What gay marriage opponents have in common with gay French philosophers

This guest post from Rachel Hills is a crosspost from her blog Musings of An Inappropriate Woman. Rachel is an Australian writer, blogger and social researcher currently living in London.

A picture of a man in a quasi-military camouflage fatigues holding up a sign saying *Marriage One Man And Woman* at left; a portrait of French philosopher Michel Foucault at right

More in common than you'd think

Recently I wrote an article for a ladymag on gay marriage. The article in question being Proper Journalism rather than a blog post in which I can opine at will, I was briefed to cover both sides of the argument accurately and fairly.

As a twentysomething leftie for whom same-sex marriage is a clear cut matter of equality and human rights, this at first left me feeling kind of stumped. I understood that a lot of people didn’t support gay marriage for religious reasons, but there were also plenty of religious people who did support it – or who at least didn’t feel the need to push their beliefs onto other, non-religious people.

Like many who share my views, my instinct was to automatically dismiss those who actively oppose gay marriage as fearful, bigoted and homophobic.

But even fear and bigotry exist for a reason, so I looked at their arguments a little more closely. And I amused to discover that, beneath the surface, the view that marriage-is-between-a-man-and-a-woman-and-a-man-and-a-woman-only can probably be made sense of by the work of a famously gay, leftie French philosopher. Michel Foucault.

In fact, when it came to the political logic underlying their arguments, Foucault and gay marriage opponents had a fair bit in common.

Don’t believe me? Consider the below.

1. They both believe that sexuality is a social construct.

That is, that our sexual preferences and practices aren’t inbuilt, but can change according to the norms and ideals of the day.

Sure, the anti-gay marriage lobby say that married, heterosexual love is only “natural”, but if it was so natural, same-sex marriage wouldn’t be such a threat, would it?

To you and me, it probably seems kind of crazy to suggest that allowing same sex marriage would turn people gay in droves. But maybe we’re just not taking a long enough view.

If you agree that despite all the progress of the last 30 years, we still live in a society that makes it easier to be heterosexual than homosexual, it’s not that great a leap to say that there might be a portion of the population who currently identify as straight who might get a little bit more flexible with their sexual preferences if we lived in a society that was truly free of homophobia.

Marriage equality wouldn’t eradicate homophobia entirely, nor would it undo years of romantic conditioning from Disney films and rom-coms. But it would be a significant stamp of social approval that we currently lack, not to mention visible and culturally viable family model.

This is what anti-gay marriage advocates are really talking about when they worry that allowing same-sex marriage will “encourage” people to “turn gay”. Not that it will automatically flip a switch in every straight person, but that by decreasing homophobia, it might make future generations of young people more comfortable with coming out as gay or bi.

I don’t think they’re entirely wrong on that front, and Foucault probably wouldn’t have thought so either. The difference between them and Foucault, is that they think this is a bad thing.

2. They both believe that sex is a site of power and politics.

Foucault argued that the everyday sexual norms we take for granted actually served a deeper regulatory purpose: to incentivize married, straight reproductive sex amongst the bourgeois set, and boost the number of bourgeois babies in the process.

The anti-gay marriage lobby also believes that marriage-between-a-man-and-a-woman-and-between-a-man-a-woman-only serves a deeper regulatory purpose: to incentivise heterosexual unions formed with the intent of producing children. And how do they incentivise these unions? By endowing them with unique social and economic rewards that people who aren’t in said unions are unable to access.

One point that is often glossed in debates around same-sex marriage is that supporters and opponents are working with different definitions of marriage. And not just in the religious sense, either. There is a fundamental mismatch in how and why the two groups value the institution.

While liberal, secular types view marriage as the coming together of two people who love each other and want to spend the rest of their life together, anti-gay marriage lobbyists view it as a union for the production of families and children (never mind that a growing number of same-sex couples are building families and having children of their own).

In their view, heterosexual couples with kids genuinely are superior to deliberately childless heterosexual couples and to gay couples, and genuinely deserve to be awarded privileges other couples aren’t.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying these views don’t constitute homophobia. They absolutely do. And like all homophobia, they’re grounded in fear and prejudice. They’re just not grounded in mindless fear and prejudice.

To the contrary, they have a pretty clear political logic to them, even if we disagree with their conclusions. And understanding isn’t just the first step towards empathy and engagement: it’s also the first step to having a useful debate.



Categories: ethics & philosophy

Tags: , ,

2 replies

  1. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it argued that the conservative hostility towards progressive ideas on sex and gender is actually based on a very clear understanding of exactly what the battleground is and just a different conclusion as to which side should win the battle. It is the first time I’ve seen it argued using Foucault though :)
    It is worth remembering that these people are not illogical, they’re just operating off premises that we do not accept (and vice versa). This is where the analysis needed to peel back those premises tends to become quite radical which is in itself offputting to traditionalists – they tend to feel insulted by having any of their premises questioned at all, whereas progressives might not much like it either but we are at least accustomed to it.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, ladies. Totally agree with you on this:
    It is worth remembering that these people are not illogical, they’re just operating off premises that we do not accept (and vice versa).
    I think part of the problem with the same-sex marriage debate in Australia is that both sides of the argument (well, both sides of the argument that are given airtime – obviously there is room for additional points of view) are communicated mostly in terms of their conclusions. Ie, “This is about equality” vs “Marriage is between a man and a woman”.
    There’s not really much room for dialogue between those points of view: if you strongly believe one or the other, it seems self-evident, and the opposing view seems foreign and non-sensical. I’m not going to argue that having a dialogue is going to change the minds of “professional bigots” (as some commenters on Feministe put it), but I do think we need to understand the “logic” of those who disagree with us if we want to change the status quo.

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