Recently on Facebook some friends were passing around a quote by comedian Ellen DeGeneres who was responding to the charge that same-sex marriage will “threaten” heterosexual marriages. Ellen quipped:
I get you, Ellen, but you’re missing the larger point. Same-sex marriage does threaten “traditional” marriage.
Marriage equality is a threat to those who do not believe in equality between the sexes in general. Some who oppose marriage between two women or between two men believe that homosexuality is a sin, or that same-sex marriage harms children, or that it will lead to more divorces. But as I listened to the “protect traditional marriage” ralliers outside the U.S. Supreme Court hearings last week one unified message came through loud and clear: same-sex marriage threatens traditional marriage because it challenges ideas about proper gender roles.
Same-sex marriage makes a lie of the very foundation of traditional gender roles. Same-sex marriages say that a woman can run a household, or that a man can raise a child. This does not square with those whose lives and beliefs and relationships depend on upholding and living their lives based on differences between the sexes. Over and over on C-SPAN I hear people in 2013 arguing that both a mother and a father are needed in order to raise children — indeed, that children have a right to both a mother and a father. (And so, you see, proponents of same-sex marriage are not actually supporting the granting of rights, but rather the taking away of rights… of children. The twists in logic are mind-boggling.)
I am struck by the continual references from the traditional marriage camp to “the protection of the father” and “the tenderness of the mother.” To a view that only fathers can or should be breadwinners and only mothers can be caretakers. Traditional marriage defenders believe that a man is needed to protect and provide for a family — and a woman is needed to nurture a child. That a man/father/husband is the rightful head of the household and that a wife must submit to her husband in all things.
It’s easy to eye-roll on this one, since many of us take for granted already that there are different forms a family can take and multiple or varying roles that individuals, rather male or female, can fill within a family — from single working moms to stay-at-home dads to grandparents raising children to egalitarian marriages. But it goes deeper than that. Same-sex marriage threatens the very foundation of what it means to be a woman/wife or be a man/husband. Who is in charge? Who will submit? Who will raise the children? Who is the man and who is the woman in the relationship? These are not questions of sex or sexuality, they are questions of gender. And when it comes to gender, same-sex marriage reveals the questions themselves as flawed.
I am struck in listening to the opposition to same-sex marriage by the persistent denial that gender is a socially constructed role. This is a “traditional” view of marriage in the sense that it is grounded in “biology is destiny,” or specific roles assigned based on sex. It is an extremely narrow view of “marriage” based on specific roles assigned by sex, rather than marriage as an emotional and physical and social partnership between two individuals. Most telling, it is a view that denies that heterosexual people can be in egalitarian marriages, or should be. It is a belief in “traditional” marriage as hierarchical. Not as a true partnership of equals, but as a microcosm of society with a power structure that flows from husband to wife to children.
Therefore, opposition to marriage equality is opposition to equality.
I don’t doubt that most if not all opponents of same-sex marriage have a strong religious opposition to homosexuality itself and do not want to see the behavior sanctioned by law and society. Surely, they see the decline of civilization in the public hand-holding of Ellen and Portia. But make no mistake — this is not just an opposition to homosexuality. This is the same opposition to single mothers. The same opposition to working mothers. And the same opposition to no-fault divorce. It is the opposition to feminists harping about men doing half the housework, and men doing it. And it is the same source of opposition to reproductive rights. What does same-sex marriage have to do with reproductive rights? Everything.
An even more frightening argument against same-sex marriage that is blasting from my TV is that the state has an interest in “procreation” — i.e. who does it and under what circumstances. This argument is not simply about who can or should raise children — indeed, it was pointed out by a lawyer during the U.S. Supreme Court hearings that many states already allow gays and lesbians to adopt and foster children, not to mention that some individuals in same-sex marriages (like their heterosexual counterparts) are raising children from previous unions.
But the discussion about same-sex marriage and children goes deeper. It is about who should bear children and under what circumstances. In other words, controlling women’s reproductive behavior. We often hear the case of Loving v. Virginia (1967) — the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case undoing the ban on interracial marriage — brought up as an example or precedent for expanding civil rights when it comes to marriage. But equally as relevant to the current political climate, I would argue, is the 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that married couples could use contraception. Let me repeat that: the United States Supreme Court had to decide that a married woman could practice birth control. And if you think that decision is untouchable and safely entrenched in the history books, then you haven’t been paying attention to threats to access to not only abortion, but birth control, in recent political battles.
Make no mistake, the “traditional marriage” camp is coming from the same quarters as the continued opposition to and attacks on contraception, abortion rights, or no-fault divorce. Along with same-sex marriage, all of these things do threaten so-called “traditional” marriage because they empower individuals to make choices about their sexual and procreative lives. They threaten patriarchy, which is the real tradition here. But to supporters of “traditional” marriage, the issue of marriage itself is not about privacy or sexual freedom. Indeed, I heard a traditional marriage activist say today that marriage has “nothing to do with personal intimacy.” That might come as a shock to those of us who view our committed relationships (legally married or not) in exactly those terms.
Instead, the conservative/traditional view of marriage is grounded not in the pursuit of personal freedom or individual happiness or rights, but in gender essentialism — in the belief that the purpose of marriage is procreation and that woman’s highest role is as wife and mother. The questions in the Griswold case are the same as those in the debate about same-sex marriage today: What is the definition and meaning of marriage if it’s not about procreation? How to define the sexuality of women if not exclusively around reproduction?
Just as the Pill separated sex from reproduction, same-sex marriage threatens to finally separate gender from marriage. (This is not to say that gays and lesbians in same-sex couples do not ever take on gendered roles within their relationships, only that same-sex marriage exposes the lie that gender is directly related to biological sex.) The lawyer arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court last week admitted that “the main concern [for opponents of same-sex marriage] is redefining marriage as a genderless institution.” Let that sink in for a moment.
Opponents to same-sex marriage reject the idea that marriage should be redefined as “genderless.” Feminism has been arguing for genderless marriage — for marriage equality — for decades! Most of that focus has been on equality within marriage — in matters of housework, childrearing, and sexual satisfaction. Same-sex marriage is the next step in the struggle for marriage equality, but also in the broader struggle for gender equality. So, yeah, same-sex marriage does threaten traditional marriage. And that is why it is being resisted as vigorously as women’s rights and African American civil rights were (are) resisted. It’s not just a matter of a “right to privacy” or live and let live. We are trying to argue it as such. But it’s more foundation-shaking than that. The opposition to same-sex marriage is opposition to a half century of feminist redefinitions of and challenges to “traditional” marriage that have brought us to this historic moment. To quote Ellen one last time, “Asking who’s the ‘man’ and who’s the ‘woman’ in a same-sex relationship is like asking which chopstick is the fork.”