Sexual Citizenship: Marriage, the Market, and the Military

David Bell & Jon Binnie. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

The notion of ‘sexual citizenship’ has become an important way of thinking about contemporary issues in sexual politics. The return of citizenship to political and legal theory in the closing decades of the twentieth century, matched by the increased use of the discourse of citizenship in party politics and policy formulations, in part accounts for the emergence of the sexual citizen as a politically legible figure. At the same time, the move toward rights-based political and legal action by lesbian and gay groups in many liberal democracies has also led to a focus on issues of sexual citizenship (Bell and Binnie, 2000; Stychin, 1998), in line with similar agitations by other groups fighting for ‘minority rights,’ often under the banner of identity politics (Isin and Wood, 1999). However, the emergence of rights-based claims for equality based around the idea of sexual citizenship can be intensely problematic, since they inevitably raise a number of crucial questions—questions that we shall be focusing on in this chapter: is the concept of citizenship the best way to mobilize sexual politics? Who is a sexual citizen? How can we use the notion to begin to interrogate the intersections of law, politics and identity?

The background to the debates on sexual citizenship is critical work on the notion of citizenship itself. Particularly important here are feminist and postmodern revisionings of citizenship, which work to critique the universalizing tendencies of citizenship discourse and rights discourse. The first part of our chapter, therefore, introduces very briefly those elements of critical approaches to citizenship which have resonances for sexual citizenship. We follow that with a short, critical appraisal of two recent attempts to define the terrain of sexual citizenship, by Jeffrey Weeks (1999) and Diane Richardson (1998). In the light of their distinct formulations, we then move on to explore competing readings of attempts to mobilize citizenship discourse in the context of sexual politics.


The concept of citizenship has both excited and vexed political, social and cultural theorists for some time now. There have been numerous attempts to define the core components of citizenship as it is inscribed in legal, political and civil discourses, as well as critical engagements that have sought to expand existing conceptions in the wake of broad transformations in those terrains. Attempts at definition are always flawed, in that they cannot fully account for the many different ways in which the notion of citizenship is mobilized; this often renders proposed definitions either overly prescriptive or overly vague. The concept is, without a doubt, inherently ‘baggy,’ always subject to particular inflections in particular contexts. But, if we do have to settle on a working definition to guide our analysis, perhaps we should go with one provided in Engin Isin and Patricia Wood’s book Citizenship and Identity: ‘Citizenship can be described as both a set of practices (cultural, symbolic and economic) and a bundle of rights and duties (civil, political and social) that define an individual’s membership in a polity’ (Isin and Wood, 1999: 4, emphasis in original). This is a useful description, in bringing together many different domains in which citizenship is enacted. It might be better to say, however, that those practices, rights and duties which together form the substance of citizenship define an individual’s membership in a polity in both positive and negative ways: citizenship is an exclusionary concept just as much as an inclusionary one. The grounds of exclusion are many layered and often shifting in the context of specific articulations of citizenship; the boundaries of the included (citizens) and the excluded (non-citizens) are always on the move, expanding and contracting:

Citizenship … has always been a group concept-but it has never been expanded to all members of any polity. Still today, in modern democratic states there are many members who are denied the legal status of citizenship on the basis of their place of birth. Moreover, many members of polities are excluded from the scope of citizenship even if they are legally entitled to its benefits. (Isin and Wood, 1999: 20, emphasis in original).

There are, then, as Sarah Benton (1991: 154) writes, two kinds of non-citizen to be considered: ‘those who have never been admitted, and those who are exiled.’ What this exclusionary logic means, of course, is that battles around citizenship are battles to be recognized and included in the polity. Given the rights-duties coupling that citizenship invokes, fighting for inclusion often means conceding to perform certain duties or responsibilities in a barter for rights. As we shall see, this can usher in compromises that are often intensely problematic, both theoretically and politically. But before we focus on that aspect of the citizenship question, we should say a few short words about formulations of citizenship with different theoretical agendas.

The particular starting point for understandings of the modern condition of citizenship is the work of T.H. Marshall, especially his 1950 essay Citizenship and Social Class. Revisions, critiques and extensions of Marshall’s theorizing have filled many volumes (see, for example, Turner, 1990, 1993). Subsequently, three broad perspectives have emerged in citizenship theory: civic liberalism, civic republicanism (often seen as manifest in communitarianism), and radical democracy. The civic liberalist tradition in citizenship theory is most closely aligned to Marshall, with its analysis of the state’s paternal role in securing the welfare and rights of its citizens, as well as binding citizens together in sociality. Civic republicanism places more stress on obligation often mediated through ‘political participation in communal affairs’ (Ellison, 1997: 711). The nation-state is placed centre stage in civic republicanist conceptions of citizenship, as is national identity. Pluralist, feminist and post-structuralist takes on citizenship, which we can (perhaps a little untidily, even uneasily) group under the banner of radical democratic citizenship theory, have become increasingly prominent in the academy, chiming as they do with the reinvention of politics under postmodernity (Yeatman, 1994). Most commentators assert that there is something within the notion of citizenship that can further a radical democratic project, despite recuperation by ‘New Right’ politicians—mobilized in the UK, for example, around the figure of the ‘active citizen’ and in the drafting of a Citizen’s Charter, and in America through neoconservative discourses around welfare and the family (Cooper, 1993b; Roche, 1992). By adding in insights from post-structuralist and feminist theory—such as critiques of the gendered assumptions about citizenship’s location in the public sphere and its simultaneous propagation in the private sphere (especially in the family) and work on the ‘decentring’ of the subject—these approaches seek to complicate (and simultaneously re-energize) the figure of the citizen and its relation to forms of ‘identity politics.’ As Anne Phillips (1993: 87) writes: ‘[t]he value of citizenship lies in the way it restates the importance of political activity … [T]his might prove itself as a way of dealing with the politics of an extraordinary time.’ Reflecting the post-structuralist perspective, this ‘extraordinary time’ is described in Paul Clarke’s Deep Citizenship as one of transformation: ‘the world into which we are moving is fractured in multiple ways, … its meta-narratives have collapsed, … its old ideologies have fallen into disrepute and … its old certainties have been transformed into new uncertainties’ (1996: 116). That sense of fragmentation, of ‘new uncertainties,’ certainly provides one of the motor mechanisms for restating citizenship in political discourse. It also affords the opportunity to radically rethink what being a citizen is all about; shifting the boundaries, then, of a particular form of political (but not only political) identity. This raises an important question about how citizens are engaged in politics—and about what we mean by the politics of citizenship itself.

