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(p. 402) Exploring the Polysemy of Voice and Silence: (Not) Talking About Divorce After the US Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage 

(p. 402) Exploring the Polysemy of Voice and Silence: (Not) Talking About Divorce After the US Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage
(p. 402) Exploring the Polysemy of Voice and Silence: (Not) Talking About Divorce After the US Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage

Gust A. Yep

, Rebecca N. Gigi

, and Briana E. Avila

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Subscriber: null; date: 16 January 2019

One of the main protections that comes with marriage is divorce—a system of rules and a mechanism for helping people through a very challenging life passage, during which many do not really behave well. So divorce is not perfect either. There are certainly many horror stories. Overall, it is better than just leaving the weaker party completely vulnerable and possibly exploited. So when same-sex couples enter into marriage . . . , one of the things made possible is some kind of mechanism for setting expectations, helping the rules become clearer, ideally protecting the weaker party, and achieving some degree of fairness through the mechanism of dissolution. So that comes with the package.

evan wolfson (2009, p. 201, our emphasis)

Acknowledging the complexities of same-sex divorce—as a set of regulations governed and enforced by the state, a social system that potentially protects the weaker party, a cultural set of guidelines about appropriate expectations and behaviors, and an affectively charged life event for the individuals involved—Wolfson (2009) points out the obvious: Divorce is part of the package of marriage. A central question is, after marriage became a legal, social, cultural, and affective reality for same-sex couples in the United States, what are the meanings of same-sex divorce? Indeed, such meanings are polysemous, that is, multiple and open to various and diverse significations. More specifically, what are the meanings derived from the ways divorce is talked about (voice) and not talked about (silence) in mainstream US lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities?1 This chapter examines these questions by analyzing how a dominant figure in the same-sex marriage movement spoke about divorce, and exploring the silences about the topic in LGBT communities against a historical backdrop of anti-LGBT stigma, violence, and discrimination.2 To do so, the chapter is divided into four sections: (1) presentation of a framework for rethinking voice and silence; (p. 403) (2) identification of the discourses about gay divorce that we focus on in this project, including what is spoken and not spoken; (3) analysis of how same-sex divorce is talked about (voice) and not talked about (silence); and (4) exploration of the implications of the meanings of voice and silence about same-sex divorce. Through our discussion of these topics, we find that Wolfson asserts a desire for same-sex couples to be able to access the institution of marriage without reimagining what the institution would look like for these couples and for the larger heteronormative culture. In addition, Wolfson seems to reaffirm heteronormative and patriarchal—heteropatriarchal—ideology rather than envision queer transformations of the institution of marriage and new ways of thinking about divorce. Finally, silences about same-sex divorce in LGBT communities may be related to divorce being a relatively new phenomenon in these communities, the reality of unconventional same-sex relationships that exist outside of marriage and divorce, and the creation of a hierarchy of respectability that celebrates marital unions that might make same-sex divorce unspeakable in these LGBT communities.

The Interplay Between Voice and Silence

Voice, in the forms of language, articulation, and speech, tends to be celebrated in Western cultures (Carrillo Rowe & Malhotra, 2013; Tannen & Saville-Troike, 1985; Yep & Shimanoff, 2013). As such, it has been extensively examined in research. Indeed, the field of communication, which investigates its various expressions (e.g., words that politically mobilize a group), performances (e.g., the constellation of verbal expressions and bodily activities that produce specific gender identities), and contexts (e.g., the interpersonal and mediated forms of human interaction in various environments), has primarily focused on voice (Carrillo Rowe & Malhotra, 2013; Clair, 1998; Yep & Shimanoff, 2013). Such a focus has created and maintained the hegemony of voice, producing and perpetuating a hierarchical relationship between voice and silence. This relationship endows voice with a host of positive qualities, such as activity, agency, and power, and silence with a range of negative attributes, such as passivity, oppression, and powerlessness. In short, silence has become the “constructed other” of voice (Yep & Shimanoff, 2013, p. 148).

Researchers in communication and related fields, however, have begun to interrogate this hierarchical relationship by arguing that voice and silence coexist—that is, voice and silence function and operate with and through each other—in the process of communication. Reminding us that voice and silence “create and re-create our social realities,” Clair (1998) highlights the importance of understanding and examining them simultaneously (p. 20). As voice and silence circulate and are rendered meaningful in an ongoing interplay between what is said and what is not said, they are related to each other co-constitutionally (i.e., voice and silence mutually create and shape each other) rather than hierarchically (i.e., celebration of voice as indisputable expressions of power and pathologization of silence (p. 404) as unequivocal manifestations of oppression) (Carrillo Rowe & Malhotra, 2013; Yep & Shimanoff, 2013). As such, voice and silence are complex and multidimensional. Neither is inherently, necessarily, or exclusively oppressive or liberatory; it depends on the context in which voice and/or silence circulate.

