It seems that a major theme of both the General Conference’s Women’s Meeting and the rest of General Conference the emphasis on defending the family. Of course, by family, the speakers meant the traditional family, with a man, a woman, and 2.5 (or more) children. Plenty of people have asked in response: why can’t we defend the family by promoting more marriage — including same-sex marriage? Indeed, isn’t same-sex marriage an indication that LGB folks want to form healthy families?
In a few discussions online, I heard a narrative that I would like to counter: gay marriage is a trojan horse to destroy marriage for everyone.
To begin with one stark phrasing of this: I present to you a comment written by Seth R on a blog discussion of whether there could be “grace for gays” at LDS & Evangelical Conversations:
I frankly don’t care if gay people’s lived experience doesn’t match with it being a sin and being an ultimate problem for society. Because their anecdotes don’t change the equation. I don’t care if there are nice gay people. Gay marriage is still going to destroy the institution of marriage entirely and equivocate the sexes in ways that will profoundly undermine society and make it a more toxic place for everyone.
How could more people getting married destroy the institution of marriage? What’s that all about? How could gay marriage “profoundly undermine society and make it a toxic place for everyone”? I think that what underlies this particular narrative is two assumptions and a supposed “smoking gun”. I’ll summarize the assumptions, and then counter them in the latter half of this post.
Assumption 1: Gay people are inherently too different.
Seth’s basic argument relies upon the assumption that LGB people are inherently different from straight people. For example, Seth argues that gay people are inherently more promiscuous. Why? Firstly, because somehow, the mechanics of gay sex are inherently more promiscuous. As Seth argues:
Homosexual sex is, by-nature, inherently more promiscuous than heterosexual sex. You aren’t creating anything together that both of you need to be committed to. So it’s a bit of a no-brainer that homosexuals will tend to be a lot more promiscuous than heterosexuals.
I’m unsure as to whether Seth believes that straight folks engaging in non-procreative sex are also “inherently more promiscuous,” but it seems that to Seth, inherent is as inherent does. So, no babies? No commitment. I don’t think this actually is an argument for inherence, but Seth continues by employing statistics to show that gay people are empirically more promiscuous:
A recent survey from the Austin Institute of Family and Culture (edit: PDF) reported appalling rates of promiscuity in the homosexual population – especially the male population.
To cut and paste from another discussion where I presented this study:
The median heterosexual man or woman (age 18-60) reports somewhere between four and six opposite sex partners in their lifetime. The highest percentage of heterosexual males – 20% – reported 2-3 sexual partners. Only 3% of males and 2% of women reported over 50 partners.
I mentioned the “over 50″ percentage because the next finding is rather appalling. 30% of gay men report over 50 sexual partners. That’s 1 in 3. Interestingly 8% of gay men reported zero partners. After that a mere 3% of gay men reported the numbers of one, two and three sexual partners, jumping up to 9% at 4-6, 8% at 7-9, 10% at 10-15, 11% at 16-20, 4% at 21-30, and 11% at 31-50.
There is no bell curve in sex partners in the male gay population. Just an uneven climb, a curious drop around 21-30 and then a startling spike at over 50. Keep in mind that these are only numbers among self-identifying-as-gay respondents, but still…
Among lesbians, there is actually a bell curve – still exhibiting more promiscuity than heterosexuals but nowhere near the extremes in the male spread. Much higher percentages report at the levels of 1-2, curiously few at 3, and a spike up to 20% at 4-6 which steadily dies off as the graph goes into higher numbers.
Either way – the difference is stark. Homosexuals do not seem to value monogamy as much as heterosexuals and are much more prone to promiscuity and sexual risk-taking.
I’m just going to throw out here that the Austin Institute of Family and Culture is where Mark Regnerus (who doesn’t have the greatest track record with social science research) is at these days. But at this time, I am actually not going to challenge this data at all, because my argument later in this post will address this differently. I’ll just note: this is data that Seth wants to use to argue that gay people are inherently more promiscuous. That that data — if true — represents an inherent, unchangeable reality about gay men and lesbian women.
Assumption 2: LGB people will inevitably change marriage to reflect their differences
From asserting that LGB people are inherently different, Seth argues that said folks will inevitably pursue marriages that reflect those differences. So he points to articles that discuss that monogamy is not a priority in many same-sex marriages. For example:
…Peter Zupcofska, a leading marriage and divorce attorney for same-sex couples, says he’s dealt with premarital agreements between gay men in which they’ve agreed that sex with other people “would not be a reason to penalize each other.” Before they ever said “I do,” they wrote a contract with “the intention that they’d have an open relationship once they were married.”
