Perhaps the greatest reason for my ambivalence on gay marriage is that as my psychological and mythological studies have touched on anthropology, culture history and ritual, I have observed that all cultures understand the institution as a pairing of the opposites, uniting two individuals of different sexes. Across cultures, the bride and groom have always played different roles in the ceremony. (Arnold van Gennep offers a good introduction to this in the chapter, “Betrothal and Marriage” in his classic, The Rites of Passage.)
That said, I believe that if the state recognizes traditional marriages, it should also recognize same-sex unions, but am just not beholden to the term “marriage” to define them.
Given the vast array of evidence from a multiplicity of disciplines* on sex difference, I remain troubled by using the term “marriage equality” to define the movement for state recognition of same-sex marriage. It suggests that sex differences are meaningless or, to borrow a term of a discredited theory, are mere “social constructs.”
In his thoughtful consideration of marriage and Judge Walker’s opinion in today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat contends that gay and straight unions are not the same:
But if we just accept this shift [i.e., changing views of marriage), we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.
Simply put, two men or two women relate to each other in a different manner than do one man and one woman. It’s folly to suggest that sexual difference is meaningless, particularly given the vast amount of scientific research on the topic these past forty years.
Like Douthat, we would be wise to recognize that same-sex unions differ from different-sex ones. And without an “Equal Rights Amendment” in the constitution, states are free to consider that difference in determining how to recognize those unions. Perhaps, like the legislators of Vermont and New Hampshire, they will choose to call those unions “marriage” which is and should be their prerogative.
Or perhaps is states as diverse as Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin, they will call them something different. And that is the genius of our federal system. Would it that all states followed the lead of those who have recognized same-sex unions.
That said, we obscure the differences between the sexes at our own peril. And let us appreciate that difference. There is a reason the French delight in their expression, Vive la différence!
* From my Pajamas piece on Judge Walker’s opinion:
In the intervening years, however, a whole host of studies from neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists have found that sexual differences are real. In his 2002 book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker observed: “Neuroscience, genetics, psychology, and ethnography are documenting sex differences that almost certainly originate in human biology.”
Evolutionary biologists Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson have even found these differences in our primate “cousins.” In her recent book on the male brain (a companion to her 2006 study of the female brain), Psychiatry Professor Louann Brizendine writes: “Male and female brains are different from the moment of conception.”