Saturday, June 30, 2012

What same-sex marriage represents

It's the end of June, and LGBTQ Pride Month is coming to a close.  Last week, I was pleased to attend the opening of the new exhibit at Montgomery College, Portraits of Life: LGBT Stories of Being as well as a day-long consortium organized by MC Pride and Allies entitled How Do You Do It?, bringing together students, faculty, staff, and administrators from a number of local colleges and universities to discuss best practices for creating a welcoming campus for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff.  Both were wonderful events and I am proud that we are making a visible commitment to support the LGBTQ members of our community.  In doing so, we take a stand for a more equal society that does not discriminate based on sexuality or gender expression.

In many ways, we have made tremendous strides toward that equal society, but that progress is mixed with strong backlash, as well.  The recent Pride image of a rainbow Oreo posted by Kraft Foods on Facebook reveals the mainstream corporate support for the LGBTQ community, but it also elicited a stream of anti-gay commentary.  This year has seen similar conflict over same-sex marriage in the United States.  In a historic first, President Obama and Vice-President Biden both came out in support of legal recognition for same-sex marriage (the first sitting president of the U.S. to do so).  However, this endorsement followed the passage of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships in North Carolina, the 30th state in the U.S. to pass such an amendment. 

In his keynote speech at How Do You Do It?, Luke Jensen (University of Maryland) shared his lifetime of experiences in the trenches as an LGBTQ advocate.  As he marked various components of the struggle (HIV/AIDS, hate crimes, bullying, invisibility), I was struck by how far we have come over the years . . . and how far we still have to go.  For example, attitudes towards same-sex marriage have clearly changed in recent years.  While only 35% of Americans favored legalizing same-sex marriage in 2001, 47% indicated support in 2012, according to Pew research polls.  A recent ABC poll (April 2012) found that 53% of Americans favored legalizing same-sex marriage.  In short, polls indicate increasing support for legalizing same-sex marriage, but the country is still split on the issue, with strong feelings on both sides.   

I can easily understand passionate support for legalizing same-sex marriage.  There are a host of legal rights and benefits that are accorded with the marriage certificate, ranging from hospital visitation and medical decision making to child custody and retirement benefits.  In the U.S., same-sex relationships are not accorded any of the federal benefits of marriage, and are only accorded state-level benefits in the handful of states that have legalized same-sex marriage.  In short, this is a matter of basic equality and nondiscrimination.  In addition, legal recognition of same-sex relationships sends a clear message that such relationships are valid family forms, providing social recognition of the diversity of the American family.

But why the impassioned opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage?  What prompts some of the vitriolic comments made by those opposed to same-sex marriage?  (You can read some examples here and here, if you wish.)

One might easily gloss this opposition as based in homophobia, and indeed, those opposed to gay marriage hold more anti-gay attitudes than those who support same-sex marriage.  Many of the factors that correlate with homophobia also predict opposition to same-sex marriage.  Those who are older, conservative, religiously observant, and male are likely to hold more anti-gay attitudes and are also statistically more likely to oppose same-sex marriage.  Those who are younger, liberal, less religiously observant, female, and who know someone who is LGBT tend to have less sexual prejudice and are more likely to support same-sex marriage (you can see this in the Pew research, as well as Pearl & Paz Galupo, 2007).  So sure, some of this stems from anti-gay prejudice.  But I don't think that is the whole story.

In preparing for a presentation on same-sex marriage in 2010, I was struck by a 2009 Pew report indicating that a majority of Americans at the time opposed same-sex marriage, but were in favor of same-sex civil unions.  In fact, among those who opposed same-sex marriage in 2009, 30% were in favor of same-sex civil unions.  If this is simply a result of anti-gay attitudes, why the support for civil unions?  Why not just oppose any kind of legal recognition?

I was also puzzling over the repeated rhetoric that same-sex marriage was a "threat" to marriage.  This has been a common theme among those opposed to same-sex marriage.  Rush Limbaugh called President Obama's support of legalizing same-sex marriage as a "war on traditional marriage", a sentiment that a number of others have echoed.  How do two men getting married pose a threat to the husband and wife down the block?  I wasn't getting what this threat might be. 

