Gender Difference And Marriage

Helen Rittelmeyer has a couple of interesting posts up on marriage questions. As Helen may know, I've long been a believer in the biological power of gender. (See my essay on testosterone from a while back.) I think gender differences are obviously culturally created to some extent, but not all the way down. There is a profound biological difference between men and women that affects our behavior and minds in ways that are irreducible and unchangeable. It is also quite clear, it seems to me, that a marriage between a man and a woman, and between a man and a man, and between a woman and a woman, is each going to have distinct characteristics. They will each be experientially different experiences, and find different ways to endure, and have different problems to tackle. What love brings together gender complicates. I don't need to tell heterosexuals that.

But, for that reason, I don't believe this change will reinforce theories that gender is entirely a social construction. Nothing Camarriage1justinsullivangetty exposes the power of gender than seeing a subculture or an institution that is of one gender alone. And, in fact, you will find no greater manifestation of gender's reach beyond culture than examining the differences between gay male life and lesbian life. (To throw one true cliche around: Men are generally horndogs; women generally more emotionally mature; in the US most same-sex marriages are therefore unsurprisingly lesbian and a high proportion of gay male marriages occur -again unsurprisingly - among the older and more settled - less testosterone to fuck it up.) All of which is to say a male-male couple will doubtless have a different core dynamic than female-female marriage and male-female marriage (although the demands of commitment and responsibility tug us all in the same direction). But, to return to Helen, bringing this out into the open does not disprove gender difference; it may well actually help illuminate how men and women do actually differ in terms of some core issues, such as intimacy, love, commitment, sex, and so on. (There is, of course, enormous diversity within these categories too - I'm not denying that, merely saying that the deeper, gender issues are at play as well.)

Does this mean that somehow gay marriages will alter the gender dynamics of straight ones? If you believe in gender difference as biological at its core, the answer is no. The power of gender in the lives of 97 percent of the population is never going to affected deeply by cultural acceptance of the homosexual minority. That's why it's odd to find conservatives so frightened by the prospect. Could the emergence of dramatically equal forms of marriage strengthen the model of male-female equality within straight marriage and undermine slightly the fundamentalist insistence on the subordination of wives? Yes. But only in so far as 1 percent of marriages change the 99 percent.

And this is surely one of the biggest blindspots of the Christianist right.

They always under-estimate the cultural power of the 99 percent with respect to the 1. Remember that that 1 percent spends most of our formative years in a heterosexual family. We know you and are more powerfully affected by you than you will ever be by us. And ponder how deeply integrative the act of marriage is, in keeping those families together, and sustaining the culture of family, binding gay people more firmly to their own homes and families and backgrounds. This is why I spent the first years of the marriage debate fighting the far left. Marriage equality threatened the gay left's adoption of queerness as integral to being gay, revealed that gay people were already at the heart of America, not its subversive enemies, and asked straights merely to take gays not as definitively "other" but as the full and complex humans we are. Just like you.

One day, conservatives will see the tragedy of their attack on one of the most conservative and humane reforms of our time. The reason I believe this is because I think reality and time will prove it. That is why I am unafraid of the attacks and the backlash. In the end, reason will conquer fear. And reality will out-live panic.

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty.)