A commentary and resource on Law and Sexuality by Professor Chris Ashford and guests
I’m out in Minneapolis at the moment for the Law and Society Annual conference. It’s always a pretty big gathering of international socio-legal/law and society/law in context academics, and as long as I’ve been going since 2006), it’s had a strong gender, sexuality theme and also a pretty strong feminist strand of papers. I sadly missed the last couple of years and there’s definitely been an ‘evolution’ in dominant topics, and the way issues are explored. The conference this year is even more dominated than normal (Minneapolis 2014 oddly not as much of a pull for Brit academics as Hawaii 2012 or Boston 2013), and it’s early on in the conference programme, but you can pick up on ‘mood’. For a start, same-sex marriage continues to dominate this area. However – and I find this really interesting – rather than moving to being a more radical and/or theoretical debate, it’s morphed into a much more doctrinal discussion, very practical in focus. I sat in one feminism session and wondered where the feminism was.
The radicalism, energy and edgy activism which really enthused me at this conference in the past has largely gone. Queer is made reference to at the margins but not much beyond that. Two papers however stood out for me – and they were both in the same session. Kathy Hull (University of Minnesota) has been doing some work looking at LGBTQ community attitudes to same-sex marriage and found that whilst the majority of folks supported the right to marry, they are also overwhelmingly critical of the institution. For me, it really informs where some of the queer theory debate needs to move – ok we’ve got the institution but what does that mean? How does anyone find value and meaning in relationship recognition, and how therefore might we want to re-think this? As part of such a discussion we need – and Jill Gaulding from Gender Justice really got me thinking about this – to really focus our minds around whether we want multiple ‘boxes’ – same-sex marriage, different sex marriage, civil partnerships, civil unions etc, or one category that can mean a whole range of things. Whilst we’ve focused on creating new categories, the apparently less radical option – one box – is in reality the more radical, forcing the box to be re-constructed and cast with constantly contested boundaries. Exciting stuff.
The other paper that, and the one I loved the most so far, was from Stu Marvel (who also happens to have a super cool name). Marvel has been doing some work looking at fertility clinics and LGBTQ families, and that was kinda cool, but I was really struck by Marvel’s dilemma – the fact that she was looking at so called radical queer families and she was struck that they all seemed pretty white, and pretty privileged. I sat there thinking “yes, welcome to my take on this, and my own dilemma”. I do identify as a queer theorist but I’ve never defined myself as being of the Left (although others have viewed me that way). One of the reasons for this scholarly and political identity crisis is that I can’t associate myself with an agenda that blindly embraces privilege whilst critiquing it. Rich, white, well-educated folks talking on behalf of poor, non-white, poorly-educated folks has always jarred. The Q&A came to the view that the dilemma Marvel was facing was OK, and didn’t need to be resolved. I didn’t offer a view a t the time as I was – and still am mulling it over. I agree, recognising the problem is important, but to then ‘park’ it is unsatisfactory. We have to do more than give ourselves a pass to carry on down a path of enquiry which we’re seeking to cast as a radical re-casting of attitudes and thinking when it’s actually a jolly jaunt for a few privileges types. I am rarely impressed by academics who profess to have the answers, but I am by academics who are wrestling with trying to find the right questions. I think we’re going to hear a lot from Stu Marvel over the coming years. At least, I hope so.
So, one final thought on the conference so far. Marriage is the dominant theme go GSL scholarship as I mentioned above but I’m also struck by the growing presence of age. LGBTQ elders work has been drifting around fora few years now- more in sociology than law until recently – but I’m seeing a growing complexity around the age debate which hooks into how we view silgledom and how we view economic rights, notably in the area of pensions/welfare. I was struck by the growing desire of the State in the US to recognise certain relationships which have not formally been entered into, when it comes to reducing welfare. So, two folks live together, and suddenly they find it’s a factor in reducing someone’s welfare cheque or someone’s alimony. In the UK, we’re having similar debates about housing (think ‘bedroom tax’) and it all comes down to how do we divide up an ever smaller cake. This economic framework appears to have become dominant and it’s subtly influencing how we view a whole stack of gender, sexuality and broader rights. I thinking joining these dots up could be one of the growing ‘fields’ over the next few years.