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.
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.
Enjoyed this article?
Help us to fund independent journalism instead of buying:
Also in Disclaimer
The Economist has downgraded the United States from “full democracy” to “flawed democracy”. It is reason to stand up and take notice. It’s an indicator authoritarianism is gaining a foothold. Two recent U.S. court decisions precisely underline that trend. America is sleepwalking into an age where the everyday man and woman does not count.
Disclaimer rounds up some of the best reaction from the American media: Donald Trump fires his Secretary of State, looses a key seat in a special election and starts to target Robert Mueller the special counsel leading the Russian collusion allegation.
Following the government's assessment that Putin's government perpetrated a chemical weapons attack on British soil, people have demanded more evidence, What they mean is they don't like the evidence they have. They are joined by the editor of the Daily Mirror, and the Russian Embassy. Good company for Seumas Milne.
Poetry from Paul Henry
Over the last decade, Linen Press has established a reputation for passion, integrity and excellence and was shortlisted for the Pandora Women in Publishing prize in 2015. Linen Press has a history of innovation and is never afraid to push the boundaries and take a risk to share women’s voices with the world. The Red Beach Hut is a poignant novel centred on the fleeting but powerful friendship between a boy and a man, both haunted by their own demons.