Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dear Justice Scalia: "Tradition" is a Social Construction. Love, Everybody

I so badly want to be done with this whole mess of the marriage rights business because there are approximately eighty bazillion things that I care more about, but some of the stuff people have said this week gets under my skin so much that I can't shut up about it.  Supreme Court Justice Scalia wants to know when exactly it became unconstitutional to discriminate against same-sex couples in terms of the right to marry.  I'm personally curious as to when exactly the "traditional marriage" Scalia is so fond of referring to became in fact "tradition."  I think Scalia himself estimated the figure at two thousand years.  Others have thrown out the casual "thousands of years."  Still others simply go with "time immemorial."  Many of these folks are learned individuals who have studied scripture and history and thus must be aware that there has been no single definition of or purpose for marriage since "time immemorial," or even for the measly past thousand years.  Marriage meant many different things during biblical times (including polygamy, violence, rape, and slavery) for instance, and almost never reflected notions of romance, consent, or monogamy that many folks value today.  In ancient Egypt, members of the royal family married their siblings to keep bloodlines "pure," a practice surely anathema to most of us today.  In ancient Greece, it was acceptable for men married to women to also engage in sexual relationships with other men.  In Europe, up until about a century ago, marriages among wealthy families, nobles, and monarchs were used as economic transactions or to bolster political alliances.  Very romantic.  There are a few societies in Asia in which it has been historically accepted for women to marry multiple men.  There are instances in pre-colonial southern African history of women marrying women.  In some cultures, wealth, property, and family names are passed down through the father.  In others, these things pass down through the mother.  In all of this mess, I'm having difficulty discerning how it is that we know what "traditional marriage" is and how, if such a thing does exist, do we point to an origin that is thousands of years old?        

Social norms evolve.  Marriage has evolved rapidly in the United States in just the past fifty years, with most changes having relatively little to do with queer folks wanting to get hitched to each other.  Fifty years ago, marriage meant that men went to work and women were denied career opportunities.  That is increasingly less the case.  It also meant that husbands could sexually assault their wives and it would not be considered rape.  Legally, at least, this is no longer the case.  Prior to 1967, it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry each other in some states.  That is no longer the case.  Prior to the 1970s, divorce was akin to a social and economic death sentence for many women.  This very different today.  For the generations before mine, there was still significant stigma attached to the notion of unmarried people starting a family.  Now such arrangements are common.  Fifty years before that, things had also changed a lot.  And fifty years before that, and fifty years before that, and so on ad nauseum.  So, Justice Scalia, I'll ask again.  Exactly when did the notion that marriage is between one man and one woman, 'til death do us part, become such an undeniable "tradition?"

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Not Born This Way

An article from Social (In)Queery challenging the notion that people are "born gay" (or "born straight") recently started circulating among friends of mine and it's given me the kick in butt I needed to finish this post.  Like the above-mentioned post states, although there is essentially no evidence that queerness is genetic, some in the LGBT rights movement (hello HRC) carry a deep belief in the political efficacy of the "born this way" or genetic argument.  So far, the notion that sexuality is immutable has led to some political victories in the way of civil rights for queer folks.  I think it has also led us to put too great an emphasis on marriage as the necessary foundation for the family, rather than providing true critiques of an institution that privileges some families and excludes others, regardless of whether same-sex couples are included or not.

More importantly, if we rely on the yet unproven idea that "gayness" is genetic and unchangeable, we make the wrong arguments about individual freedom and back ourselves into a corner that may hurt a lot of us in the end.  I understand that some LGBT folks feel it's important to present gender identity sexuality as an immutable characteristic because they believe this will make it easier to win civil rights and protections for queer people - likely drawing comparisons to the movement for civil rights for African-Americans.  But sexuality and gender are not the same as race.  What happens if there's not a gay gene?  What happens if it turns out that human gender and sexuality are really inexplicable phenomena - that we're all just made to love each other and express ourselves in all kinds of random, quirky ways?  What if sexuality and gender expression are somehow tangled up with life experience and the choices we make?  If we base the entire argument that queer folks should have certain legal protections on queerness being an immutable characteristic, we're kind of screwed if it turns out there's no way to prove that we're "born this way." And if it turns out there is a "gay gene," will any civil rights we win only be extended to those who can prove they have it?

I'm a staunch believer that consenting adults should have the freedom to do as they please in terms of their bodies and relationships.  Even if there is some kind of genetic explanation for queerness, would we say that someone without the gene (or whatever it might be) shouldn't be permitted to choose a relationship with someone of the same sex if they please?  Or to bend the rules of gender?  Would we force people to undergo tests to prove they're truly queer?  That's not a fight I want any part of.

Whether or not sexuality and gender identity are genetic or changeable isn't the point.  There are rights and protections granted to other categories of identity that are also not biological and are in theory, fluid (like religion or national origin, for instance), but are still protected based on the idea that that people ought not to feel pressured, via discrimination or fear of financial retribution, or any other reason, to change those parts of themselves.  The above-mentioned (In)Queery author provides religion as a prime example.  Why shouldn't the same logic apply to gender and sexuality?  I don't know if I or anyone else was "born this way" or not and I don't care.  I shouldn't be granted rights as a queer person because I "can't help" my queerness, but because I am a person and as a person, should have the right to live my life as best affirms me and the people I surround myself with.