Friday, June 7, 2013

Queering Marriage

The current push for same-sex marriage is but a staging post in a deeper and longer-term campaign being waged against heteronormativity and heterosexism.  Heteronormativity is the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm and heterosexism is the resulting bias in favour of opposite sex relationships.

Before we explore implications of the concepts of heteronomativity and heterosexism, we can note that according to most researchers something between 1% to 3% of national populations in the West identify as gay or bisexual.  In the 2010 United States census there were .6 million same-sex partner households, 6.2 million unmarried heterosexual couple households, and 60 million heterosexual married couple households (see here and here).  The percentage of same-sex couple households in the USA is thus less than 1% of the total number of couples.

In statistics, what is ‘normal’ is measured in terms of standard deviations from a mean.  In a population with a normal distribution, one standard deviation from a mean will encompass 68.3% of a population, and two standard deviations 95.45% of a population.  Statistically it is indeed ‘normal’ for couples to be heterosexual. The question is whether governments will permit it to be ‘normative’.

The entrenched dominance of hetero culture presents many challenges for same-sex attracted people.  Culture evolves in a way which panders to and reinforces the mainstream, so social structures tend to be designed to serve the needs of the many and not the few.  Above all the institutions called ‘the family’ and ‘marriage’ are optimised to serve the purposes of heterosexual couples and the biological children raised by them, as well as perpetuation of heteronormative society as a whole.

Queer theorists have long argued that the traditional concept of the family as a husband and wife raising their biological children — the so-called nuclear family – is inherently heterosexist and heteronormative, and as such it oppresses non-hetero people.  They argue that heteronormative expectations which are part of the idea of a nuclear family marginalize and treat as ‘deviant’ alternative forms of sexuality and gender.  The heterosexual bias of the majority interferes with the ‘self-expression’ of same-sex attracted people.

The theorists are not wrong. Undoubtedly the concept of the nuclear family – with marriage as its central pillar – embodies and perpetuates a set of expectations of what a ‘normal’ family looks like, namely a mother, a father and their kids, and this nuclear family is linked up to other families to form chains of interlocking relational communities known as ‘extended families’.

The norms of the nuclear family continue to have great social momentum and prestige, recent social changes  notwithstanding.  These norms are embedded in linguistic structures.  Take, for example, the terms ‘brother’ and ‘sister’.  The normal understanding of ‘brother’ is a male who shares both parents with another.  If someone only shares one parent, the ‘marked’ or unusual character of this situation is manifested by the prefix step attached to the kinship term, hence ‘stepbrother’ and ‘stepsister’.  Coding the case where only one parent is shared with an additional prefix — step — signals that the ‘blended’ arrangements fall outside the norm.  In this way the linguistic structures communicate that the nuclear family is ‘normal’, and the stepfamily is unusual, requiring a special mark to distinguish it.

I can clearly recall the first time my heternormative linguistic practices were challenged. Twenty years ago I was attending a Christmas party put on by the Vice-Chancellor at Melbourne University for senior staff and was introducing Debby to others as ‘my wife’ when a gay colleague gently corrected me, saying ‘your partner’.  It was apparently no longer correct for me to have a wife: I was now supposed to speak of her as my partner.

There are a whole range of cultural structures such as a man referring to his ‘wife’ which entrench marriage and the nuclear family as the norm.  Bishop Gene Robinson, who recently visited Australia, was reported to have found it offensive and excluding, when flying into Australia with his partner of many years, that they had to fill in two separate arrival cards, whereas a young couple married just a few days previously could submit one card, signifying that they were officially accepted as a single family.

Of course, in a statistical sense, nuclear families are normal in that they are statistically dominant. Also their natural function of reproducing which ensures the continuation of nations, communities and family relationships is one of the core functions of human society. The key question is, does the resulting disadvantage experienced by same-sex attracted people justify redefining what is normal about marriage?  Would society lose more than same-sex attracted people gain by such a change?

The push for marriage equality is in the first place not coming from the 98%.  It is coming from the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex) community.  To understand this movement it is well worth paying attention to the ideological issues it raises for LGBTI people

Same-sex activists have proposed three main positions on the question of marriage and the nuclear family.