A useful critical summary of the roles available to citizens in the current polity is offered by Holloway Sparks (1997), in an essay on ‘dissident citizenship.’ Sparks argues that the political role of citizens within current citizenship theory is both limited and limiting, and suggests the need to expand our conception of citizenship to incorporate dissent which, she argues, has ‘fallen through the cracks of much mainstream citizenship theory,’ which has focused on attempts to secure rights within the public sphere of advanced capitalist market societies (Sparks, 1997: 77). This theorization advances a model of ‘participatory democracy,’ Sparks argues, that sidelines dissent as a political practice. Importantly, Sparks concludes that her revisioning of citizenship is valuable in that it suggests we must acknowledge ‘the political agency of dissidents and ‘marginals’ as the agency of ‘citizens,’ as well as broadening our ‘understanding of where political participation takes place’ (ibid.: 100-1). That these concepts have clear resonances with the kinds of politics mobilized by sexual dissidents will become clear later. With this in mind, we shall now turn our attention to attempts to mobilize the concept of citizenship specifically within the context of sexuality, offering a brief but critical reading of some recent contributions to the debate.

Sexual Citizenship

As the notion of citizenship re-emerged in political, academic and popular discourses in the 1980s—spurred on, in the UK, by the Conservative administration’s notions of active citizenship, of a Citizen’s Charter, and of emphasizing the flipsides of the equation of citizenship (rights always come with responsibilities), as well as by a brief flurry of excitement over communitarianism—so it entered the register of sexual politics. With its mobile combinations of the political, the economic, the social, the legal, and the ethical, citizenship seemed to be a neat concept for articulating the field of sexual politics generally. In a period marked by countless transformations—the controversial appearance, negotiations and disputes around queer theory and queer politics; the centralizing of the AIDS crisis in both mobilizing and allying discourses and in homophobic discourses; continuing debate over the form and status of the ‘lesbian and gay community’; varieties of ‘sex war’ recasting notions of a politics rooted in desire; the solidifying of social constructionist notions of sexuality through theories of performativity, plus the contrary re-essentializing of ‘gay’ identity through biomedical researches; the intensified marketization of sexualities, and so on – the field of sexual politics in its broadest sense seemed likewise to embody many of the debates activated by a focus on citizenship, with its crossing of boundaries between the public and the private, between the collective and the individual, between entitlements and duties.

Diane Richardson (1998) has attempted to survey and summarize existing insights into sexual citizenship, and we would like to here sketch her argument, as well as that made by Jeffrey Weeks (1999). Both writers seek to explore how the notion of sexual citizenship is currently mobilized; Richardson’s focus shadows that of feminist critiques of citizenship discourse, by exposing the heterosexualizing of citizenship as an extension of exposing its gendering: ‘My starting point is the argument that claims to citizenship status, at least in the West, are closely associated with the institutionalization of heterosexual as well as male privilege’ (Richardson, 1998: 88). Following Marshall’s delineation of the domains of citizenship—civil, political and social—she charts inequalities faced by two groups of sexual citizens, lesbians and gay men: lack of full equal rights, lack of full political participation and representation, lack of access of welfare entitlements. While she acknowledges that lesbians and gay men are afforded certain rights—usually ‘won’ as a result of their designation as a ‘minority group’—she argues that there is a very high price to pay: sexual citizenship is heavily circumscribed and simultaneously privatized, its limits set by the coupling of tolerance with assimilation: ‘[l]esbians and gay men are granted the right to be tolerated as long as they stay within the boundaries of that tolerance, whose borders are maintained through a heterosexist public/private divide’—this means that lesbians and gay men can only be citizens if they can be ‘good’ citizens (ibid.: 89). This cost, in terms of performing ‘good’ sexual citizenship, is identified by Carl Stychin (1998) as one of the prime dangers in using citizenship as a model for advancing lesbian and gay rights claims: ‘in attempting to achieve legal victories, lesbians and gays seeking rights may embrace an ideal of “respectability”, a construction that then perpetuates a division between “good gays” and (disreputable) “bad queers”. … The latter are then excluded from the discourse of citizenship (Stychin, 1998: 200).

