) - 'impact'
Impacting on Intimacy: Negotiating the Marriage EqualityDebate
http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/350
Senthorun Raj 
Introduction
How do we measure intimacy? What are its impacts on our social, political and personallives? 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 incontemporary public debates on equality and relationship recognition. Specifically, byoutlining the impacts of the popular "gay marriage" debate, this paper examines the impactsof queer theory in association with public policy and community lobbying for relationshipequality. Much of the debate remains polarised: eliminating discrimination is counterposed toreligious or reproductive narratives that suggest such recognition undermines the value of the "natural" heterosexual family. Introducing queer theory into advocacy that oscillatesbetween rights and reproduction problematises indexing intimacy against normative ideas of monogamy and family. While the arguments circulated by academics, lawyers, politicians andactivists have disparate political and ethical impacts, when taken together, they continue todefine marriage as a public regulation of intimacy and citizenship. Citizenship, measured indemocratic participation and choice, however, can only be realised through reflexive politicsthat value difference. Encouraging critical dialogue across disparate areas of the marriageequality debate will have a significant impact on how we make ethical claims for recognisingintimacy.
(Re)defining Marriage
In legislative terms, marriage remains the most fundamental means through which therelationship between citizenship and intimacy is crystallised in Australia. For example, in2004 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 privilegemonogamous (in this case understood as heterosexual) intimacy by precluding same-sex orpolygamous marriage. Such an exercise had rhetorical rather than legal significance, ascommon law principles had previously defined the scope of marriage in gender specific termsfor decades (Graycar and Millbank 41).Marriage as an institution, however, is not a universal or a-historical discourse limited to legalor political constructs. Socialist feminist critiques of marriage in the 1950s conceptualised thelegal and gender specific constructs in marriage as a patriarchal contract designed to regulatefemale bodies (Hannam 146). However, Angela McRobbie notes that within a post-feministcontext, these historical realities of gendered subjugation, reproduction or domesticity havebeen "disarticulated" (26). Marriage has become a more democratic and self-reflexiveexpression of intimacy for women. David Shumway elaborates this idea and argues that thisshift has emerged in a context of "social solidarity" within a consumer environment of socialfragmentation (23). What this implies is that marriage now evokes a range of culturalchoices, consumer practices and affective trends that are incommensurable to a singularlegal or historical term of reference.
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Debating the Politics of Intimacy and Citizenship
In order to reflect on this shifting relationship between choice, citizenship and marriage as aconcept, 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 itentrenches economic and civil rights and responsibilities. The private becomes public. Currentneo-liberal approaches to same-sex marriage focus on these symbolic and economicquestions 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 theexclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life." While the Act does not imbuemarriage with religious or procreative significance, such a gender dichotomous definitionprevents same-sex and gender diverse partners from entering into marriage. For MorrisKaplan, this is a problem because "full equality for lesbian and gay citizens requires access tothe legal and social recognition of our intimate associations" (201). Advocates and activistsdefine the quest for equal citizenship by engaging with current religious dogma that situatesmarriage within a field of reproduction, whereby same-sex marriage is seen to rupture thetraditional rubric of monogamous kinship and the biological processes of "gendercomplementarity" (Australian Christian Lobby 1). Liberal equality arguments reject suchconservative 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 becomemore difficult to negotiate. Equality and queer theory arguments on same-sex marriage aredifficult to reconcile, primarily because they signify the different psychic and culturalinvestments in the monogamous couple. Butler asserts that idealisations of the couple inlegal 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 alsointerrogates this logic of marriage, as a heterosexual norm, and suggests it has the capacityto confine rather than liberate subjects (
Undoing
118-20). The author's argument relies uponMichel Foucault's notion of power and subjection, where the subject is not an autonomousindividual (as conceived in neo liberal discourses) but a site of disciplined discursiveproduction (
Trouble
63). Butler positions the heterosexuality of marriage as a "cultural andsymbolic foundation" that renders forms of kinship, monogamy, parenting and communityintelligible (
Undoing
118). In this sense, marriage can be a problematic articulation of stateinterests, particularly in terms of perpetuating domesticity, economic mobility and theheterosexual 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 thenuclear family. In doing so, the statement also exemplifies homophobic anxieties towardsnon-normative kinship relations "outside the family". The Prime Ministers' words characterisemarriage as a framework which privileges hegemonic ideas of monogamy, biologicalreproduction and gender dichotomy. Butler responds to these homophobic terms by alludingto the discursive function of a "heterosexual matrix" which codes and produces dichotomoussexes, genders and (hetero)sexual desires (
Trouble
36). By refusing to accept the binaryneo-liberal discourse in which one is either for or against gay marriage, Butler asserts that byprioritising marriage, the individual accepts the discursive terms of recognition and legitimacy
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in subjectifying what counts as love (
Undoing
115). What this author's argument implies isthat by recuperating marital norms, the individual is not liberated, but rather participates inthe discursive "trap" and succumbs to the terms of a heterosexual matrix (
Trouble
56).In contradistinction to Howard's political rhetoric, engaging with Foucault's broadertheoretical work on sexuality and friendship can influence how we frame the possibilities of intimacy beyond parochial narratives of conjugal relationships. Foucault emphasises thatcountercultural intimacies rely on desires that are relegated to the margins of mainstream(hetero)sexual culture. For example, the transformational aesthetics in practices such assadomasochism or queer polyamorous relationships exist due to certain prohibitions inrespect 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 thatpositioning queer intimacies within a field of state recognition risks normalising relationshipsin 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 andlegal citizenship when their practices of intimacy fail to conform to the socio-political dyadicideal of matrimony, fidelity and reproduction (22-28). Puar and Butler's reluctance toembrace marriage becomes clearer through an examination of the obiter dicta in the recentAmerican jurisprudence where the proscription on same-sex marriage was overturned inCalifornia:To the extent proponents seek to encourage a norm that sexualactivity occur within marriage to ensure that reproduction occurwithin stable households, Proposition 8 discourages that normbecause 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 valueof 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 foreclosesother modes of recognition or rights for those who are in non-monogamous relationships orchoose not to reproduce. The legal reasoning in the case evinces the ways in which intimatecitizenship or legitimate kinship is understood in highly parochial terms. As Kane Raceelaborates, the suturing of domesticity and nationhood, with the rhetoric that "reproductionoccur within stable households", frames heterosexual nuclear bonds as the means tolegitimate sexual relations (98). By privileging a familial kinship aesthetic to marriage, thestate implicitly disregards recognising the value of intimacy in non-nuclear communities orfamilies (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 andentitlements 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 defacto relationships, thereby granting same-sex couples the same material rights andentitlements as heterosexual married couples.While comprehensive de facto recognition operates uniquely in Australia, it is still necessaryto question the impact of jurisprudence that considers only marriage provides the legitimatestructure for raising children. As Laurent Berlant suggests, those who seek alternative "loveplots" are denied the legal and cultural spaces to realise them ("Love" 479). Berlant's critiqueemphasises how current "progressive" legal approaches to same-sex relationships rely on a
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