Just as voice has multiple meanings, so does silence. As indicated earlier, both are polysemous; that is, they can take on multiple and diverse meanings. To elaborate, Clair (2013), for example, notes that silence may be oppressive, resistant, and simultaneously oppressive and resistant (i.e., silence as not being allowed to speak; silence as choosing not to speak; silence as imposition and defiance); silence may be sanctuary (i.e., silence as a place of safety); silence may be purification through absence (i.e., silence as cleansing and clearing); silence may mark transition (i.e., silence as liminality or in-between-ness); silence may be restorative (i.e., silence as reconstituting and healing); silence may be liberating (i.e., silence as freeing and emancipating); silence may be light and creative (i.e., silence as emerging possibilities); and silence may be partial (i.e., silence as becoming), among many other meanings.

Focusing on the relationality between voice and silence, we turn to the discourses about divorce we examine in this project. In particular, we focus on how divorce was talked about (voice) and not talked about (silence) in mainstream LGBT communities in the United States.

Discourses About Same-Sex Divorce

Although there has been extensive coverage of same-sex marriage in US mainstream and LGBT media, little attention has been paid, at this historical moment, to same-sex marriage’s unspoken “other”—that is, same-sex divorce. However, some proponents of marriage equality did address same-sex divorce mostly before its legalization in this country.

Evan Wolfson, self-identified and widely known as “Mr. Marriage,” has made public statements about same-sex divorce. He has been an iconic figure in the marriage equality movement in LGBT communities that spans over three decades. While attending Harvard Law School, Wolfson wrote his thesis about “gay people and freedom to marry.” Later, Wolfson became the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, which has been a dominant voice in the fight for marriage equality. In 2004, Wolfson published Why Marriage Matters: America, Equity, and Gay People’s Right to Marry and was named by Time, a mainstream national magazine, one of the “most influential people in the world.” Similarly, Andrew Sullivan (2012), a prominent conservative gay activist and writer, described Wolfson as “the indispensable man in bringing marriage equality to America.” Further noting his importance, Sullivan wrote, “History will one day see him as the critical legal critic, community organizer, and strategic activist behind this movement.” Indeed, it seems difficult to consider same-sex marriage—and its “other,” same-sex divorce—in the United States without thinking about Evan Wolfson’s voice.

(p. 405) For this project, we examined, using an intersectional perspective, voice and silence about same-sex divorce in public comments, speeches, interviews, and online publications, from both before and after national legalization of same-sex marriage. An intersectional perspective focuses on “the interaction between gender, race, and other categories of difference in individual lives, social practices, institutional arrangements, and cultural ideologies and the outcomes of these interactions in terms of power” (Davis, 2008, p. 68). More specifically, we pay attention to how such social categories (e.g., gender, race, class, and so on) come together to produce identities that seem more likely to benefit from public discourses about same-sex marriage and divorce. In terms of voice, we focused on Wolfson’s public comments about same-sex divorce. In terms of silence, we concentrated on Metrosource, an online publication presenting ideas, resources, and events in US LGBT communities, and The Human Rights Campaign, a website for the Human Rights Campaign, one of the nation’s most prominent LGBT advocacy organizations, to examine how interlocutors stayed away from—indeed, remained silent about—same-sex divorce in virtual dialogues and community exchanges. We periodically monitored the comments on same-sex divorce posted on these sites for an entire year—from January 2016 to December 2016—and found no community engagement with the subject. By the end of 2016, it appeared that there was virtually complete silence surrounding same-sex divorce (i.e., no published comments on the topic were posted on these sites).

Exploration of the Meanings of Voice and Silence About Same-Sex Divorce

Focusing on Wolfson’s public statements before Obergefell v. Hodges about same-sex divorce (voice) and the largely absent discussion since Obergefell of the topic in mainstream LGBT communities (silence), we turn to the exploration of their meanings. More specifically, we analyze the ways Wolfson discussed divorce and explore the potential meanings of the silence within a larger historical context of anti-LGBT stigma, violence, and discrimination.

Wolfson’s Voice on Gay Divorce

Based on our analysis of his public statements, we found that Wolfson—like other advocates for same-sex marriage (and divorce) in the United States—used similar tactics to spread awareness that same-sex couples were (1) not being treated fairly (fairness) or (2) protected by US laws in terms of access to the legal benefits and protections conferred by marriage (protection). In terms of divorce, fairness and protection emerged as the two main themes in Wolfson’s public discourse.

Because these two themes do not mirror strict legal definitions, we conceptualize them further. Generally speaking, our analysis suggests that fairness points (p. 406) to the equal treatment in relationships in divorce law and protection refers to the privileges and responsibilities associated with divorce. Fairness and protection are interrelated. Ideally, fairness acts as the foundation for protection to exist. Without fair judicial and social representation of same-sex couples wishing to divorce, there is no platform for these couples to find justice in a cultural and legal system. In this sense, protection becomes the actualization of fairness by addressing the privileges and responsibilities in divorce.

In this section, we elaborate on these two main themes—fairness and protection. Further, our analysis suggests that fairness consists of two subthemes—equal treatment and the enactment of rules—and protection also contains two subthemes—advantages of protection and responsibilities of protection. We discuss them next.