In addition, Richardson notes that limiting lesbians’ and gay men’s spaces of citizenship to the private has a contradictory logic to it, in that the private sphere is constructed in a heterosexualized frame, as the space of the family. This helps explain the enduring deployment of reformulations of ‘family’ in current sexual rights claims—in the notion of ‘families we choose’ and in arguments for lesbian and gay marriage and parenting: the model of the private into which sexual citizens are projected is one in which only certain articulations are conceivable. Further, as diverse cases including Bowers v. Hardwick and R. v. Brown have shown, the private is a precarious place for sexual citizens, one that is all too easily breached (on these cases, see Halley, 1994; Moran, 1995).

In terms of social citizenship, Richardson defines this in the context of the nation-state, in terms of social membership or belonging. As the growing literature on the relationship between sexuality and the nation shows, despite the imperatives of globalization and transnationalism, citizenship continues to be anchored in the nation, and the nation remains heterosexualized (Stychin, 1998). The arguments over military exclusion of sexual dissidents in the USA and UK can be seen as emblematic of the tensions between sexual and national identity, as we shall see.

Finally, Richardson signals two domains of citizenship not considered by Marshall, but which have come to be seen as central to contemporary citizenship discourses: cultural citizenship and citizenship as consumerism. The first includes struggles over represention and ‘symbolic rights’ while the second centres on the economic and commercial power of groups to ‘buy’ themselves rights and recognition. The debates on the so-called ‘pink economy’ here bring sexual citizens into the broader question of the commodification of citizenship: to what extent do our rights depend on our access to capital? Certainly in the UK, the New Right’s make-over of citizenship in the 1980s placed commercial power centrestage; this has been seized upon by some commentators as offering sexual dissidents ways to gain citizenship status that they have previously been denied. As we shall see, economic entryism into citizenship has provoked conflicting responses from commentators.

Jeffrey Weeks’ (1999) essay ‘The sexual citizen’ approaches the subject from a very different angle. Weeks’ interest is in the broader social transformations, which have created the preconditions for the figure of the sexual citizen to emerge on the landscape of citizenship.

The sexual citizen, I want to argue, could be male or female, young or old, black or white, rich or poor, straight or gay: could be anyone, in fact, but for one key characteristic. The sexual citizen exists—or, perhaps better, wants to come into being—because of the new primacy given to sexual subjectivity in the contemporary world … [T]his new personage is a harbinger of a new politics of intimacy and everyday life. (Weeks, 1999: 35)

Set against this backdrop of transformations in identity, intimacy and relationships, this ‘new personage,’ the sexual citizen, is heroized as shifting the very grounds of politics through a version of Giddens’ (1991) ‘reflexive project of the self:

The idea of sexual or intimate citizenship is simply an index of the political space that needs to be developed rather than a conclusive answer to it. But in this new world of infinite possibility, but also ever-present uncertainty, we need pioneers, voyagers, experimenters with the self and with relationships. The would-be sexual citizen, I suggest, represents that spirit of searching and of adventure. (Weeks, 1999: 48)

In this sense, the sexual citizen as Weeks conceives him or her, is a marker of transformations in the sphere of personal life, and particularly in its politicization, that have taken place in the West since the 1960s. Weeks identifies the ‘moment of citizenship’ as a claim for inclusion, arguing that this is often twinned with a ‘moment of transgression’ in sexual politics: transgressive acts, which Weeks labels ‘carniva-lesque displays’ and ‘exotic manifestations of difference,’ are equated with queer politics (with kiss-ins, mass die-ins, and so on). While such acts make visible that which has otherwise been rendered invisible, Weeks argues that it is the moment of citizenship that allows difference to find ‘a proper home’ (ibid.: 37). This seems to infer a ‘proper’ politics, too; one centred on campaigns for welfare, employment and parenting rights, equal protection in law, and domestic partnership or marriage. Here, in an echo of Stychin’s (1998) critique of sexual citizenship, transgression can only be a temporary tactic on the path to ‘good’ citizenship.

Weeks sketches the transformations that have created the possibility of the sexual citizen as threefold: the democratization of relationships, new subjectivities, and new stories. He ends with a list of issues ‘likely to be central to post millennial politics’:

  • Achieving a new settlements between men and women;
  • Elaborating new ways of fulfilling the needs for autonomy and mutual involvement that the family can no longer (if it ever could) fulfil;
  • Finding ways of dealing with the denaturalization of the sexual: the end of the heterosexual/ homosexual binary divide, the new reproductive technologies, the queering of identities;
  • Balancing the claims of different communities with constructing new common purposes, recognizing the benefits of individual choice while affirming the importance of collective endeavours;
  • Learning to live with diversity at the same time as building our common humanity. (Weeks, 1999: 49)

While Weeks is keen to stress that this is neither an agenda nor a map, his utopian projection of twenty-first-century politics clearly (while also rather vaguely) lists new domains of sexual citizenship without offering concrete proposals for the materialization of his wishes. It is almost as if merely living as a sexual citizen will inevitably bring about these further transformations. In fact, in many ways, that kind of logic steers some of the current ways in which the rights claims of sexual citizens are argued: that lesbian and gay marriage, for example, could serve to undermine, even destroy, the whole institution of marriage and all its attendant privileges. We will return to that thread of argument later in the chapter; first, we want to sketch three current ‘moments of sexual citizenship,’ and to interrogate the ways in which each inflects the form of the debate as it stands.

