My Final Word on Marriage, I Promise


Well, at long last I return to Desperate Houseflies. I vaguely recall that I promised there would be a part three to the same-sex marriage series, so here it is. If I sound less than enthusiastic, I guess I was (owing to my naivety and lack of familiarity with the brainwashing techniques of Rush Limbaugh) a little disheartened by some of the comments that followed part two — mostly the ones of the “oh, come on, you know that there is an organized conspiracy in the public schools orchestrated to convert young children into the gay lifestyle by reading ‘Heather Has Two Mommies’ to them in the classroom” variety. Because no, I really don’t know that, and I don’t believe that. It never ceases to amaze me that numerically tiny and despised groups are relentlessly characterized as having enough power to “take over” the public schools, but yet groups that in many places constitute a significant and aggressive numerical majority are always downtrodden and persecuted and are consistently silenced in the classroom when they make the weakest attempts to share their views. How uncritical do you have to be to buy that?

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, back to same-sex marriage. As you may recall, installment one was an interview with Stephanie Coontz, who explained some of the changes that have occurred in the institution of marriage. In the second installment, I argued that anxiety about same-sex marriage is reflective of anxieties about changes in gender roles and accompanying issues, such as no-fault divorce, single parenthood, abortion, women’s participation in the workforce, and so on – and that what we think of as “homosexuality” is also derivative of sex and gender concepts. In this installment, I offer some thoughts about why the government declines to recognize pair relationships that do not fit within the “traditional” definition of marriage.

For purposes of the discussion, I think it is helpful to parse out the three separate issues I see in the question of government recognition of relationships beyond the male-female dyad: caretaking, sexuality, and power.

In her book The Autonomy Myth, Emory law professor Martha Fineman argues that caretaking should be publicly supported and marriage dethroned as the privileged form of family. Her argument is easy to follow. First, we are all, at some point in our lives, dependent on others. Because of this, the work of taking care of dependents is something in which the state should be vitally interested, as it is necessary to producing functioning citizens. But instead, caretaking work has been privatized, and the family is the institution that is expected to subsidize and effectuate dependent caretaking. What subsidies the government does provide are largely funneled through the marriage relationship. But if the necessary work of the family is caretaking of dependents, why are pair relationships between sexual affiliates necessary to effectuate dependent care? More importantly, why are benefits connected to caretaking provided only to those in a qualified sexual relationship, rather than to anyone who is in a caretaking relationship? A few months ago, the California Supreme Court decided a pair of cases that granted parental rights to “second parents” in same-sex relationships, one in a series of cases like this from various states. The premise: that being a primary caretaker for a child counts for something. In other words, what you do is at least as important as who you are and who you sleep with. Caretaking matters, and it deserves state recognition.

But one reason that such a simple proposition – let’s subsidize what needs subsidization and leave the rest to private contract – will be greeted with skepticism and/or hostility is our society’s troubled relationship with sexuality. It is fair to say that marriage is the only universally accepted place for the expression of sexuality in this culture. That the norms surrounding sexuality have relaxed somewhat relative to what they were fifty years ago does not change the fact that the ideal is marriage, even if behavior has drifted far from the ideal. And because our society considers sexuality and thus marriage so significant – I think agreement on this is near-universal whether one is in favor of expanding or curtailing available forums for sexual expression – marriage also tends to be the last repository of intolerant beliefs about others. To take a well-known example, laws banning interracial marriage were not found unconstitutional until 1967, and many people who are otherwise racially tolerant are against it and still feel entitled to say so in 2005. To sanction interracial marriage is to sanction interracial sexuality, which has a great deal of cultural baggage in general, and in the United States in particular. Anytime you wade into this thicket, it is fraught.