Zupcofska says he has never drawn up such a clause for a heterosexual couple nor, fascinatingly, for a lesbian couple. A study out of UCLA found that two-thirds of formally legalized same-sex couples are made up of women; yet, nearly all the studies about sex and monogamy in same-sex couples focus exclusively on men.
Gay-rights groups are often nervous about sociologists or reporters looking too closely at what really happens in the bedrooms of gay relationships, out of fear that anti-gay activists will bludgeon them with a charge of sexual promiscuity, as a reason to deny them equal rights. But now that gays and lesbians are on the cusp of having access to marriage equality, will the conversation about monogamy change within queer culture? And would straight support have helped gays get the marriage rights they now have if the truly complex nature of sexual boundaries for gay couples were more openly talked about?
“Smoking Gun”: Radical Queer theorists have recognized the destructive potential of gay marriage all along!
The smoking gun of Seth’s argument — the reason you can know that it’s really real…is to point to various queer theorists or radical activists who have theorized this all along. For a summary of this from a historical perspective:
…Others criticize gay marriage for attempting to make homosexuality “normal,” which inevitably requires isolating fairies, bears, butch dykes, and others who can’t (or won’t) fit the “model” same-sex family with 2.2 in vitro kids, a middle class income, a Volvo in the garage, and TiVo in the living room.
These critiques of marriage are important and need to be kept in mind by anyone thinking of getting married—homo, het, or other. The feminist/anarchist ideal of no state involvement whatsoever in any sort of union among people is obviously the ideal. But as with many struggles, the path to this goal is not always the most direct one. We need to seize the opportunities history provides. In the short term, this may require embracing a practice (marriage) we would otherwise like to see ended rather than extended.
Context is all. What is an oppressive practice in one context can be liberating in another. Just as revolutionary civil rights workers like James Forman recognized that a Black Southerner voting was not buying into the system but threatening it, so is gay marriage a potential threat to marriage and the traditional family. It is a threat because it undermines the assumption that an intimate union consists of one man and one woman. Radicals need to challenge this “heteronormativity,” as academics call it, and the best means to do so today is by embracing the struggle to legalize same-sex marriages, whatever one’s opinion of marriage itself. All the radical critiques of marriage combined don’t pose one-tenth the threat to patriarchal and heterosexist institutions that the simple marriage between the two middle-class white lesbians whose marriage my wife legally witnessed does.
Radical feminist and queer activists and scholars, many of whom used to be critics of gay marriage, are already making this point. In the early nineties, for example, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force policy director Paula Ettelbrick opposed making legal marriage a priority for the gay rights movement because, she argued, gay marriage would encourage assimilation rather than acceptance of queer difference. But Ettelbrick now supports gay marriage. This may seem like a reversal in position, but not necessarily. The basic principle Ettelbrick holds to is that the basic notion of the “traditional family” needs to be transformed. “Being queer,” she writes, “means pushing the parameters of sex and family, and in the process transforming the very fabric of society.” In the current situation, she sees gay marriage as an opening toward transforming the family and subverting state interference in unions among people.
Are You Convinced?
So, let’s take a break right here. Are you scared? Are you worried? If you were or are against gay marriage, did/do any of these points inform your view? If you were or are for gay marriage, do any of these links or quotations give you pause?
For the rest of this post, I want to argue a different view: I want to argue that one could be against some of the things described above while still advocating for homonormative gay marriage.
Counter 1: The (Mis)Education of LGB Youth
The biggest part of what I have presented as Seth’s first assumption is assuming inherence. That there is something permanent, unchangeable, and essential about non-heterosexualities that lead to promiscuity.
I don’t think that is the case. I think that it is fairly obvious that straight people can be as promiscuous as gay people. That straight people can have the same desires that might lead them into promiscuity. It doesn’t really follow that the body mechanics drive one group into promiscuity and the other away from it — while it is true that straight folks have to worry about pregnancy, it is also true that 1) straight folks can have non-procreative sex and 2) there is contraception or even more extreme measures should one not want to become or remain pregnant.
Instead, I think that where LGB folks and straight folks largely differ is in socialization or education. I’ll focus on the Mormon church’s socialization for now, but I think this applies (to more or less of an extent) in other religious institutions, and to a different extent in secular institutions.
Both gay and straight Mormons are raised with the understanding that sexuality should only be employed within committed, monogamous, legal and lawful married relationships. However, both gay and straight Mormons are raised with the understanding that marriage is only between a man and a woman — and that any expression of homosexuality is sinful.
This education and socialization comes with its own picture of what it means to be gay and to have gay relationships. Homosexuality is inevitably promiscuous (see Seth’s comments above).