As suggested earlier, fairness refers to recognition, access, codification, and implementation of socially just relations and arrangements. When Wolfson (2007) publicly stated, “[as] Americans debate the freedom to marry, many are getting to a place of fairness by thinking anew” (our emphasis), he was invoking the ideal of fairness in the US cultural imagination. As the politics of marriage have long favored white, upper- to middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual men in the United States (Franke, 2015), it appears that Wolfson is calling for an expanded definition of fairness to include same-sex couples. In this sense, “thinking anew” about same-sex marriage and divorce challenges the status quo at that time, namely, that marriage and divorce belong exclusively to the domain of different-sex relationships. In our analysis, fairness seems to be discussed in terms of equal treatment and enactment of rules, the two subthemes we explore next.

Equal Treatment

Based on our analysis of Wolfson’s public discourse, equal treatment, the first subtheme, refers to the creation of standards through the fundamental principle of fair relations between individuals and groups in their sociohistorical and cultural contexts. In terms of same-sex divorce, equal treatment means that same-sex couples are treated in the same ways as their different-sex counterparts in legal, political, and social spheres. This suggests that, at least in theory, same-sex couples’ right to divorce is held under the same standards as different-sex couples, which adheres to an assimilationist ideology. This ideology maintains that people in same-sex relationships should have the right to marriage and divorce, which serves as a powerful mechanism for LGBT communities to be equal to heterosexuals and to be finally accepted in mainstream America under the law (Yep, Lovaas, & Elia, 2003). In the process, it upholds the institution of marriage and divorce and leaves it unquestioned.

In 2009, Wolfson declared, “We cannot ask for full equality in our society without taking both responsibilities and protections, and I do not think most (p. 407) gay people want to avoid this.” In this public declaration, he asserts that equal treatment includes extension of the protection to same-sex couples’ rights to divorce. However, consistent with assimilationist ideology, he does not challenge the marriage and divorce systems in the United States or the resources allocated to individuals via these systems. In other words, he wants same-sex couples to be able to access the institution of marriage and divorce without reimagining what such institutions would look like for same-sex couples other than following a heteronormative script. Wolfson’s lack of more nuanced discussion regarding divorce creates specific standards that do not accurately or equitably advocate for the rights of all members of LGBT communities. In particular, Wolfson does not address who specifically, in terms of race, class, gender, and so on, might benefit from these protections and how equality might change relationships and family systems in these communities.

In addition, Wolfson’s public discourse on equal treatment also raises questions of what equality looks like for same-sex couples wishing to get divorced when the nature of their relationships may be characterized by different values, beliefs, gender roles, and expectations, among other factors, when compared to different-sex couples (Franke, 2015; see Hertz, chapter 20, in this volume; see Kim & Stein, chapter 19, in this volume). Without addressing the complexities of the nature of equality in LGBT communities, Wolfson could be creating a new norm—or a generalized standard of equality—in these populations. For example, if the standard of equality is to follow a heterosexual divorce script, what happens to gender roles and expectations for a same-sex couple seeking divorce? Will the women in a lesbian couple be forced into the roles of “husband” and “wife”—along with all their symbolic, psychological, and economic consequences—in divorce proceedings when their relationship is distinctively different from traditional heterosexual marriage? This new norm resembles, in a number of ways, Duggan’s (2003) “new homonormativity,” which refers to a set of standards in LGBT communities based on heteronormative gender performance (e.g., same-sex partners’ enactment of gender roles associated with “husband” and “wife” rather than creating their own gender expressions and expectations in marriage and divorce) and apolitical domesticity and consumption (e.g., adoption of family structures that affirm, rather than challenge, heterosexual ideology) (p. 50). In this sense, equal treatment might be viewed as reification of heteropatriarchy, that is, the subordination of female gender roles through the institution of heterosexuality (Franke, 2015; Yep, 2003).

Enactment of Rules

Our analysis suggests that enactment of rules, the second subtheme associated with fairness, refers to the practice and application of codes that enable fair relations between individuals and groups in their sociohistorical and political contexts. In order for same-sex divorces to be carried out equitably for the couples and families involved, they must be performed and executed across the country using similar standards and protocols afforded to different-sex couples and families. Structure is (p. 408) a key factor in the success of the enactment of rules as implementation of divorce law across state lines is never one-dimensional. According to Courtney G. Joslin, a professor of law at University of California at Davis, “the divorce jurisdiction rule is properly understood as relating to the court’s power over the parties or the thing that is the subject of the action; it is not a rule limiting the court’s subject matter jurisdiction” (2011, p. 1672). The court’s jurisdiction in divorce law is important to recognize here, as courts have the utmost responsibility to enact their power through abiding by agreed on legal structures and protocols. If same-sex couples seeking divorce want to be recognized legally, they must conform to the structure of the current judicial and political power systems.

