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social sciences

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Commitment Ceremonies  

A commitment ceremony is a couple's public declaration, through ritualized activity, of their devotion to one another. As the consecration of a union of two people that is witnessed by family and friends, commitment ceremonies are similar to weddings. However, while the commitment ceremonies of same-sex partnerships are legally recognized in some countries (Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, for example), such is not the case in most of the United States, where there is a heated struggle regarding the extension of civil marriage equality to gay men and lesbians.

Although the commitment ceremonies of same-sex couples in the United States do not yet necessarily have legal significance (except in certain jurisdictions that recognize domestic partnerships or civil union), these rituals nevertheless have deeply personal, spiritual, social, and familial meanings for their participants.

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As researcher Ellen Lewin recounts, commitment ceremonies between same-sex couples, as well as those involving partners, have a long history. This is to be expected of any glbtq subculture, regardless of geographical location, in which relationships are conceived of in kinship terms. Historian John Boswell argued, for example, that same-sex unions among early Christians in medieval Europe were officially sanctioned within a religious framework. Up through modern times in the Thai countryside, it apparently was not unusual for gender-normative males to have public ceremonies marking their relationships with kathoey, or transgendered males.

Other scholars have noted that in the United States there is much documentation for various types of commitment ceremonies between gay men and between butch/femme lesbian couples in both metropolitan and rural areas during the early part of the twentieth century.

If there is anything about commitment ceremonies that is novel to the twenty-first century, it is the vast amount of resources currently available in our consumer-oriented society to those in the glbtq community who are interested in publicly announcing and marking their partnerships. Commitment ceremonies may be small, informal affairs, celebrated in a couple's home, or large, black-tie events staged in a church, followed by a reception in a country club. They may be secular or religious, and they may use the original words of the couples or follow a liturgy that is similar to a marriage ceremony.

Politically, commitment ceremonies that take place in the glbtq community are imbued with an interesting paradox, as they may be viewed as either symbols of conformity, rebellion, or both.

On the one hand, a vital aspect of such unions is their ritualistic quality. As a formal procedure, rich in symbolism and marked by seriousness of purpose, the commitment ceremony represents a couple's dedication to shared values and beliefs about family, kinship, and community. In this sense, some might view such a formalization of a couple's relationship as a conservative, mainstreaming act, in that it follows a pattern associated with heterosexual marriage ceremonies.

Indeed, for some couples in the glbtq community, carrying out a commitment ceremony represents a form of inclusion in "conventional" society, particularly when they take place in churches, are presided over by members of the clergy, are attended by family members, and are announced in the society pages of newspapers.

On the other hand, some couples see their commitment ceremonies as subversive acts that challenge societal regulations governing who are permitted to sanctify their unions and how they may go about it. A pair may conceptualize their commitment ceremony as a theatrical rite of resistance to norms, and, use, for example, play and humor to draw attention to power imbalances regarding glbtq relationships and their regard in our society.

Because of their symbolic qualities, commitment ceremonies may thus convey multiple, contested meanings and may have different significance for the various parties involved, from the couple to the guests, from the officiant to the catering staff.

Andrew Matzner


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   Related Entries
social sciences >> Overview:  Anglicanism / Episcopal Church

The Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church in the U. S. A. is a part, has dealt with issues of sexuality in complex ways, not all of them favorable to its glbtq membership.

social sciences >> Overview:  Butch-Femme

Butch-femme identities are controversial and difficult to define with precision, but both roles subvert prescribed gender and sexual expectations; ultimately, the butch-femme dynamic is a unique way of living and loving.

social sciences >> Overview:  Civil Union

Vermont's Civil Union law conferred all the rights, benefits, and responsibilities of marriage on same-sex couples.

social sciences >> Overview:  Denmark

Denmark has a reputation for sexual liberation, tolerance, and progressive social policy in regards to glbtq issues.

social sciences >> Overview:  Domestic Partnerships

"Domestic partnership" is the generic term for a variety of forms of legal and institutional recognition of same-sex couples that fall short of same-sex marriage.

social sciences >> Overview:  Lutheranism

Lutheranism is riven into numerous denominations, which vary widely in their attitudes toward homosexuality and in their acceptance of gay men and lesbians as full participants in church life.

social sciences >> Overview:  The Netherlands

The successes of the Dutch emancipation movement have served as an inspiration to the international struggle for glbtq equality.

social sciences >> Overview:  Presbyterianism

Attitudes toward homosexuality within Presbyterianism vary greatly from denomination to denomination, though there has recently been movement toward acceptance and inclusion by the largest and most influential church bodies of Presbyterianism.

social sciences >> Overview:  Roman Catholicism

Historically, the Roman Catholic Church may be the institution most responsible for the suffering of individuals involved in same-sex sexual relationships.

social sciences >> Overview:  Same-Sex Marriage

Lesbian and gay couples have been fighting for the freedom to marry since the dawn of the modern glbtq struggle for equality; despite some success abroad, progress toward same-sex marriage in the United States has been slow.

social sciences >> Overview:  Sweden

A liberal and democratic kingdom, Sweden has a reputation for sexual openness, yet it maintains a law that punishes buyers of sex from prostitutes.

social sciences >> Overview:  Thailand

Although Thailand enjoys an international reputation for openness, acceptance, and availability in sexual matters, the realities surrounding gender and sexual diversity are complex and ambivalent.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Church of Canada

The United Church of Canada has been instrumental in the increased acceptance of glbtq rights, including same-sex marriage, in Canada.

social sciences >> Boswell, John

John Boswell was one of the late twentieth century's most influential historians of homosexuality and author of one of the first book-length histories on the subject.


Boswell, John. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. New York: Villard, 1994.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Jackson, Peter. Dear Uncle Go: Male Homosexuality in Thailand. Bangkok: Bua Luang Books, 1995.

Lewin, Ellen. Recognizing Ourselves: Ceremonies of Lesbian and Gay Commitment. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.


    Citation Information
    Author: Matzner, Andrew  
    Entry Title: Commitment Ceremonies  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated December 29, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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