Gender and marriage equality

Gender is really at the heart of the same-sex marriage debate. Well, at least that’s what David Quinn, the figurehead of the anti-marriage equality movement in Ireland, thinks. He says that the debate comes down to whether or not we attach “any particular importance to gender differences.” In an article of his published last month in the Independent, he criticises proponents of same-sex marriage for ignoring things like the “sexual complementarity” of men and women and the importance of the “blend” of motherhood and fatherhood in the rearing of children. His argument is neatly summed up by this paragraph:

In the name of ‘tolerance’ and ‘equality’ Irish people are being asked to abandon the notion that motherhood and fatherhood are complementary roles of special value to children and society.

What are these apparently important and complementary gender differences? Curiously, David Quinn doesn’t elaborate on them on his article. In fact, he never elaborates on this point, even when I’ve asked him directly in the course of our interactions on Twitter. His use of the terms gender differences and complementary roles rather than gender roles is also evasive; the latter term is associated with an era when women stayed in the home and had dinner waiting for their husbands when they returned from exclusively male workplaces. Gender differences seems to suggest something altogether different, but in reality, it doesn’t. The idea of motherhood and fatherhood as complementary only makes sense if we think of them in terms of particular roles that are, or should be, fulfilled by men and women in the home.

Although there are still social mechanisms that enforce and police gender roles (media depictions of women, “slut-shaming”, schoolyard bullying of effeminate boys, etc.) it’s no longer acceptable for public figures to explicitly endorse  different roles for men and women in society or in the home. I’m fairly sure that endorsements of this kind would be ridiculed as hopelessly backward. This is probably why David Quinn deliberately avoids elaborating on what gender differences in particular he thinks are important and are worth preserving. Instead, he points to work by anti-feminist Christina Hoff Sommers, who argues that feminism oppresses men. Closer to home, he points to UCC emeritus biochemistry professor William Reville’s recent article refuting the notion that gender is a social construct.

Reville says that gender-stereotyped play exists, that boys prefer toy cars and girls prefer dollhouses and that these preferences are instinctive. He points to examples from Sweden, in particular the Egalia school in Stockholm which seeks to educate children free from societal conceptions of gender, and argues that such schools “frustrate strong biological tendencies” and are therefore unhealthy.  It’s hard to understand why schools like Egalia harm children simply by de-gendering the classroom; boys are not forced to play with dollhouses and girls are not forced to play with toy cars, rather they can more freely choose what kind of play to engage in without being prompted or directed toward one kind or another. I have no idea what could possibly be “unhealthy” about that situation, and Reville seemingly does not either because he doesn’t fully explain it, offering instead one bizarre and extraordinary example as though it applies generally.

It’s somewhat clear, then, that David Quinn does believe it’s harmful to just let men and women be. Boys prefer toy cars and girls prefer dollhouses; therefore men are do-ers and women are carers and we all need some kind of prompting  in this direction.  The reality is that straight people just buy into this idea less and less. Marriage used to be a property transaction between fathers and husbands, but it was heterosexuals who redefined the institution into what it is widely perceived to be today: a legal commitment between two equal, autonomous individuals, with or without children. I think couples who do fit traditional gender roles (i.e. stay-at-home mother, working father) take pride in the fact they have both chosen this arrangement and would reject the idea that other couples ought to be shepherded into it  by any kind of social engineering. Likewise, in spite of attempts to portray schools like Egalia in an alarmist, sensationalist way, I doubt most people would find the concept as monstrous as David Quinn and William Reville seemingly do.

In this context, the choice of same-sex marriage as the focus for the effort to push back on widespread rejection of traditional gender roles and marriage norms by heterosexuals is puzzling.  The undoing of restrictive notions of gender in the Western mindset has little to do with the LGBT movement when compared with the effects of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, or the example set by educated, financially independent working women. It must be the case that things like liberalised divorce laws, an economic landscape that increasingly compel both parents to work full-time, and the normalisation of separation and remarriage shape people’s conceptions of marriage much more greatly than married same-sex couples ever could.

It seems that gays and lesbians are simply an easy target. Heterosexuals would not take too kindly to efforts to roll back on contraception or divorce or the admission of women into higher education, phenomena that have done much more to undermine traditional gender roles than marriage equality ever will. There is no pervasive animus upon which to build such a campaign in the way that there is for the effort to deny rights to a sexual minority treated with suspicion by large swathes of society.

Of course, the marriage equality debate isn’t just about gender roles and the family as David Quinn says it is. It’s also a convenient outlet for religious opposition to homosexuality, opportunities for which are quite rare in Ireland where the Church has lost any legitimacy on sexual morality. The debate provides a means for coding public expressions of prejudice, furnishing plausible deniability to homophobes who can hide behind the guise of “protecting marriage” or something similar.

On the issue of gender roles, however, traditionalists are left with no choice but to wage a pathetic symbolic war on gays and lesbians because targeting the real causes of their erosion would be a non-starter with heterosexuals. It’s cowardly but, thankfully, it’s not working.


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