Highlighting the importance of rules in same-sex divorce, Wolfson noted, “it’s a system of guidelines and rules and structure to help people through a painful passage” (Conant, 2010b). In addition to the creation of clear standards so that same-sex divorces can be carried out justly under the law, Wolfson contends that transparent and unambiguous access to the rules would benefit same-sex couples in order to set obligations and expectations of the parties involved. His comments stress the importance of structure and rules of divorce. Yet same-sex relationships have the potential to be different from different-sex relationships in terms of parental duties and roles, values and beliefs, and so on, and vary on a couple to couple basis, particularly when we pay attention to the intersections of race, class, gender, and other social locations. Thus, the fair enactment of rules and structure become further complicated (see also Hertz, chapter 20, in this volume; Kim & Stein chapter 19, in this volume; Pearson, chapter 10, in this volume). In this sense, it is unclear how the enactment of rules—and the application of historically heteropatriarchal rules—will ultimately benefit the diversity of same-sex couples (Franke, 2015).


Along with messages of fairness and equality, Wolfson highlights the legal protections for same-sex couples and families, the second main theme derived from his public discourse. Based on our analysis of such discourse, protection refers to the legal practice of ensuring fair and humane social relations between individuals, social groups, and the state. In terms of divorce and the potential for spouses to access, for example, financial protections such as spousal or child support, “until there is equality in the practice and protection under these laws across the states, same-sex married couples need to take control of their financial planning and leave as little as possible to interpretation” (Vasileff, 2015). In other words, there is an urgent need to have clear standards for protection. Although financial protection may be a concern for many couples that seek divorce, these protections focus on privileges that are unequally distributed, particularly when race, class, and gender are considered (Franke, 2015). In our analysis, protection seems to be discussed in terms of advantages and responsibilities, the two subthemes we now explore.

(p. 409) Advantages of Protection

Based on our analysis of Wolfson’s public discourse about divorce, “advantages of protection” refers to the legal practice of ensuring symbolic and material benefits and values between individuals, social groups, and the state for same-sex couples. Wolfson argues that the inclusion of benefits and financial support resulting from separation and divorce is a privilege that same-sex couples deserve to access, much like their different-sex counterparts. Ignoring such benefits from the protections of divorce can harm LGBT individuals, who may lack support, benefits, and protections in other aspects of their lives—for example, due to employment and medical discrimination (Spade, 2015).

However, the focus on advantages of protection in marriage and divorce evolved as Wolfson attempted to gain more supporters for marriage equality. In 2007, when speaking about same-sex divorce, he posed the question, “Why withhold what the one nationwide, universally understood, already existing system of protections and responsibilities would provide?” and strongly argued that such a system should apply to same-sex couples. Interestingly, Wolfson’s focus on protection (e.g., splitting assets, child custody, alimony, etc.) later shifted to familial love. Noting that the earlier messaging was “blocking [segments of the US American public] from connecting emotionally with the values of love and commitment and family,” Wolfson changed his legal arguments (e.g., protection) in favor of affective appeals (e.g., love and family) that eventually increased support for his movement (Politico, 2015). In terms of divorce, however, the focus on advantages of protection seemed to remain. For example, for same-sex divorced couples seeking child custody, “current standards of child custody are innately unable to address the needs of same-sex married couples, due to a habitual commitment and preference of different-sex couple parenting,” thus underscoring the importance of legal protection and the urgent need to change it to meet the needs of LGBT communities (Dodge, 2006, p. 88).

The advantages of protection are prominent in discussions surrounding divorce. The rights to property, pensions, and visitation, among others, are all privileges that have become increasingly important to LGBT communities (Conant, 2010a). Yet, same-sex couples cannot expect to receive such privileges without understanding the responsibilities that come with being recognized, both legally and socially, as productive, married, and assimilated members of US society.

Responsibilities of Protection

Our analysis suggests that responsibilities of protection, our second subtheme, include the personal and collective expectations and duties associated with the symbolic and material benefits between individuals, social groups, and the state. In other words, for individuals in a same-sex union to receive protection from the complexities and intricacies of divorce (e.g., financial assets, child custody), they also have responsibilities to each other that can be enforced by the state.

(p. 410) When speaking about the rules of divorce, Wolfson indicates that the responsibilities associated with marital dissolution must entail “clarity on how to end the relationship, and protect the weaker party, and divide the property and protect the kids, if there are any” (Haberman, 2004). In this public declaration, he focuses on the need for clarity of the rules but does not elaborate on their nature (e.g., content and scope of the rules). In particular, he does not discuss how intersections of race, class, and gender, and other social locations, can influence the creation and protection of the weaker party in same-sex relationships. Franke (2015), for example, noted the intersection of gender and class differences, among others, that affect same-sex divorce differently for lesbians and gay men when compared to their heterosexual counterparts (e.g., alimony). Remaining largely silent about the content and scope of protection (e.g., child custody for lesbians, alimony for gay men), Wolfson’s public discourse leaves same-sex couples on their own in the messy, complicated, and changing landscape of divorce. Further, he also misses a critical opportunity to offer ideas and principles to revise existing laws and standards to potentially create a “same but different” set of regulations for same-sex couples seeking divorce.