Straight Mormons are raised with the awareness that they can go wrong with their relationships and sexuality, but they are also given appropriate channels to strive for. So while a straight man may sow wild oats in his young days, he may always settle, repent, and marry.
Gay Mormons don’t have this. They have celibacy (which actually isn’t a valid option in Mormonism), mixed-orientation marriage…and wanton, promiscuous gay sin.
And to be fair, lots of LGB Mormons try the first two options…but if they slip up into the third, they often experience more guilt and shame regarding that, and their slip-ups reinforce the idea that it was all wanton. It was a lapse of judgment. And on top of that, slip-ups are more likely to be unsafe because there is no education on how to safely and conscientiously navigate gay relationships. There is no education because per the church, it is impossible.
(In a sense, it’s kinda like with abstinence-only education. If someone goes that route “slips up”, then they will be worse off than if they were taught a comprehensive sex education, had rumors stomped out and replaced with reliable information.)
My sense, therefore, is that these differences between straight and gay are not intrinsic or inherent, but rather differences in socialization. Because society (and especially the religious institutions within) have failed to constructively teach LGB responsible outlets for sexuality, that society has in fact created the hazards it decries.
What’s good anecdotal evidence in favor of this? It’s the fact that LGB folks raised Mormon actually want to live in relationships that are pleasing to their families and their religion. The clubs and bars are unfamiliar; we want the white picket fences. Seth has challenged that these folks represent a minority of the LGB communities. Perhaps (but so could be said for any Mormon) — but it just goes to show that this isn’t inherent. You can’t take the gay out of the gay Mormon, but you can encourage positive, thoughtful ways to be gay.
Counter 2: Change may be inevitable, one can steer change
If LGB people are not intrinsically more promiscuous (or whatever social and moral ills we associate with non-heterosexualities), then what about marriage? Will it change if gay people seek it?
I would say that marriage certainly has already changed. Hawkgrrrl has written about the myth of traditional marriage. But it wasn’t gay marriage that changed it. Marriage has changed because heterosexuals got the idea that love and feelings matter. Marriage has changed because collectively, we have decided that women should have political and economic rights and should seek education and employment.
Good luck turning back the clock on either of those things. (But I think this explains why many conservatives do try to turn back on these things.)
But you know what? With those changes, even if they kick and scream, religious institutions have mostly shifted along with the changes. You don’t really hear any churches openly dismissing the concept of marriage for love — they temper it with messages about sacrifice, about love being more than fleeting feelings of infatuation. These are good messages, good responses to change. Even though the LDS church is against many feminist causes for women’s equality, even it tries to argue that men and women are co-presiders in the home, rather than making the woman unequivocally beneath the man.
So, it’s possible to steer with change.
This can be done for gay marriage as well.
Certainly, if nothing is done to change the message taught to LGB youth, then religions will have no say in what values they have, what motivations they have, and what they ultimately do. It will, again, create the hazards it decries. But isn’t it possible for various religious groups to refocus their efforts? Don’t challenge gay marriage — challenge promiscuity, whether in same-sex or opposite-sex relationships. Challenge any worldview that doesn’t give sexuality the soberness and care that it deserves.
Goal: Preach Homonormativity
When people like Seth point to radical queer theorists who used to oppose gay marriage but who now are either silent about the issue or are in support of gay marriage as a trojan horse, this gets to ideas of heteronormativity and homonormativity.
Without getting too into the details, it’s safe to say that the LDS church is thoroughly heteronormative. If you think about the Proclamation on the Family, everything the church has said about eternal gender or in refutation of intersex or transgender issues, that is heteronormativity. A man and a woman (with very clear roles by their genders) marry and have 2.5 kids. Leave it to Beaver.
The opportunity for Mormons and other religious conservatives is to expand their heteronormativity and preach homonormativity. That is: monogamy and commitment and marriage. That is: the opposition to promiscuity or casual sex.
This is an opportunity to work with the growing inevitability of gay marriage while still remaining relevant — certainly, a lot of people have problems with heteronormativity (and many would have problems with homonormativity), but this is a much more natural and appealing message to sell than messages of basic brokenness, disorder, or inferiority. And even more, this is still taking a stand apart from some cultural forces. It is still distinctive. It is still disciplined.
Will it be easy? No, probably not. Will it convert all the doubters? Definitely not. Heteronormativity and homonormativity are criticized by plenty of people because it is still exclusionary in ways that people think are unjustified — it still sets up “good straight relationships” and “good gay relationships” to be contrasted with “bad relationships.” But that again just goes to show that you can change with a changing world without losing all sense of value.