In reading Stephanie Coontz’s piece “Gay Marriage Isn’t Revolutionary. It’s Just Next,” it was surprising and somewhat enraging to read about the article in the American Medical Association journal that endorsed the idea that it was essentially okay for a husband to beat his wife if she behaved in a way that emasculated him. With very few exceptions it is difficult to imagine that anybody would endorse or approve of such an idea. This transition – within about three decades – parallels what Coontz describes with regard to the changing nature of gay marriage. In her piece, as well as in other authors’ writings, the meaning behind the title of Coontz’s work with regard to the changing ideas, social practices, and in some cases laws about gender roles and sexual orientation becomes clearer: the law does not spontaneously change in response to changing social values, and social values will change regardless of what the law says, which is what this paper will explain and explore.
Human society and social practices emerged long before people started creating and writing down laws and legal practices. That is to say, the law was essentially influenced or informed by preferred social practices and preferences. At some point, based on a reading of Coontz, it becomes clear that certain practices and preferences – such as the economic benefits of marriage to men – began to dominate social practices and did so “for millennia” (Coontz) until the necessity of such arrangements faded. Then love became the dominating motivation for making the decision to wed. The law began to change, but it took some time before the law actively reflected social practice. Coontz points out interracial marriage as a precursor to gay marriage: at some point society realizes that such pairings are not going to destroy society, that marriage is not fundamentally changed by the race or gender of the individuals involved, but the law seems to take longer to accept this information.
Nevertheless, notions of gender, while clearly becoming slightly less condescending, remained unbalanced legally and socially. Yes, it is true that with the efforts of feminism women gained more and more power, but prevailing social beliefs about what it meant to be a man or a woman, the masculine or the feminine, persisted. They continue to persist, and they drive the performance of social behaviors – regardless of the legal implications – in many individuals. Kim’s description of how queer kids – that is, kids who do not clearly adhere to strictly masculine or feminine roles – reflects how society treats such individuals and how that affects those individuals. When their treatment results in injury or death, as it did to Taylor Clementi, people then invoke the law. Kim argues that simply threatening potential perpetrators and punishing active perpetrators are insufficient. True, hate crime law and the willingness of the law to investigate and prosecute such crimes reflects changes in the law that reflect changes in society, which is a good thing. However, Kim argues that the influence of society is more important but more difficult: “it’s tougher, more uncertain work creating a world that loves queer kids, that wants them to live and thrive.” Instead, society sends a particular and damaging message to such people, asking them to “Please, don’t exist” (Kim). The psychosocial outcomes and damage of such prevalent messages is clear: self-loathing, drug abuse, and death, either through homicide or suicide. Kim basically states that society must create and disperse more support messages, regardless of the law.
Lorber describes in “’Night to His Day’” about men actively ‘performing’ feminine roles in public (the two dads on public transportation). These two dads have, as far as can be told, made their decisions of their own volition. The law has not dictated their parenting style or their roles. These men evidently did not have any trouble performing traditional feminine roles, tasks that earlier laws dictated their performance by a woman, which those same laws would have likely described as a person with a vagina. The law could not conceive of transgendered people; in that sense, the law could not have ever adequately described or dictated their roles, seemingly driven only by the dichotomy of masculine and feminine. This dichotomy had been dictated by society before the law got involved, but the law clearly adapted those beliefs. As Coontz points out, the law finally divested itself of such notions, adopting a gender-neutral approach. This approach is reflected in those two dads’ choices, and their choices have been facilitated by the law. This raises the question of social and legal opposition to gay marriage and the insistence that it will damage or destroy the institution of marriage; so much of what had characterized traditional marriage in the past has been swept away, especially in regards of gender. If marriage has survived changes in gender roles and has been able to accommodate race, why not same sex relationships?
Coontz’s title implies that gay marriage is evolutionary (rather than revolutionary). When one reflects on how social notions, performances, and values of gender have changed, and how easily the law has been able to accommodate those changes, Coontz’s premise appears sensible. Coontz admits that certain religious points of views influence both social and legal development, but even religious beliefs and their practice and application have changed over time. What seems more important, especially to authors Kim and Lorber, is the idea of helping people understand the impact of social behavior (before legal behavior) with regard to gender and its performance.
- Coontz, Stephanie. “Gay Marriage Isn’t Revolutionary: It’s Just the Next Step in Marriage’s
Evolution.” Washington Post, 9 Jan. 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/
- Kim, Richard. “Against ‘Bullying’ or On Loving Queer Kids.” The Nation, 6 Oct. 2010, https://www.thenation.com
- Lorber, Judith. “’Night to His Day’: The Social Construction of Gender.” Paradoxes of Gender,
Yale UP, 1994, pp. 54-68.