Harris Wofford's Same-Sex Marriage and the Diversity of Romance

The 90-year-old Harris Wofford - a former Democratic US senator - made headlines in April when he announced his engagement to marry Matthew Charlton, a partner 55 years his junior. Wofford was previously a widow, having being married to Clare Lindgren for 48 years until her death in 1996.

It was the same Wofford who in 2008 introduced the then-senator Barack Obama, when Obama delivered his “More Perfect Union” speech on the struggles for equality and justice in the United States - notable given that Obama would go on to preside over the nationwide legalisation of same-sex marriage as its president.

Announcing his engagement in The New York Times, Wofford explains that his relationship with Charlton, whom he met at age 70, began as a friendship that gradually deepened into a bond that they realised was love, which they made sacrosanct once they had the right to marry.

Wofford refuses to let his marriage be defined by the labelling of his sexuality: “our society seeks to label people by pinning them on the wall — straight, gay or in between. I don’t categorize myself based on the gender of those I love.” Rather than coming out as gay or bisexual, Wofford’s response on this subject is essentially ‘none of your business.’

Relative to the growth of the internet, more LGBT people - particularly the young - have begun to sexually and romantically identify with descriptors beyond the conventional “man” and “woman” and “gay, “straight” or “bisexual”. Non-binary gender identities – those outside the binary of male and female - have become more visible.

Likewise, due to the challenging of the gender binary, our conception of sexuality has also become more fluid. Those who identify with pansexuality view the gender binary as irrelevant in determining their attractions.

romance and sexuality are much more complex and variable experiences than any one-dimensional lab

Demisexuals are similar to pansexuals, only they have to have a strong romantic bond with a partner before they can experience sexual desire. Asexuals experience no or little sexual desire, but they are speaking out to remind us that they can experience romantic love as well.

This has led to the popularisation of romantic identities distinct from sexual identities, reinforcing Wofford’s point that we erroneously judge romantic relationships as interchangeable from sexual attractions.

These use the - romantic rather than - sexual prefix, which makes an accurate distinction. For example, if you’re a woman who is both homoromantic and sexually attracted to women, you’d probably identify as a lesbian. If you’re a bisexual man who primarily prefers relationships with women, you could call yourself heteroromantic. If you’re asexual and experience romance regardless of a partner’s gender, you could call yourself panromantic.

Various conservative social commentators, and transphobic feminists, have sneered at our newfound diversification of gender and sexual identities as merely faddish identity politics. But this ignores the fact that a diverse range of transgender and non-heterosexual identities have been documented for literally millennia.

For example, in Native American tradition, Two-Spirit people identity with coexisting masculine and feminine characteristics, while the Hijra people of the Indian subcontinent embrace transgender and androgynous identities that are inspired by Hindu spirituality. Modern transgender liberation has empowered indigenous peoples to reclaim ancient identities outside of the Western-defined gender binary.

The fact is that romance and sexuality are much more complex and variable experiences than any one-dimensional label. This is just as relevant to a 90-year-old widow marrying his male companion and indigenous peoples restoring their cultural identities, as it is to any Western genderfluid or pansexual millennial.

More about the author

About the author

Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.

Follow Jacob on Twitter.

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