Marriage equality is a struggle for civil rights, a matter of equal treatment and justice. I think most on this site agree about that. I think most of us also agree that opposition to marriage equality is motivated by fear, whether it is fear arising from the "ick" factor, a baseless and mean-spirited fear about the "welfare of children," or some obscure fear that -- in ways we cannot yet imagine -- social relations will be very different should marriage equality become universal.
Opponents of marriage equality commonly express this fear in terms of a threat: marriage equality threatens traditional marriage. There is an immediate problem with that maneuver. A simple appeal to tradition is a fallacy. Just because a social practice has been around for a while does not justify continuing the practice. (Think of slavery, child labor, denying women the vote.) If a tradition is worth preserving, you need to give reasons to show that it is. If the traditional family is what defenders say it is, those reasons should be readily available and persuasive.
Yet we continue to hear that marriage equality threatens the traditional family. Proponents of marriage equality, for their part, deny any such threat. Marriage equality is about just that: equal rights. Nothing is taken away from straight couples; nothing is devalued. There is no threat. On the contrary, marriage equality will expand equality and justice. Democracy is the winner.
That's true In fact, it's truer than usually recognized. But, below the squiggle, I'm going to raise a critical point that sometimes gets overlooked in the rush to reassure conservatives that there is no threat to traditional marriage. There is a threat, and it is a justified threat to the traditional family. I wonder whether it would be a good rhetorical strategy (or perhaps counterproductive) to acknowledge and spell out the nature of that threat, so that it is clear what conservatives are actually defending?
I'm going to develop my ideas by using Rebecca Solnit's argument in "In Praise of the Threat" as a scaffold. ("In Praise of the Threat" is a chapter in the outstanding collection of essays Men Explain Things to Me.)
To say it all at once: “Marriage equality is a threat: to inequality” (pp. 65). That's it, really. Solnit neatly captures the dual character of marriage equality that, in different ways, has often been discussed on this site. At the same time that marriage equality expands equality, it threatens something strangely dear to conservatives: the patriarchal hierarchy and inequality that has for so long (i.e., traditionally) structured the family.
The history of different-sex marriage (i.e., the traditional family) is a history of inequality, of the subordination and control of women by men. That hierarchy has been institutionalized for millennia, which is why it is rightly called traditional. These are not "fighting words," and no reasonable and honest person can deny their truth. We admit as much every time we say "but things are better now." And, although they rarely admit it openly, it is that tradition of gender hierarchy and inequality that conservatives want to maintain.
Marriage equality portends something historically new -- namely, "marriage between equals." In an inconspicuous but masterful sentence, Solnit captures what is morally and politically creative about same-sex marriage: “No hierarchical tradition underlies their union” (pp. 62-63). In the phrase "marriage equality," therefore, we should hear a demand not only for equal rights between same-sex and different-sex couples but, also, for a new egalitarianism within marriage, equality between spouses.
Of course, feminists had been turning that soil for a long time, questioning, among other things, the legitimacy of the traditional family and its gender-specific roles. As Solnit notes:
Feminism made same-sex marriage possible by doing so much to transform a hierarchical relationship into an egalitarian one. Because marriage between two people of the same gender is inherently egalitarian – one partner may happen to have more power in any number of ways, but for the most part it's a relationship between people who have equal standing and so are free to define their roles themselves (pp. 62, emphasis added).A marriage in which people "have equal standing" and "define their roles themselves." It's not hard to see how, in time, marriage equality promises to improve and enrich different-sex marriages. Here is a model of a marriage between substantive equals, which would enable straight folk to rethink traditional social roles and expectations -- concerning, for example, family planning, shared housework and childcare, support for each other's careers.
Ultimately, Solnit concludes, that egalitarian impulse is what frightens conservatives. When we hone in on what it is conservatives are trying to protect, we arrive at a familiar answer: patriarchy. The "threat" they perceive is a threat to patriarchy. In Solnit's words:
The courts have scoffed at the reproduction and child-raising argument against marriage equality. And the conservatives have not mounted what seems to be their real objection: that they wish to preserve traditional marriage and more than that, traditional gender roles (pp. 64).Marriage equality does not threaten marriage, but it does threaten the inequality internal to traditional marriage. Which is why Solnit says the "threat" should be celebrated, and which returns me to the question I proposed above. Would it be better (more expedient politically?) to fly under the radar and reassure opponents of marriage equality that there is no threat? Or to clarify just what it is that is threatened in order to make conservatives own up to the sexist injustice they want to perpetuate?
Traditional marriage should not be legitimized as some sort of ethical norm, or as a standard against which every form of intimate relationship is to be measured. To reassure opponents of marriage equality that nothing is threatened is to play into their hands, since it concedes without challenge the legitimacy of a tradition rooted in injustice.
If conservatives want to defend traditional marriage, or rather, traditional gender roles, make them own it. Instead of intimating that theirs is a club it would be good to join, albeit with equal respect and privileges, perhaps it would be better to make them justify themselves for a change. It seems to me that the egalitarian promise of marriage equality, rather than the hierarchy of traditional marriage, should be heralded as a template for justice.