The key to understanding both is to grasp how the conservative framing of marriage relates to gender roles.  In her analysis of the religious right's arguments against gay marriage in Australia, Jane Edwards (2007) identifies the key assumption that marriage is seen as sacred.  They see marriage as based in a natural order, fixed and immutable in its structure and meaning.  Marriage, in this discourse, is a sacredly ordained social structure based in complementary gender roles, which are, in turn, derived from the natural differences between men and women.  But Edwards argues that the insistence on heteronormative marriage stems largely from anxiety about the male role and the status of contemporary masculinity.  Without the requirement of marriage, boys might grow up in fatherless families (as only the legal bonds of marriage inspire men to stay in the family).
"The preoccupation with fatherless families not only expresses disquiet over the masculinity of fatherless sons, it contains a barely concealed fear about the prospect of men becoming redundant in the eyes of women and society in general.  The role of men, according to voices in the religious right, is being devalued, if not discarded.  The culprit in the declining fortunes of men is women's decreasing dependence on marriage."  (Edwards, 2007, p. 252). 
In essence, the religious right's argument goes like this:
  • Marriage is a natural social form that has never changed.
  • Women will only marry men if they are dependent upon them.
  • Without marriage, men will abandon their families.
  • Boys who grow up without fathers will not be masculine.
  • Therefore, marriage is vitally important to providing men with their masculine identity and role, including the power and authority they hold over women.
So, according to this perspective, legalizing same-sex marriage threatens the institution of (heteronormative) marriage because it proves that marriage is a social creation, open to change, rather than a natural social form that is immutable.  By undermining the idea of marriage as unchanging, the idea of "traditional marriage" is destabilized as the only possible form of marriage.  (Of course, even the most cursory survey of history will easily illustrate that the particulars of marriage have changed quite a bit over time [Coontz, 2005; Graff, 2004].)  This explains why some might not be as threatened by the idea of legal same-sex civil unions, as they are clearly social constructs, not falling within the sacred bounds of "marriage." 

Secondly, same-sex marriage establishes that marriage need not be based on gender roles, complementary or otherwise.  In that sense, it challenges the fundamental assumption of the natural gender order that supports patriarchy and gender roles more broadly.  If the marriage between two women is just as valid as the marriage between a man and a woman, there is no guaranteed role for men.  Men are not required (of course, neither are women), which feeds the fear that men will be redundant and will lose their place in society.

If this same discourse underpins the conservative opposition to same-sex marriage in the United States (and I suspect it does), same-sex marriage is a threat to the idea of "traditional marriage" -- it destabilizes the inevitability of the particulars of the Leave it to Beaver image of the nuclear family (husband as economic provider and head of household, wife as dependent and domestically bound) as the only appropriate form of family.  It challenges the notion of gender roles and patriarchy as natural and ideal.  But that ideal is only a myth; it does not represent the majority of American families, and probably never did.

But I would argue that same-sex marriage is not a threat to the American family.  Instead, it could be seen as part of a larger movement for greater individuality and freedom within the family.  By challenging the assumptions of traditional marriage, the marriage equality movement represents freedom for all of us.  Freedom from the limitations and constrictions of gender roles.  Freedom to create and foster relationships that meet our needs.  Freedom to choose, rather than following someone else's idea of how our family ought to look.  

This isn't just an abstract issue for me.  I live in Maryland, which recently legalized same-sex marriage, a law that will be challenged by a voter referendum in November.  As I see it, the vote will not only be a commentary on LGBTQ equality; it will also be a referendum on gender equality and on an inclusive model of family.  Our struggles are bound together.  Don't believe me?  Go see the Portraits of Life: LGBT Stories of Being exhibit at Montgomery College (Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus).  It's a moving and wonderful exhibit.  The introduction notes:
"The people featured in this exhibit are our friends, family members, colleagues, and neighbors.  Through their daily work in business, government, education, human services, the arts, and in nearly every aspect of community life, they make our county a better place for everyone."
Go see the exhibit.  And be sure to vote in November.


Calmes, J. & Baker, P.  (May 9, 2012) Obama says same-sex marriage should be legal. New York Times

Coontz, S.  (2005).  Marriage, a history:  How love conquered marriage. New York, NY:  Penguin Books.

Edwards, J.  (2007).  'Marriage is sacred':  The religious right's arguments against 'gay marriage' in Australia.  Culture, Health, & Sexuality, 9, 247-261. 

Ergun, D.  (May, 2012). Strong support for gay marriage now exceeds strong opposition.

Graff, E. J.  (2004).  What is marriage for?  The strange social history of our most intimate institution.    Boston, MA:  Beacon Press.

Pearl, M. L. & Paz Galupo, M. (2007).  Development and validation of the Attitudes Toward Same-Sex Marriage Scale.  Journal of Homosexuality, 53, 117-134.

Pew Research Center (2009).  Majority continues to support civil unions:  Most still oppose same-sex marriage.

Pew Research Center (2012).  Changing attitudes on gay marriage

Robertson, C.  (May 8, 2012).  North Carolina voters pass same-sex marriage ban.  New York Times. 

Stearns, D. C. (2010, October).  “I Do” – “No, You Don’t!”: The controversy over same-sex marriage. Presentation as part of the Fall 2010 Psychology Brown Bag Series at Montgomery College, Rockville, MD.


  1. Excellent. Thanks for commenting on my post at Nursing Clio (

    I appreciate your thorough examination of these issues here. This is exactly what I was responding to as I listened to the opposing arguments during the Supreme Court hearings.

    Tiffany Wayne

    1. Thanks for stopping by and for your comment! I thought your post on Nursing Clio was terrific -- I had much the same reaction to the Supreme Court hearings.