Our analysis of Wolfson’s voice on same-sex marriage and divorce suggests two important themes in his public discourse: that same-sex couples should be treated fairly and that they are entitled to the same legal and social protections as different-sex couples. In addition, fairness includes equal treatment and the enactment of rules, and protection consists of advantages of protection and responsibilities of protection. Fairness, protection, and the qualities associated with each mutually affect and contribute to the success of each other. Taken as a whole, these themes have the potential to transform current heteronormative conceptions of divorce. However, as we indicated earlier, much of Wolfson’s public discourse does not engage this transformative potential. In particular, he neither explores how same-sex couples could change the institution of marriage and divorce nor articulates how marriage and divorce laws could be changed to accommodate the needs and particularities of same-sex couples. To put it differently, Wolfson, perhaps inadvertently, reaffirms heteronormativity in same-sex divorce.

Silences About Same-Sex Divorce

As we noted earlier, silence is just as meaningful as voice and speech. Same-sex divorce, at this historical juncture, appears to be largely circulating in an environment of silence (i.e., it is generally not talked about in mainstream LGBT communities). Given that same-sex marriage was seen by many as a major civil rights victory that was achieved by Wolfson’s strategy of showing loving and committed LGBT families wanting to get married, divorce would seem to undermine this vision. (p. 411) Unlike presence, such as voice and speech, which can be readily analyzed and thematized, silence is more elusive and less tangible; thus, we are presenting our themes more tentatively and speculatively. By paying attention to a larger historical context of anti-LGBT stigma, violence, and discrimination, we explore, in this section, the polysemy of silence about same-sex divorce. We identify three themes that might potentially explain the silence surrounding same-sex divorce: (1) same-sex divorce is a recent phenomenon, (2) same-sex divorce may not be relevant to unconventional long-term relationships, and (3) creation of a pseudo charmed circle that suppresses the visibility of same-sex divorce.

Same-Sex Divorce Is a Recent Phenomenon

The recent attainment of marriage equality in this country might account for the silence surrounding divorce: It is simply too new. As of July 2017, there are no formal statistics about divorce rates for same-sex couples in the United States, suggesting that the legalization of same-sex marriage is still too recent for same-sex divorce to emerge in sizable numbers. According to a pre-Obergefell study done by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, “the percentage of those same-sex couples who end their legal relationship ranges from 0% to 1.8% annually, or 1.1% on average, whereas 2% of married different-sex couples divorce annually” (2011, p. 1). Same-sex divorce rates will likely increase with time as same-sex couples who choose to marry are likely going to share the same fate as married different-sex couples. Hertz (2011b) elaborates, “The percentage of couples that get divorced eventually is close to 50% but only 1% or 2% of them get divorced in any particular year.”

Same-Sex Divorce May Not Be Relevant to Unconventional Long-Term Relationships

As same-sex marriages have become more common, the question arises as to why there is so much silence about divorce in LGBT communities. Since marriage was not available to all same-sex couples across the country until very recently, many same-sex couples have strong relational histories that were—and are—not defined by the conventional ties of marriage. Indeed, within these communities “there was a feeling that LGBT people can do better than marriage, that relationships can be more egalitarian when built around untraditional families” (Buckley, 2013). These relationships are unique, and more consciously committed to being a family unit without the label and privileges associated with marriage. Increased self-reliance has also played a role in the disentanglement from the heterosexual assumption that surrounds the traditional family that historically excludes LGBT people (Weeks, Heaphy, & Donovan, 2001).

The emergence of a queerly constructed family that is tied to social practices rather than an institution, and is characterized by mutual care, more equitable division of labor, and looking after dependents, displaces the high societal value of marriage and recognizes that in such queer relationships, marriage was never the (p. 412) ultimate goal. This idea seems to echo Yep’s (2017) notion of queer relationality where “spheres of intimacy, such as closeness, deep knowing, mutual attunement, sensuality, and eroticism” are present in individual and community relationships and forms of belonging that circulate outside of the grasp of heteronormativity (p. 120). Because these unique relational arrangements exist outside of heteronormative marriage, they are not formally recognized by societal laws and are largely unintelligible outside of LGBT circles (Hertz, 2011a). As such, the people in these relationships may not be concerned about same-sex divorce, thus, contributing to the silence on the topic.

Creation of a Pseudo Charmed Circle That Suppresses the Visibility of Same-Sex Divorce

As more same-sex couples get married, a new hierarchy emerges within LGBT communities that separates and celebrates those who are now legally married from those who are not, including LGBT people who are single, those who are in relationships but do not wish to participate in the institution of marriage, and LGBT individuals who are in nonnormative relational arrangements (e.g., unmarried open relationships), among others. Married same-sex couples become more respected and respectable in the eyes of mainstream heteronormative society as they get closer to Rubin’s (2011) “charmed circle” of “good, normal, natural, and blessed sexuality” characterized by marriage (as opposed to other relational arrangements), monogamy (as opposed to multiple partners), dyadic (as opposed to triadic and other nonnormative arrangements), and vanilla sex (as opposed to kinky eroticism), among others (p. 152). To put it differently, a pseudo charmed circle has been created, centering and celebrating married same-sex couples. Social respectability, cultural endorsement, and legal protection can create and maintain a psychological and group environment that suppresses voice and visibility of same-sex divorce and encourages silence. Paying close attention to the larger historical context of anti-LGBT stigma, violence, and discrimination in this country and elsewhere, we explore two subthemes that highlight different meanings of silence related to the creation of the pseudo charmed circle discussed above. They are (1) historical affective remains and (2) neoliberal cultural affirmations.3

Historical Affective Remains?

