Gay Familial Relations, Public or Private?

November 4, 2011

Political Theory


After reading Chapter 11 of Ackelsberg and Shanley’s, “Privacy, Publicity, and Power,” I began thinking about what is and should be in the public and private sectors.  Ackelsberg and Shanley discuss many issues that have been highly debated to be in either the public or private sector such as domestic violence, racial inequality, and gay and lesbian marriage.  The gay and lesbian marriage part of the chapter reminded me of an article I read in my sociology class last year titled, “A Phenomenological Study Investigation of Same-Sex Marriage.”  If you are interested at all in the issue of gay familial relations, I would recommend reading this article.  I also want to note that I will be referring to what is normally called the “gay rights” issue as the “gay familial relations” issue since “rights” implies that the issue is already public and the purpose of this post is to discuss if the issue really is public.

To give a quick summary of the article from my sociology class, the author, Kevin G. Alderson, who was affiliated with the University of Calgary in Canada, interviewed forty-three people who were either soon-to-be-married or already married to a same-sex partner.  These couples were in the U.S., Canada, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands.  The author summarizes his findings into three main categories: Individual Development, Relationships and Marriage, and History, Politics and Activism.  Within each category, there are many subcategories with specific responses from the interviewees.  This article particularly struck me because it made the issue of gay marriage more real since I got a personal understanding of what same-sex couples believe and have to endure.

I do not want to use this post as a way to discuss if gay marriage or adoption should be allowed, but instead, I would like to focus on the social construction of public and private and how it results from a power struggle.  Ackelsberg and Shanley mention that the meanings of public and private have changed throughout history, but always have kept private, the domestic realm, separate from everything else.  According to Ackelsberg and Shanley, this public-private distinction is strongly influenced by politics, which is influenced by the people currently with power.  It is in the interests of these people to maintain that power by constructing public and private to favor themselves.

Therefore, something else to take into consideration is why the issue of gay familial relations is highly debated.  One of the reasons is that some people believe that being gay is immoral and are strongly opposed to gay familial relations.  Is this a case in which one interest group, people who think being gay is immoral, wants to maintain their power and authority by bringing the gay familial relations issue into the public sector (thereby influencing the distinction between public and private)?

I would like to give a few specific examples from Alderson’s research in order to discuss the blurred line between public and private.  As you read through the two examples below, think about if the aforementioned interest group has influenced the case for this issue being public:

1. Is marriage itself a government-given right or is it a personal bond between two people?  In one sense, the government does grant the marriage licenses and can affiliate the wedding.  However, marriage itself is seen as the proclamation of a mutual love for one another.  The following participant is a U.S. citizen but the way he speaks about marriage makes it seem personal.  He said, “I know that there’s a bond there and it’s-it’s an agreement that means a lot to me, to know that that person has said, “For richer, for poorer, and through sickness and in health.”  I know that person is going to be there for me.” (page 9)

This quote shows that the way heterosexual and homosexual couples view marriage is essentially the same.  However, there are heterosexuals who think homosexuality is immoral and believe that homosexual couples should not be given the right to marriage.  If this interest group is bringing the issue to a public platform, are they contradicting their own view on marriage?

2. Is adoption of a child simply a governmental process or is it a domestic decision to form a family?  On one hand, adoption is controlled by the government, who makes it possible to adopt and recognizes the adoption in the eyes of the law.  On the other hand, the decision to adopt is a personal decision to expand your family.  As one of the interviewees stated, “Gay people can adopt as a couple, in the Netherlands, but the law is that you can’t adopt a child in a country that doesn’t accept gay adoptions.  So in that case, you have to have single-parent adoptions.”  This quote suggests that there are countries which have already made gay adoption a public issue.

Again, I would venture to say that both heterosexual and homosexual couples view adoption as a familial decision to create a family, not necessarily a government given right.  In the countries where there are laws against homosexual couples adopting, do you think that the interest group mentioned above played a role in making the issue public?  If so, is this interest group contradicting their views on forming a family?

The two cases presented above give examples of the difficulty in distinguishing a matter as only in the public realm or private realm.  If you think about the social construction of public and private, has the United States clearly put the gay familial relations issue in the public or private realm?  Do you think the issue of gay familial relations being in the public or private sector is influenced by politics or other powerful interest groups?

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