Sexual Citizenship and the Market

One of the principal ways in which claims to sexual citizenship are currently articulated is via the market. Specifically, the power of the ‘pink economy’ is seen as offering possibilities for citizenship through consumer muscle (Evans, 1993). Visible consumption spaces (such as gay villages) are therefore recast as spaces of citizenship. This obviously raises very real problems of social exclusion; moreover, the notion that citizenship can (or, indeed, must) be ‘bought’ has to throw into question the kinds of sexual citizenship opportunities that the market can offer.

It has become a common assumption that lesbians, and more notably gay men, are model consumers—miracle workers in the new urban service economy of post-industrial, post-Fordist western society. However, recent analytical work by economists has argued that the pink economy is nothing more than a myth. The discourses of sexual citizenship have become slotted in to this emerging debate on the political economy of sexuality, while also being inflected by the mythologizing of the pink economy—often to contradictory effect. In part, of course, this is as an extension of the broader notion that citizenship is increasingly commodified, as we have already noted. However, the particular problems that this idea raises for the sexual citizen demand further attention.

Among many commentators on ‘queer consumption’ there is a tendency either to demonize and pathologize gay men as shallow, passive consumers and as both victims and exploiters of capitalism; or to celebrate the creativity, radicality and innovatory nature of gay consumer culture:

Recently, a new stereotype has crept into the anti-homosexual literature of the right. In addition to being portrayed as immoral, disease-ridden child molesters, gay men and lesbians are now described as superwealthy, highly educated free spenders. The economic arguments that have begun to appear in the past few years are an important part of the same strategy: to split the gay community off from what might have appeared to be its natural allies in a broad, progressive civil-rights movement. (Hardisty and Gluckman, 1997: 218)

Other commentators have argued that lesbian and gay rights can in fact be conceived as commodities to be bought and sold on the open market; thus capitalism can actually secure lesbian and gay liberation. An important arm of this argument is that the visibility that economic muscle provides keeps gay communities in the limelight and makes them better able to resist marginalization: ‘The visible existence of gay and lesbian communities is an important bulwark against the tide of reaction; the economic vitality of contemporary lesbian and gay communities erodes the ability of conservatives to reconstruct the closet’ (Escoffier, 1997: 131). However, while some commentators champion the growth of the gay market, many gay consumers themselves remain unmoved, even bemused by all the targeting and niche marketing. In addition, the growth of new commercial venues (taken as a barometer of gay economic power—and of its exploitation) is not welcomed with open arms by all. The homogeneity, attitude and high price of some venues are surely nothing new to anyone on the gay scene. People are not duped by the hype surrounding new venues, but instead have a love/hate relationship towards them. People know they are being targeted and exploited, but this does not stop them using the scene just because they know that the rules of the game are rigged. While this sounds somewhat fatalistic—like admitting that citizenship is inevitably and irretrievably commodified, so we just have to live with that as a ‘market reality’—an understanding of the economic basis of sexual citizenship is essential as a counter to the reductive arguments thus far advanced either for or against gay consumer citizenship.

We need to move beyond rather simplistic discussions of why gay men (and lesbians) shop. Crucially, we need to trace the evolution of lesbian and gay consumption practices vis-à-vis the family orientation of the welfare state. The major reason that the market has provided the stage for the realization of lesbian and gay citizenship has been exclusion from the welfare state. The welfare state was constructed on the basis of a heterosexual assumption, and until very recently the welfare state sought to reproduce heterosexuality and to penalize sexual diversity. A more thorough examination of the heteronormativity of the welfare state is long overdue and must serve as a counter to the rather misleading media and academic commentary on the state of the pink economy. Indeed, as the welfare state itself becomes increasingly marketized, we need to examine the ways in which this impacts on the economics of citizenship in its broadest sense, promoting (and indeed producing) forms of social exclusion that further limit access to citizenship.

Lesbian and Gay Marriage

Assimilationist claims to the right to same-sex marriage or registered partnership have been central to current lesbian and gay rights struggles. The arguments made centre on the right to publicly recognize same-sex partnerships in law (and also, related to consumer citizenship, to reap the financial benefits of partnership). At one level, denying the right to marriage limits the citizenship claims of sexual dissidents; on the other hand, marrying into citizenship means sanctioning certain kinds of relationship at the expense of others. While the notion of lesbian and gay marriage has been argued to denaturalize marriage as a heterosexual institution, it naturalizes the stable, monogamous couple-form as the ideal-type of ‘families we choose.’

