Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Little Man, Little Woman Again: Male-Female Complementarity and Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage

After my posting yesterday about Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s insistence that male-female complementarity is essential to the meaning of marriage, I continue to think about the gender complementarity argument. I’ve noted for some time how this argument is being developed as a basis for opposition to same-sex marriage that crosses church lines, and which opponents of gay marriage in many faith communities now use as a clenching argument against gay marriage (see http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/10/catholics-life-issues-and-elections.html, http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/08/male-female-complementarity-and-bogus.html, http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/03/christians-of-late-have-invested-great.html).

At a cultural level, this view of marriage probably carries much more sway than people commonly realize. It seems so obvious and so natural to imagine marriage as the union of a man and a woman—just as it seems so obvious and so natural that men are born to rule and women to serve, and that all animals "beneath" Homo sapiens are here for our use. All our cultural signals for millennia have shaped our thinking such that we can construe such social arrangements simply as what nature has set up—Archbishop Martin’s “order of creation.”

Add to this the—again self-evidently "true" if completely unexamined—presupposition that we marry people for the sake of procreation, and you have what appears to be an unbeatable formula for opposite-gender marriage as the only thinkable form of marriage. The parts fit. The plumbing is in the right place and order. The human race would die out if we didn’t continue doing marriage as creation and divine will dictate. Marriage as it has always been proves that human beings must yield to biological imperatives or else!

All self-evidently "true" if completely unexamined . . . . But as I noted yesterday, in addressing Archbishop Martin’s arguments, the minute one begins to unravel what actually occurs in opposite-gender marriages, the whole complementarity house of cards falls down. If marriage is solely for procreation, and if this is why we must forbid the marrying of two people of the same gender or see the foundations of our society rock, then why is it that we marry a man and a woman who are beyond childbearing years?

Or who know in advance that one or both spouses are infertile? Or who declare that they do not intend to have children? Or who have other physical impediments to marriage? Or who, in a time-honored tradition held up by Catholicism as the ideal of Christian marriage, vow never to have sex?

Something is clearly wrong with the marriage-is-for procreation argument. Which means that something is also wrong with the marriage-is-about-gender-complementarity argument, insofar as that argument is premised on the assumption that marriage is all about procreation.

We don’t, in fact, marry people so that they will procreate. There is no legal requirement that people promise to have children and are to be penalized when they do not so. Promises of procreation have nothing to do with the legal requirements for a couple to be married. A couple can get a marriage license and marry when it is clear that they cannot procreate, as long as the couple is an opposite-gender couple.

The churches marry such couples. The churches have long married such couples. “Traditional” marriage, marriage as it has “always” been, has for millennia recognized the legitimacy of marrying spouses that do not intend to procreate or cannot procreate. The Catholic church marries such couples, for goddsake, despite its insistence that sex is ordered to procreation and any sexual act that deliberately thwarts this order is mortally sinful.

One has to conclude that something else—something nasty and sub rosa—is at work in both the unexamined cultural presupposition that marriage is about male-female complementarity, and in the faith-based belief that any other form of marriage undermines a procreative ethic. That something else is, I submit, a fear of undermining central cultural and religious symbols that undergird the male domination of females and of all that is perceived by dominative males as feminine.

In defending “traditional” marriage, and in doing so on the basis of the male-female complementarity argument, the churches (and social groups) are defending what is ethically insupportable: the right of men to order the world as they see fit, and to use women as property and objects as they do so. As I noted in yesterday’s posting, the intent to safeguard the dominative power of men in church and society is the central driving force in both cultural and religious arguments against same-sex marriage.

Because many of those opposing gay marriage have not thought through these points—and do not intend to think them through—the unexamined presupposition of male superiority and female inferiority and of the need for men to rule and for women to submit run through the cross-cultural, cross-church consensus of the political-religious right to an extent that should be positively alarming to anyone who believes in gender equity. The toxic agenda attached to the rejection of gay marriage goes well beyond thwarting the desire of same-sex couples to enjoy a privilege, and to attain a right, that opposite-gender couples enjoy and attain.

If this were not the case, I think people would quickly see how insubstantial, how downright counterfactual and absurd, the arguments of many right-wing cultural and religious opponents of same-sex marriage are. As Terrance Heath points out recently in an insightful posting at his Republic of T blog, opponents of gay marriage such as Melanie Scarborough seriously propose that gay marriage is biologically impossible, and therefore not to be countenanced (www.republicoft.com/2008/11/28/children-do-better-with-white-parents).

This is to say, right-wing opponents of gay marriage get away with talking patent nonsense. As Heath notes, in a Feb. 2007 article Scarborough wrote on this subject, she goes so far as to say,
”Although a man and a woman may legally wed, the law does not consider the marriage valid unless it is consummated” (www.examiner.com/a-1397986~Melanie_Scarborough__Gay_marriage_not_physically_possible.html?cid=temp-popular, and www.republicoft.com/2008/05/20/penis-into-vagina-equals-marriage.

Say what? Does Scarborough even know what she is talking about? What “law” where does not consider a marriage valid unless it is consummated? A couple in which the man is, say, physically incapable of an erection or has impaired genitals, is not married until penis meets vagina? On what planet and under what set of laws known to Scarborough alone? And has Heath thought about the fact that a marriage may be consummated even when there is no biological possibility that the couple can conceive—and when they and those who married them knew this when they were married?

What we have here is a mishmash of the Catholic sex-for-procreation-only dogma that a majority of Catholics in the Western world have long since rejected, and sheer unexamined hostility to gay persons, rolled up in sentimental, culturally-encapsulated evangelical theology that makes people comfortable with their unexamined presuppositions and prejudices. Many of those who reject same-sex marriage because they assume that marriage is all about procreation and gender complementarity have not given any thought at all to the procreative ethic they are implicitly endorsing. They have not thought about—do not want to think about—all that is entailed in the Catholic theology of procreation they are implicitly endorsing: the longstanding tradition (based on the order of creation) that masturbation is more seriously sinful than rape because the latter is at least open to procreation; the contention that each and every act of genital intimacy is seriously sinful if it is not open to the possibility of procreation, etc.

It’s not really the Catholic procreative ethic at all that right-wing believers and their political allies want to endorse. What these folks are all about is putting gays in their place—above all, putting gay men into their place, since, in the infantile fantasies of the political-religious right about gender roles, gay men conspicuously undermine male power by choosing to be and to act “feminine.” That’s the real bugbear, the alluring and determinative fantasy at the root of any “thinking” these folks do about sexual ethics and marriage.

If they were truly concerned about protecting traditional marriage, marriage as it has always been, marriage as it has to be, with the little man and the little woman atop the wedding cake, they’d be investing their time and energy in outlawing divorce. Wouldn't they? That is the single greatest threat to traditional heterosexual marriage in our culture. And it is a threat that the churches have long since accepted, and which they feel no need to outlaw, despite the ravages it inflicts on marriage.

Given that threat, the time, energy, and money that faith communities are now investing in stripping same-sex couples of the human right of marriage—and seems positively mean-spirited. Positively sinful.

This waste of time, energy, and money is a colossal, sinful diversion from the tasks of healing, building, and loving that authentically religious people see as their primary goal in the world. In the final analysis, it is very clear that allowing same-sex couples to marry will no shape, form, or fashion way undermine anything about traditional marriage. That is, except in the fantasy world of those who have everything invested in maintaining traditional gender roles, with men on top and women (and those whom alpha males wish to feminize) on bottom.