Sunday, August 2, 2009

Why I curse John Howard, or, if Marriage is the answer you're asking the wrong question

This weekend around the country we've had rallies and protests for something called "marriage equality". I've ignored them because lets face it marriage is not about equality. But sadly, over the last couple of years, there has been this rising tide pushing lemming like for same-sex marriage. I first really became aware of it at Pride last year when there were all sorts of placards demanding the right to marry being distributed to carry in the march. I refused to carry any of them because I have a major problem with same sex marriage and I'm pleased to say I'm not alone. So many friends of mine, single and in relationships, are concerned about this marriage push. For me, it's yet another reason to curse John Howard because it was Howard more than anyone else who put marriage on the agenda for LGBT struggles and if same sex marriage becomes a reality in this country then it will be all thanks to John Howard. Back in 2004, he put through an amendment to the Marriage Act defining marriage as between a man and a woman thus ruling out same sex couples. It wasn't a principled move on Howard's part, he has none where power is concerned. No, what he wanted to achieve was the wedging of the Labor Party. Ironically, he failed to secure that but what he did do was to set the agenda for the LGBT struggle in this country. I say that because prior to 2004 marriage was not really an issue at all. Relationship recognition was, but there had been successes on various alternatives to marriage (and these also gave new rights for straight people too) and so there had been no concerted push towards same sex marriage. As friends back in the 90s put it, "queers just aren't that co-dependent."

So why am I not at all interested in "marriage equality" in this country (or anywhere for that matter)? Well, lets face it, marriage itself is not about equality. Marriage is a patriarchal institution - it's keywords are property and progeny, the latter being a specific form of property. The purpose of marriage is control of the womb and its products - that control is always male. Hence adultery is always a crime against a husband, never a wife. The womb is configured as a field and must be kept fenced in to ensure the paternity of its progeny. Pretty much all of our sexual morality is predicated on that assumption, and serves to protect the paternal lineage. The maternal lineage is at the same time disallowed, repressed.

Unsurprisingly, marriage is also about hierarchy, of male over female. Marriage celebrates the establishment of a household/family and the authority in that family is vested in the male, it's his name that the children bear, he who is, or is expected to be, the full time active agent in the world. The woman is configured as mother (to both husband and children), housekeeper and mistress. At the same time the maternal role is abjected. Our society is not organised to allow space for the maternal, hence the ongoing struggles for maternity leave and adequate child care and the recurring moral panics about single mothers, i.e. mothers who are not under the control and supervision of a man and, even worse, whose children are theirs and not connected to a paternal lineage.

Now I'm sure there are people saying that we're not like that and there are plenty of couples nowadays who try and are often successful in getting beyond such patriarchal norms. I agree. I know plenty of couples who have tried to resist and move beyond that paradigm. But I would suggest that more often than not these are moves that must be consciously embraced by the individuals and where things often come unstuck is when children arrive. Again, because our society does not value the maternal. The maternal is dangerous, it must be controlled, repressed. Most of the egalitarian marriages I know are ones where there are no children, making it easy for both partners to be on equal terms.

Of course marriage is not a static institution either. Most people don't realise but it has undergone quite major changes over the last few centuries, changes that have made it as much a capitalist institution as a patriarchal one. These changes have also put marriage front and centre in society as the defining institution for people. In the days when capitalism was in its infancy, marriage was embeedded in a broader network of relationships, biological and non-biological. As well as a network of blood-kin, a person also was part of a network of god-kin. In medieval Europe, there was also a practice of sworn friendships and sworn brotherhoods/sisterhoods. The Church rituals, that the late John Boswell and others uncovered, for making spiritual brothers or spiritual sisters were not rites for joining same sex lovers as such. I would imagine that perhaps the majority of such relationships had no clear homo-erotic component (although many would likely be homo-affectionate) but I can also imagine that many would have been. But most importantly these formalised friendships and forms of non-biological kinship meant that marriage and even parenthood was not the only or even the main significant relationship in a person's life. Marriage was a much more practical institution then, geared around the rearing of children. It was children of course who provided care and support in old age, a situation that still applies in the greater part of the world. If a husband and wife could develop a loving relationship over their lives it was considered a boon but not a requirement for a succesful marriage.

With the development of capitalism this network of relationships was progressively dismantled and done away with. The first to go in the West were the sworn friendships and rites of spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood (although they continued on in Eastern Europe, especially in the Balkans, up until the late 19th century). Similarly the networks of god-kin were dismantled. At the same time the household was progressively transformed into the nuclear family. In the houses of the wealthy, this was most marked by the separation of servants from family and the demarcation of servants by class. Whereas before, servants and masters would sleep together and servants were very much a part of the household interaction, by the 18th century servants were consigned to their own quarters and invisibilised within the workings of the house.

