Same-Sex Partnerships, Families & Heteronormativity

I recently spoke at the ‘A History of Working-Class Marriage in Scotland, 1855-1976’ Spring Workshop held at the University of Glasgow, in conjunction with the Centre for Gender History. The Workshop – ‘Beyond Tradition?: Non-traditional marriages, partnerships and families in Scotland: Past and Present’ –  explored continuity, change and the multiple forms of partnerships and families that have existed in Scotland in recent history. My paper ‘“Oh, let the Buggers marry!”: Non-heterosexual men, partnerships and families in post-war Scotland’ formed part of a panel, which included Anna Einarsdottir ( ‘”My family”, “your family” and “our family”: Young civil partners and family life in Scotland’) and Heather Walker ( ‘LGBT pathways to parenthood: the recent, personal stories of some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Scotland’).

My paper explored how some non-heterosexual men in Scotland in the postwar period felt under intense pressure to conform to familial and societal expectations to marry. The paper was based on 2 dozen interviews I conducted with gay and bisexual men who had experience of life in Scotland in the period 1940-80. Of this number 5 had married, mostly during their early 20s. Of these 5 marriages, 2 ended in divorce, 1 with the death of the spouse, while 2 were ongoing (one for over 45 years). In this latter instance the marriage persevered with the consent of both parties, although their relationship was now purely platonic (although they still share the marital home). What emerged from my interviews with these men was the manner by which marriage was instituted almost as a ‘natural’ part of the life cycle. Any deviations from this (apart from a life of quiet monastic contemplation) were viewed as aberrations.

This became particularly evident for men who left Scotland in pursuit of a critical mass of non-heterosexuals (usually to the larger urban conurbations, particularly in England). ‘Colin’ who grew up in rural Angus in the 1950s, and who left for London soon after, where he was a member of the GLF, reflected on a pub conversation he overheard between two men when he returned to Dundee in the late 1970s:

‘They were talking about how they hadn’t seen each other for a while, they’d been an item at one time, and one of them was telling the other one that he had got married and he had a kid. It wasn’t like one was being judgemental about the other; there was just an acceptance about what happened. Maybe that was what you did when you got to being 30 as a gay man in Dundee.’

Brief Article on Dundee in Gay Scotland, 1985

Brief Article on Dundee in Gay Scotland, 1985

Not all of my interviewees fell under the hypnotic spell of heteronormativity. Notably, those who matured in the 1960s were less likely to be seduced by ‘conformity’. ‘Chris’, born in 1958, was quite reflective on the issue of heteronormativity, and actively attempted to disassociate himself from societal expectation and conformity. If asked about his personal circumstances he said that he made clear that he was gay. ‘Chris’ immersed himself in the developing LGBT commercial scene in Glasgow, and saw sexual identity as a political aspect as well as one relating to sexual preference. He told me:

…it was a political thing, a really hard fought and important agenda. When I am talking to gay men just now who are their teens or 20s it’s something they don’t even think about… Just to be on that Gay Pride march every year in the early stages when people would throw things at you, was a political statement…

My paper pondered what made ‘Chris’ more able to reject heteronormative assumptions and its heterosexist baggage. Undoubtedly, critical mass and politics played their part. ‘Chris’, like ‘Colin’, had engaged with the developing gay liberation movements of the late 1960s and 1970s. What is interesting about Scotland is that there existed some tensions between movements such as GLF and homegrown homosexual law reform organisations such as the Scottish Minorities Group (SMG). SMG considered the GLF ‘too confrontational, anarchistic, and ill mannered’, while the GLF considered the SMG ‘mired in assimilist rhetoric’. Notably, though, while the GLF failed to achieve a foothold in Scotland, the SMG (later the Scottish Homosexual Rights Group) successfully fought for law reform in Scotland.

For some of my interviewees marriage represented the bedrock of heteronormative society; it was an institution which had burnt their fingers as they attempted to fit in with familial, religious and societal expectations. For some marriage still remains a stifling relic of sexual oppression; now being used as a tool by what might be termed liberal traditionalists to reinvent that oft repeated mantra ‘the return to family values’. For others, such as Morris (b. 1933, and who was married for over 25 years) who intends to marry his partner as soon as he is able, ‘equal marriage’ offers same-sex partners a measure of full equality with heterosexuals.

This was just an attempt to give a flavour of my recent paper, which you can hear in full, along with Anna Einarsdottir’s and Heather Walker’s (and all the papers from the day) on the research project’s website.

Copyright © Jeff Meek 2014

All Rights Reserved.

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