Thursday, August 05, 2010

Undermining Traditional Marriage (Amen!)

cross-posted at Dagblog

A judge has overturned California’s Proposition 8 as unconstitutional, because it is, and our country has moved one more step toward making marriage a universal right. Those who want marriage rights restricted will complain that this decision “undermines traditional marriage,” and in a way they’re correct. It does. And that's a good thing.

Don't get me wrong: heterosexual marriage will be fine. No one is going to prevent opposite-sex partners from marrying or interfere in straight relationships. This is why all those complaints about "undermining marriage" sound so strange and irrational, because straight people's right to marry is in no danger and the idea that someone else's marriage can undermine one's own is clearly illogical. But when marriage restrictionists say that same-sex marriages undermine "the institution of marriage" or "traditional marriage" or "marriage," they don't actually mean heterosexual marriage. They mean a specific kind of heterosexual marriage. They mean a "traditional" marriage where both partners are required to play stereotypical gender roles. "Marriage is between a man and a woman," is a code phrase. It means, "Marriage is between a man playing the traditional masculine role and a woman playing the traditional feminine role."

The key to this code is no secret. The religious groups who campaign most ferociously for restrictions on marriage are the same groups who promote wives' "godly submission" to their husbands. Many explicitly describe marriage with terms like "dominance," "authority," and "submission," and a few will come right out with terms like "hierarchy" and even "patriarchy." They purport that such dominance and submission and hierarchy are "ordained by God." Others will say that hierarchy is part of a natural order. The more euphemistic denominations resort to "complementarianism," with genteel rhapsodies about how men and women were created equal, of course, but also "fundamentally different," with each made to fill its own "complementary" equal-but-separate role. (Translation: women get to be "equal" by doing what their husbands say. Some deal, huh?)

If that's what you mean by "traditional marriage," then it's obvious why same-sex marriages feel threatening to you. There's no way that a marriage between two men or two women can stick to the old patriarchal arrangements. Show me a marriage between two men, and I'll show you at least one husband who does the dishes. Show me a marriage between two women, and I'll show you at least one wife who makes the financial decisions. Even when a same-sex marriage happens to include one spouse who tends to dominate the partnership and a spouse who acquiesces to that dominance, those roles can't be typecast by gender. They're expressions of individual personalities, not secondary sex characteristics. And of course many marriages just dispense with the old hierarchical patterns completely, as something unnecessary and unhealthy. Every same-sex marriage is living evidence that marriage does not have to be the way the traditionalists say. The man does not have to be in charge. The woman does not need to obey. If you have that old-fashioned arrangement, you're free to do so, but that's just your preference.

That's where the "undermining" thing comes in, and the rage and the fear. Freedom to conduct their own marriages in their own way, obedient to their own beliefs, is not enough for the marriage-restriction crowd. They need the rest of us, gay or straight, to actively affirm their values and world view. Whenever we do not, it is perceived as an attack on their values. Because of course part of the ideology of "traditional" marriage is that it is the only kind of marriage that can succeed. The husband and wife are kept to their "ordained" roles, no matter how poorly they fit or how much the old patterns of submission and domination and hierarchy damage their shared lives, by the fear that nothing else will work. Religious conservatives know all too well that most people, given a choice, will decide that "traditional" patriarchal marriage is a pretty bad deal. It's obviously a rotten deal for the women, and given enough time plenty of men can figure out that they're happier and better off with a marriage that's more like an equal partnership than a deranged remnant of feudalism. So the "traditionalists" have to insist that married couples have no choices, that it's men's authority and women's submission or chaos is come again. Without their mythology, without the idea that there's only one model that works, there's no way to keep people buying what they're selling.

If the people ranting against marriage rights truly believed that same-sex marriages were unhealthy or unworkable, they wouldn't be upset by them. That would be a lovely teachable moment for their cause. ("See what happens when you disobey God's laws?") No. They're frightened and furious because deep down they know that same-sex marriages do work, and because as universal marriage rights spread more and more people in more and more places will see more and more successful marriages that don't bother with the old gender rules at all. They are terrified that people will see marriages with two happy husbands or two happy wives. Because on the day that happens, the "traditional" marriage will be revealed as one option out of many, and that option will only be attractive when it makes both partners happy. The traditionalists know that's a competition that traditional marriage can't win.

So please, my soon-to-be-married friends, undermine away. Show the whole world how well marriage works without a patriarch or a handmaiden. And please accept my thanks, from the bottom of my hetero heart, for helping the world see that truth a little more clearly. I know this struggle is about your rights and not about giving straights some opportunity to learn and grow, but the fight for universal marriage helps the straights, too, and so deserves our gratitude. Thank you for helping men who want to marry women and women who want to marry men free ourselves from those old ingrained roles just a little bit more. Thank you for bearing witness to the many kinds of marriages that can survive and thrive. Thank you for reminding us that the roles we take inside a marriage aren't about our genders but our choices. Thanks for undermining traditional marriage and bless you for it. You're doing the Lord's work.


medieval woman said...

I love this post! Just read parts of it to TD and he loves it too!!

Doctor Cleveland said...

Thanks, mw! Glad you liked it!