For most people though the focus stayed around the nuclear family of husband wife and children, with or without servants or other family retainers. Reformation ideologies of the household in society basically map out the role of the nuclear family. Luther still accepts a place for servants but in Calvin's ideal world the household is husband wife and children, without servants, and it's Calvin's model that becomes the norm for capitalist society with the embourgoisification of the working classes, starting in the 19th century but accelerating post-WW2 with the rise of consumer capitalism

Ironically, capitalism is not one for promoting human solidarity. It's model is the marketplace and it's fantasy is that we are all equal agents in that marketplace, a fiction that serves to buttress the power relations in society. Any sort of human solidarity is anti-capitalist, anti-market. The nuclear family is about as close as capitalism can get to any sort of human soldiarity and even that remains unstable in the face of the fissiparous atomising dynamics of the marketplace. So the nuclear family, the creation of capitalism is constantly destabilised by it.

In late capitalist society, marriage remains the means of establishing the nuclear family. That's its purpose and it is accompanied by a suite of mythologies designed to make marriage desireable. Ironically these mythologies primarily target women, the ones who come out second best in the marriage/nuclear family institution. You can tune into these mythologies on TV talk shows, in the plethora of magazines marketed to women, in the diet and beauty industries, in TV soaps, in most advertising actually, in film and song. They permeate the culture. Marriage is presented as the central goal of life, almost a coming of age, and a means of fulfilment and personal maturation. Some of the material addresses men but by far it's greatest focus is women. Furthermore marriage is now a commodity that's marketed vigourously, it's a big business! And it's a business that plays on romantic fantasies, idealised desires, indeed the whole big E of experience. Marriage is spun as the key to fulfilment and personal growth and status too.

I was recently talking about this issue with a young gay guy who described himself as a "revolutionary socialist". He could not understand why I did not support the push for same sex marriage. When I said marriage was a patriarchal instution, he corrected me saying it was a capitalist institution. Of course the reality is that it's both. But then surprisingly he said that same sex marriage might actually change marriage for the better. In other words he might be a revolutionary socialist, but he's clearly bought right into the marriage mythologies. And yet there is a whole history of marriage resistance in the history of socialism, anarchism and feminism. And what would surprise many people even more is that there is an even older religious history of marraige resistance both within and without Christianity going back millennia.

But could same sex marriage perhaps improve, maybe even redeem, marriage? I don't think so. In fact I think it might open up some very conundrums. Luce Irigaray says of patriarchy that it operates under the law of the Same. What she means is that under patriarchy there is only one effective gender, men. There are also wombmen who are not quite men and, because the womb is a potent life generator, the object of desire/envy, need to be controlled and fenced in and guarded. The discourses that govern these wombs, that define the heteronormative model that is patriarchy, are determined by men. Discursively the wombmen, the women are men. Women have yet to speak, have yet to make that discursive space from which a real conversation can unfold. There is as yet no heterosexuality, only heteronormativity. At the same time homosexuality is repressed because it makes visible this law of the Same and, whatever else, Patriarchy must cover up it's indebtedness to this law.

Capitalism has incorporated, built upon patriarchy. It strikes me that, like Patriarchy, capitalism recognises only one gender, the consumer. The consumer is discursively mostly framed as male - they must have agency, income to spend and so forth. The ideal consumer is single and a free agent, unencumbered by wombs and children. But failing that there is also the nuclear family. Despite its instablity, the nuclear family is important as a site of consumption and as a site for inculcating consumerist norms in the children. Under Patriarchy, gender roles were and still are quite rigorously enforced not least to mask the law of the Same. I'm not certain if that's so for capitalism. I think that's why women and LGBTQ people have made such rapid advances in recent years. From a systemic perspective, they are all consumers, or potential consumers. Capitalism is totalising - everyone must be incorporated into its dynamic. Thus both women and LGBTQ people must be integrated into the system.

And so I think same sex marriage is something that fits that dynamic. It's integrating - queer folk are offered the opportunity of establishing nuclear family households of their own. But it's also exclusive - not all the types of same sex relationships fit the marriage model. But homogeneity is also a hallmark of capitalism, that way desires can be determined and exploited. So from a capitalist perspective it doesn't matter if marriage doesn't suit the variety of same sex relationships there are out there. It's of no consequence because we will all live under the tyranny of marriage. And homosexuality will be heteronormatised.

