Queering the Marriage Debate

Philippe Leroyer

Is there any common ground?

It’s been a busy week for opponents of same-sex marriage at Ethika Politika.

Michael Bradley has argued that talking about a ban on gay marriage “indicates a fundamentally flawed grasp on what is really being argued” in the marriage debate, simply because “no such bans exist.” Meanwhile, Carlos Flores argued that the “marriage equality” slogan is a form of “question-begging” because it assumes that heterosexual and homosexual relationships are relevantly similar with respect to the public purposes of marriage—the very question that forms the subject of controversy.

Both of these arguments were eloquently made, and neither is entirely without validity, but they strike me less as useful contributions to the marriage debate and more as clever ways of trying to avoid confronting the problems to which gay marriage purports to be a solution. If we deny that bans on same-sex marriage exist (even when they clearly do) we can avoid debating whether those bans are appropriate. If we assert that the purpose of marriage is procreative and label the demand for equal treatment of non-procreative gay unions as “false” or “question-begging,” we avoid confronting the fact that we live in a contraceptive culture in which the sex lives of many married couples are not much more “procreative” than homosexual relationships. Gay marriage may be a false solution, but it’s a false solution to a real problem. Scholastic word-games don’t even begin to address that problem.

It’s no coincidence that the movement for same-sex marriage in the West began after the AIDS crisis. One suggested way of reining in the sexually libertine gay subculture borne of the Stonewall riots was to expand the notion of “family” in order to foster stability and fidelity within same-sex relationships by including them within existing social structures designed for that purpose. Whereas speaking of “the institution of the family” traditionally conjures up notions of the monolithic 1950s nuclear model—breadwinner dad, homemaker mom, and their smiling brood—the focus in recent years has shifted to pluralities of family models including single-parent families, divorced and remarried parents with step-children, and same-sex couples raising adopted or surrogate offspring. Expanding our notion of family is argued to be a way to provide a social support system for the humanization and socialization of same-sex love which was previously lacking.

The standard conservative Christian reaction to the expansion of the “nuclear family” to include gay families has been to redouble the defense of the 1950s hetero-patriarchal model, as if this model were of Divine institution. Modern “traditional marriage” apologists wax lyrical about the nuclear family as the fundamental cell-unit of the political community and above all as the healthiest environment for raising children.

Yet this argument is circular and unconvincing to anyone outside the conservative Christian subculture because it relies on precisely the social constructs called into question by the gay marriage debate. Naturally, if you live in a society that values the heterosexual nuclear family as the ideal, children raised within this structure will be ideally situated for participation in that structure, and social science will “prove” that this is the best environment for raising children, just as, had it existed in the thirteenth century, social science would have “proved” that the best way to raise a child was to send him to a monastery at 7 or 8-years-old.

The reality—as every social historian acknowledges—is that the “nuclear family” is an anomaly that arose after the industrial revolution, a revolution which eviscerated centuries-old community networks and forced mass migration to cities where people knew no-one except immediate family members. For most of Western, Christian history the “family” was a more sprawling and extended group consisting of mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, uncles, and friends. The male-female reproductive unit was its 

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