Some more thoughts generated by Maggie Gallagher’s guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy.
In one of her posts, Gallagher writes:
SS couples are being added to the mix precisely in order to assure that society views them as “no different” than other couples.
To this, one of the commenters responds:
This seems as close as we’ll get to a candid admission that her opposition to SSM is actually all about keeping them homos subjegated. (sic)
So here’s a question. Is it bigoted to regard same-sex relationships — even aside from the issue of procreation — as different to male-female relationships?
The belief that men and women are profoundly different is common in American culture. (Just look at the popularity of John Gray’s “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” cottage industry.) Even in liberal segments of society, talk of sexual difference, once frowned upon as anti-feminist, has become socially acceptable again (unless done in a way that seems to justify inequality for women, as Harvard president Lawrence Summers painfully learned). Despite overwhelming support for female achievement in the public sphere and career opportunities for women, the majority of Americans still embrace a degree of sex-role traditionalism. Even in liberal California, 69% of all parents surveyed by the Los Angeles Times in 1999 believed that it’s “much better” for the family if it’s the mother who stays home with young children (though 70% also felt it was acceptable for the father to be the stay-at-home parent).
All this raises the question: to what extent do many people see sexual differentiation and sexual complementarity as an essential feature of marriage and family?
Personally, I think that sex difference is vastly overhyped in our culture today. I believe that men and women are far more alike that different — not that “everyone is the same,” but that the individual variations within each sex vastly eclipse the differences between the sexes. But that’s me.
Andrew Sullivan, on the other hand, strongly believes that biology — specifically, testosterone — makes men and women radically different: ambition, risk-taking, action, competitiveness and aggression are male traits, while empathy, patience, the desire for stability, and interest in relationships are essentially female. In his April 2000 New York Times essay on the subject, Andrew allows for individual differences and variations, but he also makes it clear that in his view, men and women overall approach and experience the world in deeply and fundamentally different ways.
I admire Andrew’s writings on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and I find a lot of his arguments very powerful and persuasive. But I see a basic contradiction between his strong belief in deep, important, innate differences between the sexes and his equally passionate belief that same-sex relationships should be treated as fully equivalent to male-female ones. After all, if men and women are so different, then isn’t there at least some rational basis for believing that one goal and one essential element of marriage is to bring these two profoundly different halves of humanity together in family units based on a mix, and a balance, of male and female traits?
In fact, I suspect that the belief in sexual complementarity underlies many people’s support for civil unions but not full marriage for same-sex couples. So I ask again: If someone fully accepts same-sex relationships and does not regard them as either “icky” or immoral but also believes that sexual complementarity, biological and psychological, makes male-female unions unique and deserving of special cultural recognition, is that person a bigot?
Incidentally, this is a basic difference between the legalization of same-sex marriage and the repeal of the ban on interracial marriage, a parallel that often comes up in this debate. The traditional language of marriage is steeped in sexual dualism: we can speak of a couple and identify each partner by gender or gendered role, not name. (“The husband works in a bank, the wife is a schoolteacher.”) Interracial marriage does not challenge this dualism. Same-sex marriage obviously does. In fact, after SSM was legalized in Massachusetts, marriage license forms were changed, eliminating the words “husband” and “wife” and replacing them with “Spouse A” and “Spouse B.”
To traditionalists, this change is undoubtedly appalling: it symbolizes the official adoption of a literally neutered version of marriage, as well as its downgrading to a bureaucratic formality. I myself don’t think too many people care about what’s written in their marriage licenses. And yet if same-sex couples are justified in seeking official affirmation that their unions are equal to heterosexual ones, aren’t traditional couples justified in seeking official affirmation of the gendered nature of their marriages?
I think, too, that this is a part of Maggie Gallagher’s concern when she frets that the legalization of same-sex marriage will attach the stigma of bigotry to defenders of traditional marriage. At present, defenders of traditional male-female roles may be seen as old-fashioned, but they are not seen as bigots (in part, perhaps, because women are just as likely as men to endorse such roles). The use of racial analogies in the discussion of same-sex marriage, on the other hand, threatens to place the traditional view of marriage beyond the pale.
Again, the views I am defending are by and large not my own. I don’t think that men are inferior to women in relational skills or that women are less competitive than men; or rather, I think that whatever innate sex differences exist in these areas are flexible and outweighed by individual differences. I don’t think that “gender-neutral parenting” is a danger to the family. I do believe that the interplay of maleness and femaleness — more as intangible “energies” than specific psychological traits — creates a unique and valuable dynamic. (In a purely biological sense, human beings do come in two basic kinds — male and female — making the male/female couple a microcosm of humanity.) But in my view, that doesn’t make the mutual commitment of two women or two men any less genuine or less deserving.
My point is that there is a legitimate debate here, not just the forces of bigotry aligned against equality and civil rights.