Four Anthropological Reactions to the End of DOMA

UNITED STATES - MARCH 27: Marcos German Domingues, left,  stands with rainbow flags outside the Supreme Court with hundreds o
UNITED STATES - MARCH 27: Marcos German Domingues, left, stands with rainbow flags outside the Supreme Court with hundreds of other marriage equality supporters and protesters before oral arguments in the United States v. Windsor case, which will test the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act on March 27, 2013. The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, is a 1996 federal statute defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Written by Tom Boellstorff

Two hours ago on this day -- June 25, 2013, three days shy of the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots -- the United States Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), paving the way for federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and also let stand a lower court decision invalidating California's Proposition 8 that prohibited same-sex marriage. As a gay man in a same-sex marriage, but just as importantly as a citizen of the United States and a member of the human community, I am thrilled by what this decision will mean in my own life and the lives of millions in this country and beyond. But in the interest of stepping back from the excitement of this news, allow me to offer four responses to these decisions. I term these "anthropological reactions" because they are shaped by my scholarly work as an anthropologist of sexuality and by anthropological knowledge more generally. Of course, these are my personal reactions and I do not imply that all anthropologists share them: my goal is to contribute to our collective discussion.

My first point is one anthropologists often make, but is worth repeating. A wealth of data gathered by social scientists and historians demonstrates that there have been many forms of marriage, kinship, family, and community around the world. Additionally, we know that heterosexual marriage takes many forms. Honoring and building on this diversity in no way means ignoring inequality, domestic violence, or discrimination. It means recognizing that those issues are not unique to any particular form of marriage.

My second reaction is that it is imperative anthropologists and others respond to the bittersweet nature of these decisions, for they come just one day after the Supreme Court found a key element of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. This threatens the very foundation of democracy in the United States. It undermines decades of struggle toward racial equality, including for the many people of color who are (or will be) in same-sex marriages. To the important "intersectional" work feminists of color and other scholars and activists have produced regarding how racism, sexism, homophobia, and other oppressions shape each other, we can add over a century of anthropological work demonstrating the holistic character of culture. As more recent research has shown, this does not mean assuming that cultures are sealed off from each other. Rather, it means that institutions like religion, economics, law and politics do not drop out of the sky fully formed. Rather, they are linked from the beginning, and as they change through time, they also change one another. What does this mean for changing the culture? How can you change the culture if you have to change all these things at once? The fact that all these institutions are linked opens the door to coalitions, to collaboration for better futures.

Third, both the DOMA and Proposition 8 decisions were 5-4 rulings. These deep splits in the Supreme Court reflect continuing divisions in the broader society. Obviously, heterosexism and homophobia will not disappear with these court rulings. Law is part of culture but they are not equivalent; these decisions represent not an endpoint but the opening of a door to further efforts to ensure true equality.

Finally, it is important to anticipate questions about what is "normal." Some observers have claimed that the struggle for marriage equality represents a desire for mainstream that will strengthen the value of marriage; further marginalizing people who do not wish to marry. These are important concerns, but not inevitable ones. In history, expanding marriages involving persons of different religions and racial identities did not take the politics out of religion or race; but it did change what counts as "normal." Social transformation does not always come from the outside: often the most powerful transformations come from the inside, and also from recognizing that the boundary between outside and inside is itself up for debate. Let us see these rulings as an invitation to continue a conversation and a political struggle, as reflecting the immeasurable labor of so many advocates for equality, and as a reminder of how much remains to be done.

Tom Boellstorff is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and from 2007-2012 was Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association. His research interests include contemporary Indonesian society and digital culture. His books include The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia (2005), A Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia (2007), Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (2008), and with Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T.L. Taylor, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: a Handbook of Method (2012).