Working With Us | Products | Case Studies | FAQ | About Online Media

Catching Up: Gay Marriage Edition


About a year ago, when San Francisco’s gay marriage madness made headlines, it was pretty clear to those of us in San Francisco watching the reactions around the country that gender equity – for real, this time — was at the heart of even the most well-meaning straight Liberal’s queasiness with the whole idea.
Today, David Frum, writing on the National Review’s website, weighs in supporting those suspicions. Using changes in Canadian law that would ban the use of the words “husband” and “wife,” Frum goes on a tear about how gay marriage is the end of the institution of marriage as conservatives like him know it. I don’t know about that. Don’t most people say “spouse” these days, anyway?
Frum, of course, assumes a man’s superior economic and physical strength gives him the lead household role. Which says more about him than it does about most of the straight marriages I’m familiar with. And, never one to let a sleeping gay marriage dog lie, Andrew Sullivan weighs in with a long-drawn out philosophical discourse that states the obvious: Marriages are between two people who negotiate their own terms and conditions. The state shouldn’t interfere in that relationship.

Still, we’re getting to the heart of why same-sex coupling bothers so many people, women and men, Liberal and conservative when it’s described as a marriage. So I’m going to put up again the post I made last year because I think its points stand up well.
Free. At Last?
(Originally posted 2/22/2004)
Gay marriage replaced missing weapons and missing National Guard records on the political blogoshere this week but precious little of it has addressed an important underlying issue: women’s independence as it relates to their legal relationships with men. (This is no doubt due to the paucity of women’s voices in political commentary in general but that’s another rant for another day.)
Like it or not, realize it or not, society’s understanding of that relationship is fundamentally changed by the idea of gay marriage. And it’s high time we started talking about it. If nothing else, it could help Democrats and other well-meaning Liberals understand why some people – some of them – have such qualms about the marriage of two people of the same sex.
For starters, marriage publicly signals the beginning of an active adult sex life. It used to be called pre-marital sex, remember? In some places it still is. Marriage makes bedroom activity – and its consequences – legitimate. Not everyone looks at marriage this way but most people do, subconsciously or otherwise. And straight people don’t like to think about gay sex. TV shows about dykes end up being vaguely titillating (Showtime’s “The L Word” is being marketed under the banner “Same Sex, Different City”) while shows about gay men reduce them to fashion-obsessed stereotypes (“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”). Straight people often say that knowing someone’s orientation is none of their business. What they’re really saying is that they don’t want to be reminded of something – sex between two people of the same gender – that they don’t want to think about.
This is one way that gay marriage strikes, quietly but with deadly accuracy, at the heart of another assumption about women’s roles in our society. The symbolism at the heart of most Christian weddings – when a father walks his daughter down the aisle and “gives” her to her husband – is often considered quaint, a touching moment for family memories. It’s a transfer of power from the woman’s father, the man first responsible for her economic well being, to her husband, the man who will be responsible for that well being once the ceremony is concluded. Even without the “obey” clause that most modern brides strike from their vows, the giving and taking of the bride by two men is ceremonial shorthand for the economic cornerstones weddings once were back when marriages united families or clans for various purposes. Want to measure the power of this tradition? Take a look at the rise of expensive weddings – often paid for by 30- and 40-something women who are big wage earners. Those girls – for their weddings they are definitely girls – spend thousands to reinforce a tradition that, at its heart, portrays them as passive, economically and socially.
But when two people of the same sex marry, there is no such hand-over, is there? Simply by virtue of his gender, “applicant No. 1” can’t take on the symbolic role of the provider while “applicant No. 2” takes the passive role of the provided for. Instead, the two make an agreement to come together and to stay together. The symbolism is stripped away and two people enter into the most equal of unions financially or otherwise. So gay marriage is finally – breath a sigh of relief, my sisters – getting women out from under centuries of having to “belong” to someone – symbolically or otherwise. That’s, I think, what’s at the heart of qualms like those voiced by Joshua Micah Marshall. He’s feeling around for the source of his discomfort with the idea of gay marriage. So are others. And they’re assigning all sort of political motives and rationales to favoring the idea of a civil union for gays (no symbolism, just a civic ceremony). At its heart, this unease isn’t really about politics or backlashes or conservatives winning the political culture wars. It’s about coming to grips with the continuing change in the status, economic and socially, of women; it’s about doing away – finally — with the idea that women must marry or date “up” to some form of economic or social security that’s better than their unmarried position or status.
It’s dangerous to do without knowing Marshall but I’d hazard a guess that what’s bothering him and many other thoughtful Liberals who opposed marriage for gays – men and women — is the quiet and not too carefully examined realization that the familiar high ground that men have enjoyed, even symbolically, is falling away in ways they hadn’t anticipated. The stress on the idea of civil unions – not marriage – for gays is the result; it’s not a marriage because that would change an institution we’ve all come to think of as asserting a man’s control over his domestic arrangements. We are in the final throes of the shift in the balance of power between men and women from a situation where men are ‘in charge’ of a domestic arrangement (symbolically or otherwise) to one where they’re partners – meeting on equal terms with someone with the same, perhaps more financial and other power. It’s not just straight men who are uneasy about all this change. Women are, too. So it’s no surprise that those who are most removed from the social mainstream – at least outside of San Francisco where I sit and type this – are going first.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 11:34 AM | Permalink

<< Back to the Spotlight blog

Chris Nolan's bio
Email Chris Nolan

Get Our Weekly Email Newsletter

What We're Reading - Spot-On Books

Hot Spots - What's Hot Around the Web | Promote Your Page Too

Spot-on Main | Pinpoint Persuasion | Spotlight Blog | RSS Subscription | Spot-on Writers | Privacy Policy | Contact Us