Driven by homophobia, heteronormativity, and violence against sexual and gender minorities in various symbolic (e.g., association of homosexuality with pathology), material (e.g., hate crimes), and legal (e.g., lack of protection from discrimination) forms, LGBT culture has a long history of pain and oppression in the United States and elsewhere. Although LGBT life has improved tremendously for selective community members—especially those who are privileged in terms of race, gender, gender identity, economic status, ability, and so forth—others remain oppressed with limited life chances (Spade, 2015; Yep, Olzman, & Conkle, 2012). Collectively, LGBT communities continue to be affected by a history of trauma (p. 413) of marginalization and oppression, or in Heather Love’s words, a legacy of “injury” and “haunting” (2007, pp. 1–2). We use “historical affective remains,” the first subtheme, to refer to personal and community reservoirs and reverberations of emotional archives that influence, haunt, and drive individual and collective actions. In the context of same-sex divorce, we explore three affective archives—fear, stigma, and shame—that might encourage its silence.

Fear is a common experience in LGBT circles, ranging from the psychological (e.g., rejection from significant others) to the social (e.g., exclusion from social groups) to the legal (e.g., lack of employment discrimination protection) to the material (e.g., physical violence).4 Fear has an object dimension and a temporal component. Ahmed (2004) elaborates, “[W]hile the lived experience of fear may be unpleasant in the present, the unpleasantness of fear also relates to the future. Fear involves an anticipation of hurt and injury. Fear projects us from the present to the future” (p. 65, original emphasis). It is this anticipation of injury—such as rejection by members of one’s group or the larger heteronormative society—that might keep many people in LGBT communities silent about divorce, particularly after a long fight to secure the right to marry.

Stigma, or the strong social disapproval of an individual or group in a cultural system, is another common experience in LGBT communities. Such disapproval and ostracism are driven by an intersection of cultural normativities and “isms,” such as heteronormativity, cisgenderism, racism, classism, and so on. Although collectively experienced by sexual and gender minorities (e.g., homosexuality as a marked identity), stigma affects members of these communities differently and encourages those who are closer to the cultural norms to break ties “with all those who cannot make it—the nonwhite and the nonmonogamous, the poor and the gender deviant, the fat, the disabled, the unemployed, the infected, and a host of unmentionable others” (Love, 2007, p. 10). Since there is a popular cultural myth that sexual and gender minorities are incapable of sustaining long-lasting loving relationships, we could add divorce to the list of unmentionable others, possibly creating an environment of silence in LGBT communities.

Shame, according to Ahmed (2004), is “an intense and painful sensation that is bound up with how the self feels about itself, a self-feeling that is felt by and on the body” (p. 103). Given the history of stigma attached to sexual difference (e.g., homosexuality) and its accompanying trauma, it is not surprising that LGBT communities have a legacy of shame. Indeed, Moore (2004) argues that LGBT communities are communities of shame. Moore elaborates:

Shame defines our view of a sexual past that segued into AIDS, confirming to us our worst fears about ourselves and lending the condemnation of bigots a truthful echo. Shame motivates our forward movement as we fearfully suppress images of gay people as sexual beings, encouraging instead non-threatening roles (parent, homeowner, or campy friend) that prove “we’re just like you.” (pp. xxi–xxii)

(p. 414) To be “just like you” is to assimilate to heteronormative culture, to endorse assimilationist ideology, and to forget the creative nonheteronormative relational arrangements and queer relationalities—ideas we discussed earlier. For same-sex couples that seek divorce, it might conjure up feelings of personal failure, excessive sexuality, and inability to maintain long-term relationships. In this sense, the current silence surrounding divorce might be a manifestation of a legacy of shame.

Neoliberal Cultural Affirmations?

As certain segments of US LGBT communities enjoy new opportunities (e.g., same-sex marriage) to assimilate into mainstream heteronormative culture, some social dynamics emerge that might suppress the visibility of gay divorce and encourage silence. We use neoliberal cultural affirmations, our second subtheme, to refer to the process through which neoliberalism—as ideology, practice, and governmentality—creates, maintains, and perpetuates specific social and cultural arrangements in society. We focus on two—individual silences and homonormativity—in our exploration of the meanings of silence surrounding gay divorce.

Emerging in the United States and Great Britain, neoliberalism has become a dominant ideology (i.e., ways of thinking and doing that have been naturalized as taken-for-granted), practice (i.e., everyday activities and collective actions), and governmentality (i.e., ways of ruling) in the last three decades (Elia & Yep, 2012). Characterized by a powerful belief in the wisdom of the “free” market and individual entrepreneurship and a vigorous push for massive government deregulation, the eradication of community and “the public good,” and privatization of major social institutions (e.g., education, healthcare, prison system), neoliberalism creates the illusion of LGBT acceptance through visibility as consumers while leaving untouched, and at times strengthening, underlying oppressive structures (e.g., hierarchical notions of sexual and gender difference). For example, neoliberalism, through its aggressive pursuit of market expansion and profit, has created the “pink market” catered to sexual and gender minority consumers (e.g., LGBT travel destinations for weddings) that might perpetuate divisions and fissures (e.g., class differences) in these communities. In this sense, neoliberalism has a sexual gender and class politics (Duggan, 2003; Elia & Yep, 2012).

