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Gender Politics and the Same-Sex Marriage Debate in the United States

Posted: 15 Mar 2010  

Miriam Smith

York University

Date Written: Spring 2010


This paper explores policy and legal debates over same-sex marriage in the United States, focusing on the indirect effects of the struggle over same-sex marriage and how these implicate the interests of women, including women in heterosexual relationships. The paper highlights the effects of the institutional structures of American politics, which have shaped the same-sex marriage debate in particular ways, privileging an incremental path of policy evolution across the states. This has forced US state courts to engage repeatedly with the legal arguments over same-sex relationship recognition and marriage and, in doing so, courts have increasingly cast the heterosexual nuclear family as a fragile edifice in need of state protection. The paper argues that we must move beyond thinking of same-sex marriage and relationship recognition as struggles that pit allegedly normalized or assimilated same-sex couples against queer politics and sensibilities and, rather, recognize the increasingly complex gender politics of same-sex marriage and relationship recognition, a politics that implicates groups beyond the LGBT community. In doing so, the paper argues that struggles over same-sex marriage are much more than simply struggles for recognition by LGBT communities but, rather, that they are the canary in the mineshaft of broad and profound shifts in gender relations.

Suggested Citation

Smith, Miriam, Gender Politics and the Same-Sex Marriage Debate in the United States (Spring 2010). Social Politics, Vol. 17, Issue 1, pp. 1-28, 2010. Available at SSRN: or

Miriam Smith (Contact Author)

York University ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

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