Sean Brady, Mark Seymour, eds. From Sodomy Laws to Same-Sex Marriage: International Perspectives since 1789. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. 264 pp. $114.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-02392-5.
Reviewed by Andrija Filipovic (Singidunum University, Belgrade)
Published on H-Socialisms (June, 2020)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
The book From Sodomy Laws to Same-Sex Marriage: International Perspectives since 1789, edited by Sean Brady and Mark Seymour, is the result of a conference held at Birkbeck College, University of London. It contains sixteen texts with a foreword by Michael Kirby and introduction by the editors. Essays focus primarily on countries from the global North and West. The individual studies are interesting, well argued, and of use to historians of sexuality. They cover a wide range of topics, including decriminalization of same-sex relations after the 1791 French Revolution, the future of marriage, and alternative forms of equality between heterosexuals and gender- and sexually-variant people. Essays also cover the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia, as well as the late twentieth-century issues connected with same-sex relations in Great Britain, Australia, the Republic of Ireland, the US, Spain, West Germany, and Italy. Nonetheless, there are several large gaps in this volume, and instead of discussing individual papers I will use this space to discuss them.
The first issue is the focus on global North and West. There are no texts about countries from the global South or East, other than Australia, New Zealand, and Peru. Also lacking is a discussion of central and east European countries, with their rich histories. The experience of socialism and communism led in some of them to the recognition of same-sex civil unions and marriages. Missing also is a discussion of pre-World War II sexologists and how their work shaped and still shapes the legal frameworks that are of interest to the book’s authors. There is only one essay on South America (dealing with same-sex relations in Peru), even though other Central and South American countries also legally recognize same-sex marriage today. Perhaps all this can be explained by the fact that these essays emanated from a conference, but nonetheless a few more essays would help round out the global picture the volume aimed to paint.
A second issue is the contradiction between the framework laid out in the foreword and the framework of editors’ introduction. More precisely, there is a noticeable contradiction between Michael Kirby's critique of what he terms “cultural relativism” (p. xii), and the more nuanced argumentation in the introduction by Sean Brady and Mark Seymour. Kirby writes from within the global LGBT (what he terms SOGIE—sexual orientation and gender identity and expression) human rights movement framework, which insists on transhistorical and transcultural understandings of gender and sexual identities. He also assumes a sort of teleological linear development from the erasure and repression of sexual- and gender-variant people across times and cultures to modern-day cultural and legal recognition. For Kirby, full equality is discussed as access to marriage rights and the right to adopt children.
Sean Brady and Mark Seymour offer a more nuanced approach in their introduction, “From Sodomy Laws to Same-Sex Marriage: Historical Transformation,” although one can question their assertion that “the idea that sexual acts between members of the same sex were ‘unnatural’ goes back to Antiquity” (p. 1). Nevertheless, Brady and Seymour set the volume’s essays within a broader discussion of same-sex relations ”poised between ‘nature’, religion, and state regulation” (p. 1), and the ways in which these same-sex relations are positioned within countries that changed their legal frameworks from sodomy to recognizing some form of same-sex partnership. Brady and Seymour are careful to note that this development is historically contingent and that there are often conflicts between the legal and the lived realities of same-sex relations, especially when it comes to the forms of homonormativity in countries with a long history of same-sex marriage.
In conclusion, this volume offers interesting individual historical studies, but what it lacks is a critically grounded theoretical framework. The lack of guiding critical theory leads to tacit acceptance of Western neoliberal norms under the guise of human rights (the fight for marriage equality) in which other important issues are left invisible. From the point of critical queer theory, the human rights discourse of same-sex marriage is one element among many in the overlapping systems of injustice that dehumanize queer, undocumented, poor, nonbinary, trans, and people of color, the proverbial one step forward that takes us two steps back.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-socialisms.
Andrija Filipovic. Review of Brady, Sean; Seymour, Mark, eds., From Sodomy Laws to Same-Sex Marriage: International Perspectives since 1789.
H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|