Microperformances of Identity: Visible Same-Sex Couples and the Marriage Controversy

Washington & Lee Journal of Criminal and Social Justice, Vol. 15, No. 3, 2008

Seton Hall Public Law Research Paper No. 1416242

82 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2009

Date Written: June 15, 2009


We often think of identity as our and ours alone. But in significant measure, individual identity is produced, confirmed, and reproduced in microperformances - individual behaviors, interpretations, and small and large group social processes that are carried out and observed through specific interactions in everyday life. Attention to these ongoing processes of identity formation and reproduction can help us better to understand the same-sex marriage controversy. When same-sex couples choose to be visible, their presence challenges a number of social norms, and sometimes legal norms as well, with regard to sex, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as the status of that couple and other same-sex couples. Those norms can shift. Indeed, many of the larger dynamics of the current Kulturkampf around marriage, family, gender, and sexuality, both legal and political, reflect struggles over the management of visibility.

This Article first reviews some familiar categories that we use in thinking about marriage in contemporary United States culture - sex, gender, and sexual orientation. It then explores the idea of microperformances of identity more generally, relying on some of the work of sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman’s careful descriptions of small interpersonal interactions are linked to the possibility of social change through microperformances of identity. The Article discusses Kenji Yoshino’s reflections in his article Covering and his book Covering for their contribution to an understanding of microinteractions. It critiques Yoshino’s book, however, to the extent that it reverts to idea of authentic self, which may obscure the essentially dialogical and dialectical nature of identity.

The Article then presents three case studies in which microperformances of identity by same-sex couples are central to legal controversies. The first is the religiously authorized same-sex marriage at stake in Shahar v. Bowers, 114 F.3d 1097 (11th Cir. 1997) (en banc). The second is the ongoing controversy in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, over holding a same-sex civil union ceremony in a privately-owned but public beachfront pavilion. The third is the "conversation" strategy announced in early 2009 by the leading LGBT organizations. It encourages a certain kind of widespread visibility and interactive conversation by married same-sex couples - but not lawsuits - as the engine in moving towards more widespread social acceptance of marriage equality. Andrew Sullivan’s account of his wedding is also considered as a set of microperformances.

In its concluding section, the Article argues that the politics of same-sex marriage are not just about creating an opportunity for more authentic behavior, but are more centrally about the control of the dramaturgical, dialogical, and dialectical possibilities of microperformances of marriage. It draws on sociologist Joseph Gusfield’s concept of reflexive social movements, in which individual identity as well as legal goals are at stake, and on feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser’s concept and critique of subaltern counterpublics. It suggests that the left critique of marriage is in part a critique of the politics of microperformances. Lastly, the Article turns to some of Judith Butler’s arguments about transgressive performances of gender, which also pose the question of identity politics in terms of reification and control of microperformances. That it gives Judith Butler the last word is ironic, since she does not believe that there is one.

Keywords: same-sex marriage, marriage equality, marriage, microperformance, identity, Kulturkampf, Goffman, Yoshino, Butler, Gusfield, Shahar, Ocean Grove, conversation strategy, Andrew Sullivan, Gusfield, Fraser, visibility, Proposition 8, civil union, sexual orientation, dramaturgical

Suggested Citation

Poirier, Marc R., Microperformances of Identity: Visible Same-Sex Couples and the Marriage Controversy (June 15, 2009). Washington & Lee Journal of Criminal and Social Justice, Vol. 15, No. 3, 2008, Seton Hall Public Law Research Paper No. 1416242, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1416242

Marc R. Poirier (Contact Author)

Seton Hall Law School ( email )

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