When I saw this item posted at Slog linking to an article at Slate that seems to be expressing something I’ve been saying for a long time—that same-sex marriage is in fact a threat to “traditional” marriage—I got excited. Now, at this point, “protecting traditional marriage” has slipped into a status of euphemism for straight up bigotry. The noticeable thing about the phrase is that it was used in homobigot materials in the same way that “pro-life” is used in anti-choice materials, as a shorthand way to avoid saying outright, “We are working to deny people their basic rights.” The reason that it’s moved from being a genuine argument to a euphemism is pretty simple: Homobigots realize they can’t come out and explain what “protecting traditional marriage” means. To the non-crazy, the statement reads as if you’re saying that your marriage is somehow less committed and less loving, and when you confront the homobigots with this, they’re sort of stuck because the only legitimate answer is to admit that, to the religious right, marriage is less about love and companionship than it is about social order and subjugating women.
Not to say that they don’t think love and companionship are important, because they do. But when you prize love and companionship over female subjugation and social order, then you are also forced to approve of premarital sex, homosexuality, cohabitation, reproductive rights, and even openly impermanent relationships, including young people’s. Love—erotic and friendly—gives people ideas. Men who value love over female subjugation are easily recruited as feminist allies, because their love of the women in their lives inclines them to want to see those women do well.* “Traditional” marriage is about policing love and keeping it within its place in the hierarchy. But in modern times, we define love in romantic terms to a degree that’s so popular that conservatives have to work within that framework and refuse to admit, perhaps even to themselves, that they see it otherwise.** Same-sex marriage supporters see this issue about love, and opponents see it about hierarchy, so we’re talking past each other.
Opponents see same-sex marriage as the final nail in the coffin for “traditional” marriage, and I don’t think they’re off track on that. Some proponents of same-sex marriage have declared traditional marriage dead already: Women have a right to own property and sue for divorce. Wife beating isn’t tolerated as a man’s basic right. Women can have jobs, and keep the money they earn if they want to. Women can keep their names if they want to.
And this is where I part ways with this argument, because while it’s true that women have (mostly) legal equality in marriage, socially we still construct marriage as a relationship between a man and “his” wife, and the name thing proves it. Women have a legal right to keep their own names, but practically speaking most women don’t enjoy that right—most women don’t keep their names, and it’s in no small part because it never really seemed like an option open to them, in no small part because most men get a bug up their ass about it. But it’s not just the name thing. Women clean more, cook more, engage in more child care, and earn less (though finally women’s income is seen as bread-winning instead of just pin money). Which brings me to what I liked about Richard Thompson Ford’s article in Slate:
fter all, traditional marriage isn’t just analogous to sex discrimination—it is sex discrimination: Only men may marry women, and only women may marry men. Same-sex marriage would transform an institution that currently defines two distinctive sex roles—husband and wife—by replacing those different halves with one sex-neutral role—spouse. Sure, we could call two married men “husbands” and two married women “wives,” but the specific role for each sex that now defines marriage would be lost.
I think that for people who understand what “protecting traditional marriage” means, this is absolutely true. They correctly perceive that the law is far ahead of society in regards to women’s rights, and suspect that a massive redefinition of “marriage” would clue more people into the fact that marriage really is more about love and companionship now than it is about female subjugation. I’m not so sure, myself. We’re not shaking off gender roles that easily. But it’s true that same sex marriage would slowly relieve women in the same way that cohabitation has slowly relieved women. (Women who cohabit with men see their male partners share a little more housework, though women still do most of it, for instance. Cohabitation makes keeping your own name a lot easier of a sell, too, because marriage is a smaller deal, giving men less leverage in the fight when you move from cohabiting to marrying.) This is where I break with Ford:
Widespread opposition to same-sex marriage might reflect a desire to hang on to these distinctive sex roles rather than vicious anti-gay bigotry. By wistfully invoking the analogy to racism, same-sex marriage proponents risk misreading a large (and potentially movable) group of voters who care about sex difference more than about sexual orientation.