Typical of the pro-registered partnership argument is Morris Kaplan’s (1997) work on intimacy and privacy. Kaplan claims that agitation for lesbian and gay marriage asserts ‘the positive status of lesbian and gay citizenship’—they represent the ‘demands of queer families to enjoy equal social and legal status with their straight counterparts’ (Kaplan, 1997: 204). Crucially for Kaplan, lesbian and gay marriage is central to attaining full citizenship and empowerment, since it offers such recognition of the freedom of intimate association, insulated by law. As he concludes: ‘Lesbian and gay marriages, domestic partnerships, and the reconceiving of family institutions as modes of intimate association among free and equal citizens all are efforts to appropriate, extend, and transform the available possibilities’ (ibid.: 222). It might be instructive to read Kaplan’s analysis alongside a number of other considerations of lesbian and gay marriage or registered partnerships. Henning Bech’s (1992) modest but insightful ‘Report from a rotten state,’ a commentary on the Danish registered partnership law passed in 1989, for example, distils the terms of the debate by proponents and opponents of the law to show the extent to which political and legal questions get framed in particular, contextualized ways—in this case, both sides argued that their stand on the law was important to say something about Denmark (either to protect it from international ridicule, or to position it at the forefront of civilization and human rights). The limits of the Danish law reform—omitting adoption rights and the right to a church wedding—were seen by some activists to have ‘cemented the status of homosexuals as second-rate citizens,’ while also advocating a fixed model of homosexual relationships which ‘discouraged an acceptance of homosexuals in their difference and otherness’ (Bech, 1992: 136). However, Bech notes that such oppositional critique was relatively marginal to the public debate in Denmark. In a similar vein, Angelia Wilson (1995) sketches a shift in British gay politics, from the Gay Liberation Front’s revolutionary calls for the abolition of the family to present agitations based on the rhetorics of rights, justice and equality. In the USA, too, 1970s’ gay liberationists critiqued ‘the elevation of the family to ideological pre-eminence,’ arguing that one task of gay liberation must be to support ‘issues that broaden the opportunities for living outside traditional heterosexual family units’ for gays and straights alike (D’Emilio, 1992: 13). Most forcibly, John D’Emilio, writing at the start of the 1980s, urged that ‘solutions should not come in the forms of a radical version of the pro-family position,’ but rather the building of an ‘affectional community’ in which ‘the family will wane in significance’ for all members of society (ibid.: 13-14). The stark contrast between gay liberation’s utopian social project (in which gay culture leads), to the ‘pro-family’ agenda of liberal reformism (where gay culture seeks to replicate heterosexual) is truly striking. By mainstreaming sexual politics, then, the radical edge is blunted, and a ‘back-door revolution’ advocated, with things like partnership registration held as ‘tactical, practical step[s] towards greater justice’ (Tucker, 1995: 12). Such moves tread a very fine line—which many of their advocates seem aware of, yet incapable of resolving—as well as revealing tensions within the agendas of different campaigning positions.

Opening up the question of ‘lesbian and gay marriage,’ of course, can have far broader impacts, throwing light both on to the constructions of homosexuality and heterosexuality in law, and the limitations of such constructions. Dennis Allen’s (1995) discussion of the public debate on same-sex marriage in Hawaii in the light of a suit filed by two lesbian couples and one gay male couple (Baehr v. Lewin) clearly illustrates the destabilizing function of such appeals: as the Hawaii Supreme Court struggled to refine its definiton of ‘marriage’ (by linking it irrevocably to heterosexuality through the dubious logic of reproductive biologism, while also trying to sidestep sexual discrimination), it revealed ‘the logical difficulties, the internal gaps and fissures, not only in the “inevitable” linking of marriage to heterosexuality but within the very idea of heterosexuality itself’ (Allen, 1995: 617-18). By having to draw a boundary around marriage defined in relation to reproduction, it excluded involuntarily childless heterosexual couples, and its tortuous attempts to bring them in (by reference to medical technology and the potential for reproduction) and threatened to open a door for same-sex couples (who could equally use medical technologies to overcome biological barriers to reproduction). As with legal definitions of sodomy (in Bowers v. Hardwick, for example, where the Georgia law defined sodomy as oral or anal sex without explicitly demarcating the genders of participants), the pre-cariousness of the homo/hetero binary is exposed; in this case, it is heterosexuality that comes to be defined by conduct – using a rather convoluted definition of ‘natural’ (or at least naturalized), potential reproductive conduct. Such problematic defining of sexuality exposes the constructedness of all sexual categories in law.

It is this kind of exposure that advocates of registered partnerships often point towards, and the ‘broader agenda’ behind such struggles for reform; far from assimilationist, then, same-sex marriage is held as capable of undermining the most solid of social structures (‘the family’) by infiltrating it and exposing its contradictory logics. The fact that the take-up rate for registered partnerships in Denmark has been very low is thus only of secondary importance when set alongside the bigger picture of both the fact of the possibility of partnership registration for those who may want it, and the threat to marriage that registered partnerships purportedly pose.

This seems to be the currently dominant political methodology expressed in both academic and activist discourses: the ‘quest for justice’ within the broad equal rights/citizenship framework, with the suggestion that riding on the back of these claims are more troublesome ‘hidden agendas’—of challenging structural homophobia, and thereby questioning the foundational definitions of sexual citizenship. Bowers v. Hardwick, for example, challenged Georgia’s sodomy laws through the lens of the right to privacy, while also navigating an uneasy path through the relation of homosexual identity to homosexual conduct (Halley, 1994). The framing of the challenge within rights discourse, which occupies a particular and sensitive place within American law and culture, opened up the terms of the debate in more far-reaching ways, by raising questions about the immutability (or mutability) of homosexual identity (whether or not sexuality is legally analogous to ‘race,’ thus opening up its eligibility for shelter under the Equal Protection Amendment) and about the extent of overlap between ‘homosexual conduct’ and ‘homosexual identity.’ The question remains, however, of whether reducing radical activism to claims under law has a positive impact. As Nan D. Hunter (1995b: 120) says, for advocates of legal approaches, ‘the process of organising and litigating empowers and emboldens,’ while for its critics ‘the reduction of radical demands into claims of “rights under the law” perpetuates belief systems that teach that other, more transformative modes of change are impossible, unnecessary, or both.’

