MARTHA NUSSBAUM lays out the arguments against gay marriage so clearly and refutes them so neatly you wonder how opponents could possibly stick to their guns. But of course plenty will. Religious people do not necessarily agree that their interpretation of Scripture should be ignored in the public square merely because millions read the bible differently or don’t accept it as the last word on modern life. To them, indeed, that’s the problem in a nutshell: all those people rejecting the word of God. Similarly, attributing opposition to same-sex marriage to disgust for homosexuality is not an argument that will persuade those who feel that disgust most keenly. Of course that’s why I object to gay marriage, those people will say. Homosexuality is revolting and gay marriage will only encourage it! As for the slippery slopers, who fear that legalizing gay marriage will lead to legalization of polygamy and incestuous marriage, Nussbaum does nothing to allay their fears. In fact, she seems to suggest that further down the road (when, opponents might say, gay marriage has softened us up), the law may indeed permit plural marriage, as long as it works both ways, at least on paper, as well as marriage between brothers and sisters.
Leaving incest aside (perhaps because, like an opponent of gay marriage, I feel too much disgust to discuss it rationally), I was surprised to hear this qualified defense of polygamy from Nussbaum, who usually does not take such an abstract view of social practices that, whatever they may be in some ideal world, are profoundly unjust to women in this one. If I thought she was right I might have to rethink my whole position on gay marriage. To me, though, gay marriage and polygamy are fundamentally different cases. Gay marriage, as its supporters constantly and rightly argue, is structurally just like straight marriage, except the partners are of the same sex: it’s still two people who agree to provide love and reciprocal support. Polygamy is a whole other set of relationships, ones that are inherently unequal. In fact, polygamy is such a fundamental denial of the mutual and equal obligations and privileges that modern law provides between spouse—if a man has three wives, each wife has one-third of a husband, he can acquire more spouses, his wives can’t—I can’t imagine it flying in the United States. Says she hopefully.
Where Nussbaum will be most effective is in further sapping the resolve of gay-marriage opponents who consider themselves modern and fair-minded and not prejudiced against gays and who have based their objections on a perceived threat to “the family” –people like Jim Wallis and David Blankenhorn. As Nussbaum brilliantly summarizes, that argument just won’t wash. Procreation is not a marital requirement, and many gays and lesbians either come to marriage with children in tow, or have or adopt them within a gay relationship. The strains on contemporary marriage have complex sources, none of which have to do with gay marriage, and some of which–women’s increased independence for example, and (my own thought) increased longevity—are good things. As Nussbaum suggests, objections to gay marriage on the part of family-values advocates are just emotional venting. They feel that things used to be better: people were more loyal and responsible, less hedonistic, more willing to sacrifice. Gay marriage goes on the list of bad new things, along with no-fault divorce, late marriage, working mothers, lack of respect for fatherhood and people wanting to be happy.
How much of that perception that marriage was better in the past is really a preference for prescribed and unequal gender roles? I’d like to suggest that one additional, unacknowledged source of opposition to gay marriage is the way it calls into question what it means to be a husband and a wife in a heterosexual marriage.
Defenders of gay marriage emphasize the ways in which it is just like straight marriage. But there are ways in which it is different, too. To a degree we don’t always like to admit, heterosexual spouses follow gendered scripts. In most marriages, the wife does more housework, more childcare, and more “kin work” — keeping in touch with relatives, remembering birthdays and anniversaries (including her own!), buying presents, arranging visits. The husband usually has the bigger (better paying, more prestigious) job, and even if he doesn’t is often treated as if he does. Society reinforces these roles in many ways, large and small. Gestures of equality, like a woman keeping her own name after marriage, are hugely controversial.
While gays and lesbians come to marriage with all sorts of expectations and fantasies about what married life should be, they cannot pull gendered rank on their partner. They have to work out their marital roles from scratch. It’s harder for them to fall into the sexist patterns that ensnare even fairly liberated straights: in which, for example, however much housework the husband does, the wife is the one who has to mentally organize it. If two lesbians decide to have a baby, they can actually discuss which one will bear the child. Two gay spouses cannot both assume, as many straight couples do, that the family will move to suit the husband’s career. The deep, ingrained patterns of female deference and male entitlement do not apply. Nor do the gendered roles of “mother” and ‘father” that family-values proponents typically present as inherently, and rightly, different, with the mother giving unconditional love and, of course, doing most of the work, and the father providing moral guidance and life lessons.
If married gays can make a go of their more flexible and equal situation, and can raise children as well as, or better than, straights, what happens to the traditional gender roles family-values advocates see as essential to marriage? What happens to their arguments that feminism and the sexual revolution have undermined fatherhood and now all hell is breaking loose? Perhaps what motivates family-values opponents of gay marriage is precisely what they say: it does indeed threaten straight marriage—by showing that “the family” can thrive without prescribed and unequal gender roles.
Katha Pollitt‘s new collection of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published by Random House.