His evidence is that said people are willing to extend domestic partnership benefits to gay people. I don’t think you can separate gender anxiety (which he rightfully realizes is what’s driving the opposition) from bigotry—bigotry is what anxious people cling to. Gender anxious people lash out against gay people, against young women who don’t hate themselves for being sexual, against “bitchy” women like Hillary Clinton, and against men who like pink or show tunes. This is all bigotry. It’s true that there’s different levels of bigotry. One bigot might march around with a “Gays=Pervert” sign. and another might think that’s crass, and loves watching porn of women getting it on but feels uncomfortable when he comes across a real life lesbian who dresses butch. That’s why reaching for analogies to racism is so apt, even though he’s 100% right that this is sex discrimination. Because racism, and all the levels of it, is a form of bigotry people really understand. We understand the difference between a white supremacist and someone who just tenses up when a group of black kids gets on the subway. It’s applicable in this case. Some bigots just want to ban gays from the planet, and others just want them to be second class. The latter group can be appealed to by making them feel bad about being bigots.
Civil rights law reflects this ambivalence about sex difference. While constitutional law applies “strict scrutiny” to racial distinctions and federal employment law condemns race discrimination in almost all its forms, there’s no such comprehensiveness with respect to sex. Sex discrimination is not subject to the same exacting scrutiny as race discrimination under constitutional law, and federal employment law allows many types of it. For instance, courts have routinely upheld workplace rules that enforce sex-specific dress and grooming norms against legal challenge. Employers lawfully can require women to wear makeup and feminine attire and prohibit men from wearing jewelry and long hair.
He’s right about this, and this is why it’s smart of gay rights activists to allude to struggles for racial equality more than gender equality. If people are ambivalent about gender equality, then that’s not a very good cause to hitch yours to, from a practical standpoint. And really, gender and race bigotry aren’t all that different at their base. They play out differently, and intersect in ever-complicated ways, but both are rooted in a belief that certain groups of people are inherently inferior and should be relegated to service roles because of it. Plus, racial discrimination has a direct analogy for the gay marriage movement, which is the old ban on interracial marriage. That sort of direct analogy shouldn’t be abandoned as a rhetorical tactic. It keeps people focused, for one thing.
By contrast, they can’t have one set of grooming rules for white employees and another one for black employees. Civil rights laws explicitly allow employers to defend a claim of sex discrimination by arguing that male or female sex is itself a job requirement—say, for prison guards who do strip searches or for restroom attendants. By contrast, as a matter of federal law, no job can be the exclusive province of white people, or black people, or Asians or Latinos.
He’s too sanguine about institutionalized racism. It’s true that you can’t have different grooming rules—but racists don’t even try. They have a single grooming rule that tends to favor white people over black people. For instance, a lot of workplaces have a list of acceptable hairstyles that are natural for most white people, but are a pain in the ass for most black people. That’s “one standard”, and it’s a racist one. A lot of sex discrimination works the same way, holding men and women to the same standard that’s defined around men’s bodies and men’s lives.
The model of bigotry instead of gender anxiety might seem a little off if you think about it analytically, but as a rhetorical strategy, it’s killer. On a person-to-person level, hostility to gay rights is a form of bigotry that emotionally resembles racist bigotry. There’s discomfort around the targeted people that can be relieved through exposure. There’s segregation that minimizes that exposure. There’s an obsession with defining what makes someone a member of the oppressed class. There’s legal maneuvering to keep the targeted group in a second class position. It makes a lot of sense, and I think it’s working. The proponents of Prop 8 nearly lost, and were only able to scratch out a win by blatantly lying to the public, claiming that religious freedom was the real issue, not gay rights. Next go-round, they’ll probably have to argue that the law will mean that straight people will be forced to have gay sex in order to scratch out the 51% they need.
*Research has borne this out—legislators with daughters are far more likely to support reproductive rights than men without. For a lot of men, a daughter is a woman you love to a degree you don’t love even your wife or your mother, so this makes sense.
**The most fascinating example of this is the mythology that runs the abstinence-only movement. Girls are told that love is a paradox—that the passion of love can only exist if you strictly police passion, that men are fickle creatures whose passions are only provoked by women who have no visible passions. It’s, like many conservative attitudes about sex, profoundly anti-male.