It is worth examining in more detail the logic of this methodology—and the argument over legal-reformist versus ‘radical’ action—through the debate on same-sex marriage, since advocates are keen to stress the subversive challenge posed by what can be read as an assimilationist strategy. As Hunter (1995c: 101) points out, the politics of the family have become ‘a newly identified zone of social combat,’ central to agitations for lesbian and gay equality and citizenship. In a sense, marriage is a useful cypher for the whole citizenship debate, since it is seen as a cohesive element of social life, straddling the public and the private, containing a mix of rights and duties, and occupying a central position in political, legal and popular discourses of radically different orientations—from the petitions for the recognition of ‘families we choose’ to campaigns for a reinstatement of ‘family values’ as the heart of Christian-democratic political and moral culture. Agitation in the USA for the rights of ‘queer families’ enable us to witness these competing discourses enacted on the political and legal stage. Like citizenship, then, marriage ‘does not exist without the power of the state … to establish, define, regulate and restrict it’ (Hunter, 1995b: 110). Hunter suggests that same-sex marriage could potentially ‘alter the fundamental concept of the particular institution of marriage,’ also sending out shockwaves that may shake the foundations of other social institutions that are presently loci of discrimination (ibid.: 112).

Part of Hunter’s argument rests with the potential of same-sex marriage to destabilize the gendered structure of marriage, fracturing discourses of dependency and authority. It serves, then, to denaturalizemarriage, to reveal its constructedness, and thereby to ‘democratize’ it. Paradoxically, however, it seems that such a move could have the function of reaffirming marriage as an institution. There are a number of strands to this counterargument. First, by further marginalizing the unmarried, it perpetuates a two-tier system in the recognition of relationship status. It also maintains the (long-term, monogamous) bonds of coupledom as the most legitimate form of lovelife-choice. It ‘liberalizes’ the institution of marriage, opening it up to those (heterosexual) people who currently oppose its inequalities, as well as comforting those married couples currently uneasy about their privileged status—again reinforcing (and relegitimizing) marriage over and above nonmarried relationships. It puts people currently ineligible to marry under increased moral and legal pressure to wed (such as homosexual couples with children). Meanwhile, it fails to address economic aspects of marriage (whether positive, such as tax breaks, or negative, in terms of welfare and dependency), nor does it address the continuing links between marital status and other forms of legal rights (next of kin status, intestate inheritance, etc.). Perhaps most significantly, it upholds the notions of a particular model of romantic love and commitment, which in many ways are more central to the meaning of marriage than (potentially) procreative coupling, at least outside of legal discourses. A focus exclusively on challenging the legal discourse around marriage, therefore, falls short of considering which aspects of popular discourse are contested or reaffirmed by such a move. Since popular discourses then spill over into political and legal process (the recent British moral panic over single mothers, for example), strategies for change need to consider the many meanings of marriage (and nonmarriage) that contribute to its social (as well as legal) status. As Katherine O’Donovan (1993: 87) rightly suggests, marriage retains such an iconic status in society that it is almost inconceivable to think outside its logics: ‘there is a kind of uniform monotony to our fates. We are destined to marry or to enter similar relationships.’ From this perspective, demanding the right to join that uniform monotony starts to look like a strange political tactic for dissident sexual citizens.

Hunter, meanwhile, reviews calls for same-sex marriage law alongside the alternative strategy of registered partnership legislation, in part examining feminist arguments around both, as well as critiquing work from critical legal studies which has focused on questioning the use of rights discourse in such mobilizations. Registered partnerships offer many practical advantages (and are not hidebound by ‘tradition’ to construct contractual obligations along marriage-like lines), but lack the status (in both a legal and cultural sense) of marriage; unless marriage is abolished altogether and replaced by a single system of partnership registration, that distinction will remain, and will carry with it ideological and moral weight.

One aspect of lesbian and gay marriage that is rarely considered in discussions is the so-called mutually beneficial arrangement—the marriage between a lesbian and a gay man for strategic reasons (often immigration status; see Stychin, 2000). While this is often portrayed as a desperate (not to mention dangerous) move, such ‘marriages of convenience’ could be seen as offering a further, more transgressive strategy. If gay men married lesbians en masse as a political act, then the status of marriage as the state-licensed public statement of romantic love and life-long commitment would be exposed and undermined. The couple could then have a claim on all the benefits of marriage, without having to bear the responsibilities, while also falling completely outside current discourses of what marriage means (oris made to mean).

