CONTACT: MARY GERAGHTY
100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0011; fax (319) 384-0024
UI professor examines rituals of gay and lesbian weddings
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- As activists and politicians debate the merits and
drawbacks to same-sex marriages, a University of Iowa professor has taken
a step back to look at the rituals involved in these ceremonies and what
they represent for the couples as well as for society as a whole.
Ellen Lewin, an associate professor of women's studies and anthropology,
interviewed more than 50 gay and lesbian couples who had held "commitment
ceremonies" as part of the anthropological fieldwork for her new book
Recognizing Ourselves: Ceremonies of Lesbian and Gay Commitment
(Columbia University Press, 1998).
Although she is publishing at a time when same-sex marriage is a hot
political topic, Lewin said she came to the study "less out of my
active concern with the implications of the struggle to achieve legality
for same-sex marriage than from a desire to fashion a cultural understanding
of lesbian and gay weddings as powerful and complex ritual occasions."
The book examines the rituals involved in same-sex marriages and sets
forth five central themes related to the ceremonies: family, community,
authenticity, resistance, and tradition.
Lewin found two distinct views on same-sex marriage within the gay community.
Some couples see their marriage as a way for their relationship to be recognized
just as a heterosexual relationship would be -- in essence, a way for them
to be "just like everybody else." On the other hand, some gay
couples think that by publicly announcing their love for and commitment
to one another in a ceremony, they are advancing the more "radical"
or "in your face" aspects of gay culture.
However, Lewin said that while most couples identify with only one of
those two viewpoints, most ceremonies she observed exhibited both "traditional"
and "radical" qualities. "What people think they're doing
and what they are actually doing are really very different," she said.
Lewin said that her research did not identify any "typical"
or "exemplary" gay wedding but that the ceremonies have in common
the fact that they are "grounded in a particular social, political,
and historical context in which gender is an embattled domain and inequality
based on sexual orientation has become visible to a perhaps unprecedented
"As such, these ceremonies draw on related sources of meaning and
stand together as coherent reflections of what it means to be gay and American
on the eve of the millennium," Lewin said.
Lewin's interest in the subject of gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies
was sparked in 1992 when she and her partner held their own ceremony. Her
academic work on motherhood among lesbians, which resulted in the 1993
book Lesbian Mothers: Accounts of Gender in American Culture, seemed
to be a natural lead-in to studying same-sex marriages.
"In my study of lesbian mothers, I found what seemed at first to
be curious combinations of rebellious and conventional impulses,"
Lewin said. "While the women I interviewed rejected the notion that
being lesbian meant they couldn't be mothers, they also tended to assume
the existence of a natural connection between womanhood and motherhood.
By insisting upon their right to be mothers, these lesbian women also demanded
access to what they understood to be a uniquely female cluster of virtues."
"Similarly, my research into commitment ceremonies revealed ways
in which the desire for marriage reflected a yearning for the ordinary
pleasures of home and family, even as doing so demanded opposition to what
are commonly understood to be 'family values,' " she said.
Although Recognizing Ourselves focuses on the ceremonies as an
anthropological study, Lewin maintains a personal interest in the outcome
of the political and legal challenges to same-sex marriages. She said that
she is sure that homosexual couples will eventually win the right to be
legally married and that future generations will view the current legal
barriers to same-sex marriages with much the same disdain as people now
view pre-Civil-Rights-era restrictions on interracial marriages.
In Iowa, the state legislature approved a bill in the last session that
was written to ensure that the state would not be required to recognize
same-sex marriages as legal unions. Governor Branstad signed the legislation
in to law in April. Despite such obstacles, Lewin said she along with thousands
of lesbian and gay couples are waiting hopefully to see what happens in
Hawaii, where the case closest to setting a legal precedent on this issue
is currently pending.
"This is going to turn out to be one of the most powerful dimensions
of the struggle for recognition of lesbian and gay relationships,"
(Editors note: Lewin will read from her book Recognizing Ourselves:
Ceremonies of Lesbian and Gay Commitment at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June
17 at Prairie Lights Bookstore. She is available for interviews and may
be reached at (319) 335-2216.)