One is that of Bishop Gene Robinson, who is himself in a long-standing monogamous gay relationship, that marriage is something admirable and to be aspired to by same-sex attracted people.  Robinson believes that same-sex marriage will reduce psychological pressures on young people and stop them ‘jumping off bridges’:
“There is no overstating what a difference that can make to the 15-year-old who is going to hang himself because of all the negative things he has been hearing about being homosexual … I’m not talking about urban kids in the elite areas of Sydney or Melbourne, but someone in a tiny town far, far away from the city who feels isolated and hopeless. It’s about giving kids the hope that one day, like everyone else, they can be happy, get married and have a family, whether it’s two mothers, two fathers. The progress towards gay marriage is inevitable and time is important, otherwise we have young people jumping off bridges.”
An opposing view, expressed by Victoria University sociologist Meagan Tyler, is that it is in everyone’s best interests if marriage itself was done away with:  “Opting out of marriage altogether will provide a quicker path to progress, as only the death of marriage can bring about the dawn of equality for all.” Tyler deplores the ‘valorisation’ of marriage by  marriage equality advocates, and the partnering of  heterosexists and gay activists to hold up marriage as an admired institution to be extended to all: 
“These warped debates have created unusual bedfellows. The institution of marriage, which feminists and gay rights activists alike derided and decried in the 1970s, is now being held up as the epitome of love and all that is right with the world. Libertarians, who would normally baulk at any state intervention in private matters, are busy talking about the right of individuals to invite the state into their most intimate affairs.”
While Tyler’s main objection to marriage is the feminist critique that it entrenches the patriarchal abuse of women, some LGBTI people reject the idea of a ‘homonormative’ marriage as an ideal to be imposed as a new norm upon same-sex attracted people.  Bishop Robinson may hope same-sex marriage will safe-guard the mental health of young people, but gay activist Ryan Conrad, author of Against Equality: don’t ask to fight their wars, is concerned about the psychological damage which could be done to young LGBTI people ‘coerced to marry to access basic rights’:
“None of us has a problem with domesticity or even monogamy. … We just don’t think people who want that kind of life should benefit from special rights administered by the state while those of us who don’t want to marry, for whatever reason, are being coerced to marry to access basic rights and legal protections that all people should have. I also worry that the overwhelming media representations of gay identity and politics in which everyone is being shown as desperate to wed is really going to warp the minds of queer and trans youth. I was lucky growing up because I was never expected to get gay married and I had the freedom to develop into the kind of person I am because I wasn’t being inundated with fanatical homo-flavoured family-values rhetoric that situates marriage as the ultimate goal and the only good way to have a healthy gay relationship.” 
Conrad laments “Why should we be retrofitting our erotic and emotional lives to fit within the confines and shackles of the hetero world?”

In a similar vein, Melbourne writer David Vakalis, who describes himself as ‘queer’ and a ‘former gay marriage activist’, decries the ‘envy’-driven politics of the marriage equality movement:
“One of the most persuasive arguments for gay marriage is the demand for equality. This has very little to do with the righteous claim of ‘equality for all’. Rather, I propose that a significant part of the campaign for gay marriage comes from an embarrassing place: envy. Understandably, it is also comes from anxieties in those who are in relationships—particularly those of older generations—in matters relating to health, adoption and the division of property. However, if the gay marriage campaign was really about equality then it would be consistent and demand that people in polygamous relationships be permitted to marry also. It should be admitted that this is about politics, not what is right or just.” …
“Their demand for gay marriage is anything but radical or progressive, but rather conservative: it is about politics and conformity. It relies on the presumption that marriage is virtuous: a standard to which we all should aspire, a respectable status symbol and thus a desirable thing. The real question that should be debated is not whether gay marriage should be allowed, but rather, is marriage really something we need anymore?”
A third strategy is to push for marriage equality as a staging post along the path to the ultimate destruction of marriage itself.  This was hypothetically put forward by activist Michelangelo Signorile as a strategy in 1994:
“A middle ground might be to fight for same-sex marriage and its benefits and then, once granted, redefine the institution of marriage completely, to demand the right to marry not as a way of adhering to society's moral codes but rather to ... radically alter an archaic institution. [Legalizing “same-sex marriage”] is also a chance to wholly transform the definition of family in American culture. It is the final tool with which to dismantle all sodomy statutes, get education about homosexuality and AIDS into public schools, and, in short, usher in a sea change in how society views and treats us.”
I agree with Vakalis’ critique of the marriage equality movement, and believe that in effect the function of this change will be to give momentum to the third strategy of undermining marriage itself.  The pressure to denormalise hetero characteristics of marriage and the family will continue unabated, and will only be empowered by a move to redefine marriage.

Marriage equality advocates insist that love is what marriage is all about, and that is all it is about.  However the key question to be asked around the marriage equality campaign is not whether same-sex love is equal, but rather, what is the nature and purpose of marriage, why is it so valuable to society that the state should legislate for it, and what would be lost if its heteronormative features were eradicated or significantly eroded?

I have argued (here) that the main reason for the state to intervene in the private domestic relations of people by defining and policing marriage is because the state has an interest in reproduction and the raising of children in optimal conditions.  The legal institution of marriage is thus not first and foremost about policing or validating love.  Marriage as an institution is primarily for the purpose of generating and preserving the intergenerational relationships which are created when couples reproduce.

To be sure, traditional marriage does have other valuable functions.  For example the prohibition of polygamy in the Western tradition of marriage is a good thing because polygamy contradicts a wide range of women’s rights.  In her recent book Man’s Dominion: the rise of religion and the eclipse of women's rights, Sheila Jeffreys, a leading feminist theorist, criticises the current promotion of polygamy in the name of religion, including by many Muslims, some Mormons, some Jews and even some American Christians.  (The chapter is headed “A Harem for Every Man?”)