The strategic claiming of the right of same-sex couples to marry also runs the risk of domesticating sexual practice, lending support to policies which seek to ‘clean up’ tabooed aspects of gay culture (principally public sex) as well as distancing ‘assimilationist’ agitation from radical activism – the moment of citizenship versus the moment of transgression. As Eva Pendleton suggests, the assimilationist agenda in American gay politics has a profoundly conservative orientation:

These boys are anxious to recoup the white, middle-class privilege that has previously been denied to openly gay men. Rather than challenge this hegemony, they will do what they can to overcome the political handicap that homosexuality has traditionally represented. The best way to do this, they argue, is to assimilate into Middle America as much as possible. (Pendleton, 1996: 375)

Such a position leads, in Pendleton’s words, to ‘asexual political activism’ (ibid.: 387); her reading of gay conservative texts such as Bruce Bawer’s (1993) A Place at the Table uncovers the erotophobia inherent in demands for same-sex marriage. Public sex is especially demonized as a political practice (in fact, its politics are erased under the trope of hedonism and irresponsibility). Bawer’s take on gay marriage, as outlined by Pendleton, is to suggest that ‘the most effective way to preserve the heterosexual nuclear family is to grant homosexuals legal rights’ (Pendleton, 1996: 385). The logic of this argument runs thus:

closeted gay men often marry and have children in order to cover up their true desires. Thus it is actually the stigmatization and secrecy of homosexuality that undermines ‘the family’; if gay couples were given equal rights, the sham marriages that eventually destroy families would no longer be necessary. The socially responsible thing for conservatives to do is eliminate the need for homosexuals to use heterosexual marriage as a means of avoiding social stigma—by advocating gay marriage. … Groups like the Christian Coalition should join with gay conservatives to advance a truly conservative, pro-family agenda for gays and straights alike. (ibid.: 385)

What this exposes is precisely the dangers which assimilationist strategies are prone to: their recuperation by conservative agendas and agenda-setters. Activism based on rights agitation—especially around issues such as partnership/marriage or the right to privacy—can serve to erase aspects of sexual citizenship founded outside the narrow bounds of ‘normalcy,’ reinstating the tension between definitions of the ‘good homosexual’ and the ‘bad homosexual.’ Pendleton is at pains to point out, however, that many radical (non-conservative) agitations also valorize monogamy as the ‘responsible’ mode of sexual citizenship in the time of AIDS. Pervasive sex-negativity can only be further enabled by demands for the right to marry, while arguments based on protecting privacy threaten to further domesticate sexual citizenship by undermining public articulations of sexual identity, such as public sex (Dangerous Bedfellows, 1996). The rush to registered partnerships, held by many as absolutely central to claims for sexual citizenship, is a strategy which must be viewed critically, for we must be aware of the kinds of citizens such a move would produce—and the kinds of non-citizens it would exclude.

Gays in the Military

Equally prominent, and equally problematic, in recent arguments about sexual rights have been the military exclusion policies in the UK and USA. Interrogating the logic of these policies affords a window into crucial aspects of the sexual citizenship debates—the relationship between acts and identities, notions of public and private, the homosocial/homosexual binary. The compromise ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ stance in the USA shows how these aspects of sexual citizenship are negotiated and contested, giving us an indication of how claims to sexual rights outside the context of the military are likely to fare in law.

The gays in the military debate in the USA can be seen to advocate passing as the only possible strategy for homosexuals serving in the forces, since any form of homosexual conduct (including coming out as an ‘admitted homosexual’—a definition used in Ben-Shalom v. Marsh) contravenes the Defense Department’s policy:

The identity/conduct distinction that advocates for gay, lesbian and bisexual rights have been so eager to assert is collapsed, in this instance through the mediating category of speech: homosexuality is articulated through speech, and speech has been summarily defined, by the courts, and by the Clinton administration, as conduct. (Currah, 1995: 66)

Even withholding homosexual identity—by passing—can, however, be used as grounds for dismissal. In fact, in Steffan v. Cheney the full force of the US Department of Defense’s homophobia apparently centred on the very act of passing:

Steffan was under a positive duty as a member of the military to come out because his gay identity was otherwise undetectable but contrary to regulations. The result of his coming out, though, was his expulsion as unfit for service. Paradoxically, however, in going public he revealed that his sexuality had not rendered him incapable of service. He demonstrated, instead, that absent a public declaration, he remained completely undetectable on the inside of what is, in the end, an institution forged with same-sex bonds. (Stychin, 1995: 94)

Steffan’s presence in the navy thus threatened to destabilize (or at least muddy) the distinction between a sanctioned homosociality and an outlawed homosexuality—a distinction actually very precariously enacted in institutions like the military. The navy’s fear, put simply, is of contagion (backed up by arguments upholding Steffan’s expulsion centred on the ‘threat’ of HIV and AIDS impacting on the ‘healthy’ military’s abilities to defend the nation). Paradoxically, then, as Carl Stychin notes:

Joseph Steffan was defined as an outsider because of his ability to pass—to reveal, through the articulation of a gay identity, that he was an insider all along. However, in assimilating the military with the nation, Steffan is further constructed, not as being an insider but as performing the role of the insider—as an espionage agent might perform a role to undermine national security. The underlying concern, then, is not simply that Steffan had successfully performed the role until his own revelation, but that his success had revealed the performativity of the military subject. (1995: 99)

What the gays in the military issue also makes clear, as Hunter points out, is the complex intertwining of privacy, equality and expression central to current forms of sexual citizenship agitation (and to its regulation):