And ironically, capitalism might even manage to fulfill that old patriarchal dream of eliding completely the maternal body by means of same sex marriage. On the weekend, the Age ran this story of two gay men in Victoria and their quest for parenthood. I'll preface my comnts by saying that I make no comment on their relationship or their parenting abliities and certainly nt on their love for their children. But what grabbed my attention in the story was the process by whch these children came to be. They "outlaid $40,000 to collect eggs from one woman and rent a womb from another to gestate their babies in a Mumbai fertility clinic" This account rang all sort of alarm bells for me, alarm bells of race, gender and colonialism. But further I was struck by how they seemd to have almost successfully elided, deleted the maternal body from the process. Not one but two women were involved, the one to provide the eggs and the other to provide the womb. By using two women in this way they have effectively made sure that neither woman can make any sort of claim to the children. The maternal lineage is confused and hence erased. The children here are clearly the property of the father alone

And so marriage is no solution, no answer to our quest for relationship recognition (and I certainly support the need for relationship recognition). As an institution it's flawed and will work to heteronormatise and privilege certain types of same sex relationships - those that are most marriage like. It will also cut us off from the various alternatives from the past that I would argue better serve our recognition needs and are actually much better models for our relationships than marriage, such as the sworn friendship models and spiritual brothers/sisters. And I also like the civil union, civil partnership models as well but not in isolation. Adopting same sex marriage, however, would close off any possibilities for developing such alternatives

I don't labour under the illusion that we can get rid of marriage but what I would like to see is the tyranny of marriage overthrown and marriage re-embedded in a broadwork network of relationships such that it becomes one among many and maybe not all that important in the scheme of things. And one thing is for sure providing a plenitude of relationship models would benefit both straight and queer.

One possible future for marriage could be one in which it is re-oriented towards childrearing. In other words two or more people take on a commitment to parenting. I don't restrict parenting to two because one of the basic facts of same sex parenting is that there is always a third, the provider of egg, womb, sperm. With the focus on the children I could see how the perspective could shift from children as property to children in relationship with parents. Indeed I could almost imagine the end of divorce (unless initiated by the children themselves to divorce from their parents) because it's no longer the relationship between the parents that counts but instead the commitment to and relationship with the children that counts.

But above all I want to see the celebration and acknowledging of friendship, passionate friendships, romantic friendships, sworn friendships, a matrix of loving friendships put front and centre in our society so as to open up richer affectional possibilities for all, straight and queer and to bring to an end once and for all the dead end tyranny of marriage.

I plan to follow up this post with some reflections on the implications of this position for religion, primarily Christianity which has as its endtime utopian vision a world without marriage. But for now I would strongly urge people to resist the call to go chasing after that "marriage hearse".


  1. Yes I tend to agree with your comments and where they come from however a civil union would answer the need to acknowledge being together. However or whoever you want to configure a relationship it gay straight group - it should not be the business of the state to tell us if we are in a relationship or not we need to be treated as individuals and adults - its the top down approach - choice is what it is all about is it not? Alot of people are now de facto and before july 1 they were not where they agree or not - thats the fuss

  2. Interesting about servants, Calvinism etc but you seem to be overlooking one or two things at least as regards the Jewish legacy which influences for much of the West. Adultery wasn't just crime against the man, both parties to adultery were subject to the law, (theoretically at least!) though adultery/infidelity was less strictly defined than today being to another man's wife only, not, say, a man going to a prostitute.

    Also it's important that super-patriarchal though Judaism may have been, one was and is a Jew through the mother, not the father so that one cannot really say the maternal lineage was disregarded in Jewish tradition. In fact, although the matter is somewhat covered up in the way it is set out, it appears Jesus' Davidic lineage was traced through Mary to Nathan son of Solomon, not inherited via Joseph who though Davidic belonged to a line that had suffered a curse at one point and so was not a pure lineage in the same way as Mary's that gave Jesus his messianic right.

  3. thank you for all this useful and productive thinking! Can you please help me off this pointy dilemma I'm uncomfortably balanced on? I am totally surrounded by young heterosexual people getting married; I'm full of enraged resentment that they think it's totally fine for them to marry while it remains symbolic of, and indeed the very site of, straight privilege ("what if it were some other order of people who weren't allowed to marry?, I ask, like if it were race based? Would you still feel it was not your problem?). They think I want to marry- but I do not. (I want to smash marriage, frankly, though I am failing utterly in this desire.)
    Grumpy Old Lesbian, Sydney