As neoliberalism continues to change and transform our cultural landscape, including LGBT communities, there is an increased focus on the individual under the guise of “individual freedom,” “personal choice,” and “individual responsibility.” The focus on the individual erodes connections to community, and same-sex divorce might come to be viewed as an individual failure (e.g., personal failure to sustain a relationship) rather than a community issue (e.g., gender and economic dynamics that make same-sex divorce different from their heterosexual counterpart; see Hertz, chapter 20, in this volume; Kim & Stein, chapter 19, in this volume). Franke (2015), for example, observes:

(p. 415)

Where the two men in the couple have different earning powers or assets, the less affluent spouse is declining to demand his half share at the time of divorce because it genders him as a wife to do so. He would rather leave the marriage with his masculinity intact than be turned into an ex-wife receiving alimony. (p. 213, original emphasis)

In this situation, divorce is both an individual and community issue; however, if it is solely viewed as an individual one, an environment of silence might be created.

The spread of neoliberalism in LGBT communities has created, in Duggan’s (2003) words, “the new homonormativity” (p. 50). It is characterized by a depoliticized LGBT identity based on domesticity and consumption while simultaneously upholding heteronormative assumptions and structures (e.g., gender binary, gendering one partner as “husband” and the other as “wife” in a gay male divorce proceedings). This new homonormativity creates a new hierarchy in lesbian and gay communities (e.g., married couples are more respectable than unmarried queers; married couples are more respectable than divorced ones). Coupled with the neoliberal belief that divorce is an individual issue, the new homonormativity has the potential, at this historical moment, to make same-sex divorce less visible and more silent in LGBT communities.

Implications of the Meanings of Voice and Silence

After same-sex marriage became legal in the United States, the polysemy of voices and silences surrounding same-sex divorce in mainstream LGBT communities warrants exploration. In this chapter, we examined how same-sex divorce conversations function through voice and silence by analyzing how Evan Wolfson, an iconic figure in the same-sex marriage movement, publicly spoke about divorce, and exploring the ways in which silences about same-sex divorce in LGBT communities can potentially reify the stigma, violence, and discrimination that has followed these groups for decades. Our findings suggest that both voice and silence are polysemous. In particular, two main themes—fairness and protection—emerged from our analysis of Wolfson’s public comments about gay divorce (voice) and three main themes—gay divorce as a recent phenomenon, unconventional long-term relationships may not seek divorce, and the creation of a pseudo charmed circle that suppresses the visibility of gay divorce—were explored in relationship to the silences about same-sex divorce in mainstream LGBT communities at this historical moment. We conclude by exploring some of the short- and long-term implications of these meanings.

With the onset of celebrations and feelings of both joy and uncertainty surrounding the right for same-sex couples to legally attain marriage licenses across the United States, very little talk has centered on the short-term implications for couples’ right to legally obtain divorces. Assessing the lack of conversation (p. 416) about same-sex divorce in media, it has seemingly become an “unspeakable” act during a time when most are celebrating the right to love, recognition, and protection. Positioning divorce as “unspeakable,” even in the short-term, reflects and perpetuates a time in US history when personally or collectively identifying as homosexual or associating with homosexuality was considered an unspeakable act. Speaking of divorce during a time when individuals and groups are feeling exhausted from fighting for marriage rights for decades recreates these unspeakable moments within LGBT communities, leaving couples who have been waiting for the right to divorce not only to continue to stay in the dark but also to remain silent.

Divorce as an unspeakable act therefore reinforces the charmed circle of normative relationships and places feelings of judgment and failure on those same-sex couples who wish to legally dissolve their relationships. Couples in LGBT communities that openly speak out about wanting a lawful divorce might possibly alienate themselves from their peers as most are celebrating the historic victory of same-sex marriage rights. Same-sex couples that decide to get married might be not only praised in LGBT communities but also celebrated by mainstream society for endorsing homonormativity, which adheres to and reifies heteronormative standards of living. Those who do not conform or continue to push for the right to equitable same-sex divorces are likely to be considered “failures” in the eyes of LGBT and mainstream communities. In the process, their stories might remain untold. Silence, in this situation, can reinforce those feelings of failure and alienation.

Though same-sex divorce is relatively new, it is likely to have long-term implications as well. Same-sex divorce is undoubtedly influenced by neoliberalism (e.g., the emergence of a divorce industry for LGBT people). The commodification of same-sex divorce will likely mirror the same-sex wedding industry. In 2015, for example, the wedding industry was estimated to capitalize 2.5 million dollars from same-sex marriage every year, creating an influx of wedding planners, products, and venues marketed to same-sex couples who can afford to marry (Jasthi, 2015). As same-sex marriages increase, for-profit services, such as legal assistance and psychological counseling, in the gay divorce industry are also likely to increase. Since alimony and child custody for same-sex couples have not been clearly established, the need for legal services will likely grow. Local bookstores and online marketplaces like have already begun to show signs of how profitable same-sex divorce can be, with “self-help” books and legal advising materials, written by divorce lawyers that cater specifically to LGBT audiences, steadily growing.