The ban on military service by lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals … renders identical conduct such as kissing permissible or punishable based on the sexual orientation of the actor. Moreover, the ban restricts self-identifying speech with the justification that homosexual ‘conduct’ is antithetical to morale, good order and discipline. (1995a: 139)

Further, in order to prohibit the ‘public’ statement (confession or coming-out) of homosexuality by serving military personnel, the military must itself repeatedly speak the term—generating more of that ‘sex-talk’ which Davina Cooper (1993a) identifies as central to the act of making things public so as to render them private; this means constructing a ‘homosexual military subject’ in order to deny her or his existence. In Judith Butler’s (1997: 104) words, ‘[t]he regulation must conjure one who defines him or herself as a homosexual in order to make plain that no such self-definition is permissible within the military’; the definition of homosexuality must always come from outside (from the state, law, or the military), never from inside. The debate becomes about not gays in the military, but what Butler calls ‘gay speech in the military.’

The US military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ ruling, however, offers a strange opt-out clause, or ‘rebuttal presumption’—the possibility of renunciation by unchaining identity from conduct (Butler (1997: 116) writes it thus: ‘I am a homosexual and I intend not to act on my desire’), or the possibility of writing off an isolated incident of ‘homosexual conduct’ as a ‘mistake’ (an exit route also often routinely offered to politicians and other prominent public figures caught in compromising situations).

The debate in the UK has followed the path of that in the USA to a large extent, ushering in the same arguments against homosexual presence in the military: especially the threat to what Derek McGhee (1998: 206) terms the military’s ‘informal panoptic homosocial habitus.’ In addition, the phantom ‘general public,’ always to be relied on as homophobic, is introduced into the debate, on the assumption that homosexual servicemen and women would dent the armed forces’ image and reputation in the public’s eyes (crucially, in the eyes of parents whose teenage children might be thinking of signing up). The evolving situation in the UK, that of the ‘unbanning’ of homosexuality in the military, will inevitably have to negotiate these spectres and problems. We await the final outcome of the manoeuvre.

In the meantime, we need to reflect on the relationship between the gays in the military debate and the wider question of sexual citizenship. At its simplest, of course, the argument is that denying homosexuals the right to fight for their country denies them full citizenship, given the continuing durability of the relationship between the citizen and the nation-state. This obviously sidesteps the crucial question of the legitimacy of such a strategy in the context of rights agitation. In the same manner as the debate on lesbian and gay marriage, the gays in the military debate is upheld by some as having a destabilizing, radical function: opening up one of the most heteronormative state institutions to homosexuals begins the task of undermining heteronormativity itself. While there is something appealing about this line of argument, it also needs to be treated with some scepticism, as Carl Stychin notes:

I remain convinced that the struggle for the inclusion of ‘out’ gays and lesbians in the United States military, and the fight for same-sex marriage, could be discursively deployed to reimagine these central national institutions, and by extension, the ways in which the nation state has been gendered and sexualized. Although I am very sceptical as to whether activism is interested in such a project, these struggles may contain within them the potential to destabilize the construction of the nation. (1998: 198)

The framing of Stychin’s comment is important, and leads us into our concluding discussion, which concerns theory and politics.


As part of his discussion of the UK ban on gays in the armed forces, Derek McGhee takes Carl Stychin to task. In McGhee’s eyes, Stychin’s ‘deconstructive’ reading of the US military exclusion policy over-stresses ‘epistemic panic’ and discursive destabilizing at the expense of a recognition of the ‘materiality of practice’: ‘One could say, “so what?” the heterosexualised, homosocial space [of the armed forces] has been denaturalized in a Queer Legal Theorist’s article. But will this really change anything?’ (McGhee, 1998: 235). McGhee’s disquiet is symptomatic of a broader concern with the abstractions of ‘theory’ and the mismatch between ‘theory’ and ‘politics.’ This tension runs through all the modalities of sexual citizenship we have discussed in this chapter. We share McGhee’s disquiet, in that theoretical readings might seem a million miles away from the concrete realities of the experience of sexual citizens and non-citizens. Individuals losing legal cases make ‘interesting’ studies for theorists to interrogate the inner workings of the law machine, but this cannot always be more broadly productive. In the same way, the destabilizing potential offered by same-sex marriage and gays in the military might never amount to more than potential – both areas of rights agitation could equally easily shore up the institutions they are supposed to corrode.

What this suggests, we think, is not that theory cannot play its part in sexual citizenship, but that we need ways to negotiate the void between theory and the ‘materiality of practice.’ The marketization of sexual citizenship is something we need to attend to with a critical insight, for sure, but one which does not write off the ambiguities inherent in the notions of the pink economy and the lesbian and gay community (and the relations between the two). Same-sex marriage must also be handled with care, and we must stop to think about the consequences of such rights claims rather than accepting them as self-evident. And any reading of the gays in the military debate must tread a similarly careful path between the seductions of textual deconstruction and the material and social outcomes that policies can and do have (Bell and Binnie, 2000). Obviously we need theory to aid us in these interrogations, but we must not lose sight of the lives and experiences of those we theorize about. The debate on sexual citizenship in the twenty-first century is likely to return to this dilemma repeatedly—whether that debate occurs in the academy, in the mass media, in the law courts, or on the streets.