But race as an analogy to gay marriage is of limited utility – not, as some right-wingers claim, because there are not parallels to be drawn, but because race and sex are fundamentally different kinds of inequalities. I once asked a professor at my law school why it was that so many civil rights advocates seemed so indifferent to feminist issues. He said he thought it was because it was so much easier to be in favor of racial than gender equality; to be anti-racist only entailed changes made “out there” in the world, while to be a feminist required changes in the nature of one’s everyday and intimate life, “in here,” that a lot of folks were unready or unwilling to make. This brings us to the final issue brought to the fore when we talk about government recognition of other types of family relationships: power. Same-sex marriage brings into the open the “in here” challenge that, as I have tried to explain in my previous posts, is already upon us: equality of the partners in a marriage. Although I would guess that there are relatively few male-female couples who would state publicly that their relationship is hierarchical – that is, that one of them has authority over the other – the Southern Baptist Convention did not pass the “obedience” resolution in the late 1990s for nothing. Same-sex marriage implies that marital partners are equal, that neither person is “in charge.” Far-right conservatives can wrap their opposition to this up in language about the “complementarity” and separate but equal roles of the sexes as much as they like, but the fact is that this is about who has power over whom. Let us not forget that it is only relatively recently that married women obtained the right to have credit in their own names.

As Coontz said in the interview, the changes in marriage pose tremendous challenges to us as society adapts to them (and always have, as such changes are nothing new). In my view, caretaking and sexuality are both important parts of life that deserve to be taken seriously, and about which decisions should not be made lightly. But I also believe that the increasing equality of women is good for society and good for relationships. Moreover, I don’t think these two positions are at all inconsistent. So, trying to put the hierarchical genie back in the marriage bottle seems to me exactly the wrong way to go in facing the challenges before us. It is at once the seemingly simplest solution and the least likely to be achieved. Better that we take stock of the things that are really important to us and formulate our policies accordingly.

5 Responses to “My Final Word on Marriage, I Promise”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Sandi. I have never heard of the caretaker concept, but that is very interesting.

    So much going on today that I have to go – just letting you know that I appreciated your thoughts very much.

  2. Brandon Says:

    Thanks for your post. It is most thought provoking. You have certainly given this considerably more thought than I have, but I will comment with the hope of learning something of myself.

    Do I understand you correctly when you list “power” as a reason the government does not recognize same-sex relationships? The idea being that in a “traditional” marriage there exists a hierarchy which is not present in a same-sex relationship, and thus puts women at equal rolls as men, or everyone sharing the same roll. First, I think you will find a hierarchy exists in many relationships, and in many kinds of relationships. But, aside from that you seem to suggest that hierarchy in general is wrong. Is it? I would say every successful relationship relies on a hierarchy. Perhaps not in the sense that person X makes the decisions and person Y listens, but rather that person X says “I must look out for person Y and take care of them at all costs” and person Y says “Person X needs my support and love at all costs.” — A hierarchy of who is important, not who has power. A result of such thought is the impression that person X has “power” over person Y, but it is only power that one is willing to give up and the other willing to take, a.k.a. responsibility for those we care about. If in a same-sex relationship the two people feel they love one another, the hierarchy remains.

    Let’s say the hierarchy isn’t there (same-sex relationship). Why would this be a reason the government would be against it, when each person seperatly, apart from the relationship, has the same rights as everyone else in the country? I don’t see anyone’s rights changing because they are in a same-sex relationsihp, therefore there is no shift in power.

    I’ve never felt the question of same-sex marriage is one of politics. It appears to me to be more of a distraction to real and true oppression and intolerance taking place in the world. Half the world starves, children live without anyone to care for them, and Jack and John spend all of their effort to cry “foul.” Do I care about what happens to Jack and John? Yes. Yes I do. But it is the idea that Jack and John see thier sexuality as being the most important topic that saddens me.

    Let the learning begin…

  3. Sandi Says:

    Hi Brandon, I’m not sure I’ll do a great job of answering your questions, but I will do my best.