The full implications of the anti-heteronormativity campaign – of which the marriage equality campaign is but one manifestation — needs to be taken seriously, because the de-heteronormalisation of society is a massive project with far-reaching consequences.

Consider for example Signorile’s 20-year old desire, referenced above, to get education about homosexuality into schools.

What are the implications of marriage equality for sex education? When I was a child, sex education at school was mainly about reproduction: how babies are made.  Treating sex education as being primarily about reproduction is heteronormative.  The queering of marriage will add momentum for sex education to treat same-sex orientations and practices as normal, right down to the early primary years.

The de-heteronormalising of sex education already appears to be the official policy of the Victorian Department of Education, which states on its website:  “The Department recognizes that sexuality education is only effective for all students when it acknowledges and caters for student sexual diversity.” and “Schools must support and respect sexuality diversity including same sex attraction” (here).

Of course the educational implications or de-normalizing heterosexuality are not just about sex education.  In California the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act (2011) adds LGBT people to the minority groups which schools are required to portray positively.   Schools are prohibited from promoting a ‘discrimnatory bias’ on the basis of sexual orientation. 

Such criteria will, for example, require school libraries to  change early learner student readers, to ensure young children are not conditioned by a heteronormative bias.  Alongside tales of princes finding their princess there will  need to be readers about princes finding their prince, and princesses their princess.  Moreover it is not far-fetched to suggest that under the FAIR regime teachers will be prohibited from admiring or promoting the nuclear family as a preferred model for society, because the institution of the family itself is biased in favour of a heterosexual orientation.  It will therefore be necessary for teachers to completely redefine concepts such as ‘family’ and ‘marriage’ to conform to the FAIR act.

There are also freedom of religion implications. Belief in hetero marriage and the nuclear family is inherent to many people’s religious beliefs and conscience. Compelling teachers to combat heteronormativity will go against the consciences of many.  One of the objections to the same-sex marriage bill currently making its way through British Parliament is the fear that young people will be discouraged from pursuing careers — such as teaching, counselling, medicine or the public service — which will compel them to renounce heteronormativity as a matter of public policy.  

The Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, recently stated:
“If the Bill passes into law without much clearer protections for freedom of speech and freedom of belief, teachers, and public sector workers will have to choose between their conscience and their career; many will be deterred from a public service career and from charity involvement.”
An unnamed senior UK education official warned in January that primary school teachers could risk losing their job if they refuse to teach about gay marriage.

There are already several cases in the UK where Christians with traditional views on sexuality have been sacked, or been forced to withdraw from the workforce.  Christian parents have also been refused the right to foster children because of their faith-based sexual ethics. (See several cases reported here). 

The core driving force behind the redefinition of marriage is the project to eliminate all bias which favours heterosexual norms in every area of society.  To achieve this goal, it seems to be necessary to de-heteronormalize marriage.  Marriage equality can be rightly seen as a staging post which will give momentum to coercive processes across a wide range of areas of life. Because marriage is an institution policed by the state, cleansing it of its heteronormative bias in law will give coercive leverage to the de-heteronormalisation project across many areas of life.

Of course the whole project may be utopian, because it flies in the face of the the fact that almost 100% of cohabiting couples are heterosexual, and an overwhelming number of children are raised in heterosexual households.  However the fact that it is utopian – and ultimately unachievable – does not mean it cannot do considerable damage to social institutions which are heteronormative for good reasons.  Such as marriage and the family.

The marriage equality campaign is not in the end about affirming the ‘equality’ of gay and lesbian love.  Rather it is about the project of denormalizing the traditional heterosexual orientation of the nuclear family.  The key question to be asked is whether the potential gains which many LGBTI people hope will flow to them from this grand project will outweigh the potential costs to society of denormalising heterosexual marriage and the traditional nuclear family.


  1. Thanks Mark, that nicely clarifies my inchoate disquiet with the whole situation. In yesterday's Church of England Newspaper Andrew Carey suggested that the UK situation now gives rise to the suggestion that the church should vacate the civil marriage role altogether. Let people have a civil then if they wish a church ceremony.
    Stepping back from marriage to the wider 'gay' question, I think it's great that strongly SSA Christians of mature years (say over 25yo) should 'come out' and be able to talk about their celibacy and general struggles as but a small part of their discipleship overall (and heaps of other single/unmarried people in the church are in much the same place).

  2. Most informative and helpful to understand the bigger picture and the long term goals of the LGBT movement. When civil Union was introduced in New Zealand few years ago the public was reassured same sex marriage was definitely not on the agenda. The govt passed the marriage legislation on a simple majority party vote and the public had virtually no opportunity to voice their opinion s.


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