As Wolfson notes, “Over time, gay people will probably have the same rate of [marriage] failure as non-gay people” (Murphy, 2009). Same-sex divorce will likely challenge legal systems and rupture social norms surrounding partnership, gender roles, property, and childrearing as marriage and divorce have historically been used as tools to enforce gender roles and reinscribe social inequalities (p. 417) (Franke, 2015). Same-sex divorce will likely produce a change in all of these structures that are so deeply engrained both politically and sociohistorically, including normative notions of gender and laws that protect the “weaker party” upon marriage dissolution. Current laws are unclear regarding managing marriage dissolution in the context of same-sex partnerships. As Wolfson (2009) explains:

When same-sex couples enter into a marriage . . . one of the things made possible is some kind of mechanism for setting expectations, helping the rules become clearer . . . and achieving some degree of fairness through the mechanism of dissolution. (p. 201)

Laws and larger sociocultural discourses regarding divorce are likely to change to include same-sex couples within its already heteronormative and gender normative structures. According to, “Alimony statistics show that women make up less than 4% of people who pay spousal support.” The website notes, “Social stigma against men who seek alimony, spousal support or child support has been strong enough to keep many of them out of court, despite their legal rights.” These gendered norms and stigmas will likely change with the normalization of same-sex divorce over time (see Kim & Stein, chapter 19, in this volume).

Marriage and divorce are based on heteronormative assumptions, such as power inequality and gender difference (Franke, 2015). When they are granted to same-sex couples, there is a potential for deep cultural reformations—that is, the creation, challenge, and potential change of symbolic and material cultural constructions and institutions. As such, cultural discourses about marriage and divorce have the potential to reformulate gender dynamics (e.g., consequences of divorce for a lesbian couple are different than a heterosexual one) and potentially remap heteronormative codes (e.g., child custody in a same-sex divorce can change the ways we view gender in marriage).

Wolfson (2009) reminds us that marriage and divorce are parts of the same “package” (p. 201). As more people in LGBT communities participate in the institution of marriage, we anticipate that same-sex divorce will become increasingly visible and normalized in our social and cultural landscape, and the meanings of the ways we talk about it (voice) and do not talk about it (silence) are likely to continue to change and evolve. As a legal set of regulations governed by the state, a social system designed to potentially protect the weaker party, a cultural collection of rules about appropriate expectations and behaviors, and a memorable and affective life event for the individuals involved, same-sex divorce has the potential for deep cultural reformations and the remapping of heteronormative codes. The actualization of such potential through the proliferation of multiple meanings and discourses about same-sex divorce, however, remains to be seen.

(p. 418) Discussion Questions

  1. 1. Some same-sex couples do not feel represented in current US divorce legislation and media representations surrounding divorce. What are the implications of this lack of representation for their experiences when seeking a divorce?

  2. 2. What voices are being celebrated in the discourses surrounding same-sex divorce? What voices are being silenced? How are these voices working with, and in opposition to, each other to create these discourses?

  3. 3. In what ways has Freedom to Marry’s view on divorce shaped the way the legal system and sociocultural contexts talk about same-sex divorce? What views are left out of these narratives?

  4. 4. Are same-sex relationships intrinsically different from different-sex relationships? Should same-sex divorces be held to the same expectations and obligations that different-sex divorces face if they are indeed perceived as different?

  5. 5. How do fear, stigma, and shame perpetuate the injustices that same-sex couples face within and outside of their communities in regard to same-sex divorce?


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                              1. We are using “mainstream” to mark the more visible and dominant, and we are pluralizing the term “communities” to highlight the diversity in sexual and gender minority groups in this country. As such, we are using an intersectional approach, which maintains that sexuality cannot be understood without attending to how it simultaneously interacts with other culturally relevant vectors of identity such as race, class, gender, body, ability, and so on (Combahee River Collective, 2003; Yep, 2016).

                              Gust dedicates this essay to Olivia, whose sweetness, intelligence, athleticism, and creativity inspires me, and hope that she never loses sight of her own talents in a heteropatriarchal world; and to Yogi Enzo and Pierre Lucas, my two furry bodhisattvas, who kept me constant company, and reminded me to take occasional breaks, during the period of preparation of this essay.

                              2. Although voice, in US culture, tends to be favored over silence, we are not using “voice and silence” in our title to reaffirm this hegemony. Indeed, as we argue in the chapter, voice and silence exist and function in relation to each other (e.g., what is said and what is not said about same-sex marriage co-constitute its meanings in the cultural domain). The ordering of “voice and silence” is a product of the linearity of language.

                              3. Given the exploratory nature of the potentially illusiveness of silence, we are presenting these subthemes more tentatively—in the form of questions and possibilities rather than definitive answers.

                              4. We recognize that these domains are interconnected, but, for purposes of discussion, we are categorically separating them to highlight the vast and deleterious consequences of fear.