    When talking about power, I didn’t mean in a literal sense that when Congress passed DOMA in 1996, the discussion revolved around wanting to maintain a system of men having power (legally or otherwise) over women. However, marriage historically has been hierarchical in this way, and it is only very recently (since the 1970’s) that women have been nominally equal partners in their marriages. I say nominally because in a plethora of ways, women remain unequal in many marriages – because of domestic violence, or because of their lower earnings, or because they feel worthless without a man and thus functionally have fewer options than he does.

    In general, I think many men like for this to be the case and don’t want women to feel like they have options. That’s not because these men are evil, but because when people have power because of a group characteristic, they tend to want to keep it. For example, look at the reaction to desegregation of the schools – white people felt extremely threatened by the prospect of losing their power and reacted accordingly.

    Similarly, many men felt and continue to feel very threatened by the prospect of women being treated as their equals, even if they cannot articulate this. Gender ideology runs extremely deep in most cultures, including this one, and the idea of equality is upsetting to a lot of men and, frankly, a lot of women (look at Phyllis Schlafly!). And gay people flout gender ideology in a number of ways, which is profoundly distressing to people who subscribe to traditional notions of how men and women should look, talk, and behave.

    As I argued in a previous post, a lot of the hostility about women’s equality in general has gotten funneled into the anti-gay movement because gays, as a small numerical minority, are an easy target. And because people are very conflicted about women’s equality … most are nominally in favor of it, but it does make things awfully complicated because it requires structural and systemic changes to institutions that developed taking inequality for granted (i.e., the workplace).

    Systemic change is not easy and not comfortable – it displaces and confuses people, makes them unsure of the role they are supposed to play and how they are to behave. Understandably, a lot of people think, oh, things weren’t so bad before, why can’t we just go back to the way things were, this change thing is just too hard and messes everything up. But things would never have changed to begin with if they weren’t that bad before.

    I also wanted to address your question about hierarchy, particularly because I think the definition you offer is a little different from what I had in mind. What I understand you to be saying is that relationships work best when people put the other person ahead of themselves. I agree completely, but I wouldn’t call that hierarchy because both people are sacrificing relatively (if not exactly) equally. What I would call hierarchy (in a technical and limited sense) is when one person in a relationship puts the other person ahead of herself, but the other person does not reciprocate. Unfortunately, this phenomenon characterizes far too many relationships out there. In a broader way, too, ideological hierarchies that are present in the culture as a whole (i.e., white people are superior to people of color, men are superior to women, rich people are superior to poor people) interact with individual relationships to make self-fulfilling prophecies in a lot of cases.

    In both senses, I do believe that hierarchy is inherently a bad thing. Which is not to say that it is not useful – it is, or it wouldn’t be so prevalent. Because somebody has to make the decisions, right? We can’t just let everyone have a vote. Yet, again at least nominally, we live in a country where everyone is supposed to have a vote. The entire idea of democracy, in theory if not in practice, is a statement against hierarchy. If hierarchy was such an unqualified good, people would have continued to find monarchy an acceptable form of government.

    These questions are all complex, of course, and how the idea of equality applies to any particular situation may be difficult to determine. But the basic principle that each person should feel like they have basic self-determination, equal life chances to others, and respect is, in my view, very much worth striving for.

  4. Brandon Says:

    Once again you have some great insight. You’ve made me think. You did a good job answering my question.

  5. Michael Lasley Says:

    Sandi, I think this is an important way to shift the focus on this issue. I’ve not heard this perspective before, but I think it could be a productive way to discuss marriage. You do touch on one potential problem with this approach in your article — the difference between how people think about equality and how that is practiced. And then there are also differing ways of defining equality (or maybe not defining, but many of us don’t see inequalities as easily as others — I’m definitely guilty of this). And there are probably people who would argue that hierarchies are necessary (or maybe not necessary, but at least not inherently bad). I don’t want to lump all of the “traditional” marriage proponents into that category, but for the sake of argument, I would say that many would think the hierarchy is necessary. How would you discuss the issue of power with them? Apologies for not asking my questions well. I’m way tired. Hopefully they make some sense.

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