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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 degree.

"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," Lewin said.

(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.)