- Odd Couples: A History of Gay Marriage in Scandinavia by Jens Rydström
Jens Rydström’s Odd Couples explores the progression through registered partnerships and same-sex marriage in Scandinavia and chronicles a relatively respectful process of social debate. Odd Couples offers three main foci: discussions of relationship legislation within gay and lesbian movements, the [End Page 322] ways movement arguments were received by and engaged in mainstream politics, and the increasing recognition of same-sex relationships by governments. The reader learns about the process in Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. This is both a discussion of national scenes—how relationship politics have played out differently from one state to another—and an argument about regional similarities. Within any given jurisdiction, rural and urban divides are significant too. Scandinavia, Rydström reminds us, is no monolithic entity.
Odd Couples is a political rather than a social history. Its starting points are the homophile organizations of the 1940s and 1950s, and the following chapters lay out political debates and milestones. Chronologically, registered partnership was the first move—in Rydström’s words, a “benevolent society’s response to demands from gay and lesbian activists” (67)—to be followed by debates over marriage, adoption, and fertility treatment. The treatment of legislative politics is thorough and detailed. Gay and lesbian movements had success with left-wing parties in earlier years and gained a broader base of support later on. As the 1990s gave way to the early 2000s, cultures changed within conservative as well as leftist political parties. Those of both dispositions began to argue that same-sex marriage would “strengthen the family.” Readers interested in the comings and goings of political debate will find the details they require, neatly organized by chapter and heading. There is also a handy statistical chapter that analyzes the relative takeup of marriage by opposite-sex and same-sex couples.
We are asked to consider why social change was relatively rapid between the early 1990s, when same-sex partnerships could be legally registered, and 2010, by which time same-sex marriage had been widely enabled. The suggested reasons are both interesting and complex, and some may be applicable to non-Scandinavian contexts too. Weakening opposition from rural and religious groups constituted one factor, as did the rise of commercialized gay and lesbian subcultures and the general inclusivity of Scandinavian welfare states. Same-sex marriage was easy to implement and cost the state little. There were other reasons too: the presence of openly gay and lesbian politicians, even within more conservative political parties, and the impact of a “lesbian baby boom” during the 1990s. Overall, it is argued, the change of opinions “is merely an adaptation to the existing reality” (165).
Rydström highlights some interesting ironies. Sometimes the laws preceded the social changes that might have otherwise given rise to them. In Greenland, he notes, “the mere existence of the laws created a demand for the recognition of homosexuality in local communities” (124). In Norway, one administration’s antigay stance gave new life to the same-sex marriage debate. Dissent, he shows, sometimes opens spaces for productive discussion.
Rydström’s political analysis is careful and astute, and his conclusions are thought-provoking. Still, a greater social history focus would have added further texture to the study. I would like to have read more about the [End Page 323] kinship systems of gay men and lesbians in the era before same-sex marriage, as well as the ways community members signaled their romantic and social connection. There is a brief—and tantalizing—mention of the informal gay and lesbian wedding ceremonies of the 1960s, and I would love to have learned more. How did friends and lovers support one another’s relationships before various legal provisions came into effect? At one point, Rydström provides a nice account of two longtime partners persuaded to marry by their neighbors and the ceremony that took place. More of these stories would have fleshed out the topic a little...