To those in defense of “traditional marriage,” who fear the legalization of same-sex marriage threatens that sacred institution- you may just be right. Hallelujah.
The movement for LGBTQ rights, particularly the push for the legalization of same-sex marriage, has moved at an unprecedented pace. In 2001, the Netherlands became the first nation to grant same-sex marriages. They’ve since been followed by Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, and Denmark. Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same sex-marriage, and eight states have joined Massachusetts- Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Maine, Maryland, and Washington (and of course, our District!)
And the mainstream dialogue has altered radically. While as recently as 2009, Bill O’Reilly asserted that allowing same-sex couples to marry would naturally lead to interspecies marriage, he is now on the defensive, claiming that “most of the media will not even consider the traditional point of view on marriage.” Gone are the days of self-respecting figures touting slippery slope arguments or daring to use the word “abomination” regarding the LGBTQ community (just kidding, gays are apparently a bigger threat than terrorism). Now, the strongest argument against same-sex marriage, is a defense of “traditional marriage.”
“Traditional” is one of the most ironic terms in the english language. Nothing in human society is static. There is no “traditional marriage.” Marriage has evolved and changed with every generation. So yes, same-sex marriage is threatening what our current understanding of “traditional marriage” is, and that’s a damn good thing.
Historically – “traditionally” – marriage was was little more than a business transaction in which the woman was a piece of property, something to be bartered for the profit of her father and husband. Women had few if any rights within marriage, and were controlled entirely by their husbands. Society saw wives as being little more than a live-in slave, someone to cook dinner, clean the house, and raise the children, and this image was turned into the picture of the ‘ideal’ woman. There was no concept of marrying for love; that came later on in the story as society started a push for the idealisation of marriage and the “sanctity” of the relationship between a man and a woman. The 1950’s and 60’s, for example, are filled with images of the ‘perfect’ housewife and the ‘perfect’ family – two children, a father who dutifully provides for his family, a wife who always has food on the table, is soft-spoken, and always manages to look perfectly put together, all wrapped up in a warm, fuzzy cocoon of love. Since the 1950’s, then, this picture has become society’s idea of “traditional marriage”, neverminding the fact that even during the 50s this was an idealistic, unattainable vision for the vast majority of Americans, and that this sure as hell isn’t what families and marriage looks like now. With the divorce rate at or above 50%, who can seriously tell me that the world is filled with families like the Wards (Leave it to Beaver, anyone?)?. “Traditional marriage” is a historically oppressive institution, wrapped up in layers of heteronormative, restrictive gender roles and lies. And now, with an international push for same-sex marriage, I have to ask: is this really what we want to get ourselves into?
The push for marriage equality is an important step in gaining all-around equality for the queer community, but it is important to step back and look the wider implications of what we are asking for: that the queer community wants to assimilate into the wider heterosexual, heteronormative community. The images you see of two women in white bridal gowns or two men in tuxedos about to get married play directly into heteronormative standards of life – the idea that the only way to have a functional family or to have a ‘real’ relationship is to be married. What does marriage even mean, and how does that one label suddenly make a relationship more legitimate than before? Asking for the right to be married not only says that we are willing to put aside our queer identities in order to be accepted into this oppressive institution, but also that we feel the need to ask for society’s approval, literally, their blessing, for our relationships. Conforming to these standards, even in the interest of finding legal equality for the LGBT community, is still a form of oppression as it perpetuates gender stereotypes and society’s strict definitions of what a valid relationship or family looks like. Without the freedom to explore and redefine relationships, there will always be a marginalised group, and marriage will always be an oppressive institution in some way. We are trying to fit ourselves into an institution that is broken, that does not want us, and would not know how to deal with us even if it did. As I said, gender norms are wrapped up in marriage, even in media portrayals of same-sex weddings, and so what happens when one or both does not identity as male or female? What happens to polyamorous relationships when we still keep marriage as something between only two people? In our fight for equality, to drag ourselves out of second-class status, we have become so desperate to become “just like you” that we are willing to throw the rest of the queer community under the bus. Instead of trying to fit ourselves into this broken system, we need to redefine it completely; destroy it, throw it all out the window, and start again. The focus needs to shift to gaining legal equality, not institutional acceptance, and looking at how we can change other social norms and institutions to combat oppression on all levels.
This transformation, this evolution of marriage is ideal- not just for the LGBTQ community- but for all marriages and those considering marriage. The wage gap persists, and we continue to allow biology to restrict a woman’s choices. A woman’s chance of being hired drops by 44% after her first child, and her pay by 11%. Women’s (and men’s) choices are still dictated by archetypical gender roles, due to societal and familial expectations and pressures, and the lack of resources and support for mothers and those trying to avoid or delay motherhood.
Yet, in same-sex marriages, roles are not pre-determined by gender. There may still be a “breadwinner” and one spouse may be more responsible for domestic duties, however, gender roles are not the default, and gendered expectations do not determine or influence one’s role. Marriage and shared childrearing demand compromise, and consequently, in all marriages, roles can be rigid, flexible, or non-existent. And while one or both partners may make sacrifices in same-sex marriages, such choices are more thoughtful and the basis is not merely chromosomal.
The foundation for the marriage then is not merely familial and societal expectations or gender roles, nor normative units of social arrangement, but rather the relationship itself.