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Sweeping aside the heteronormative -- and marriage?

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 7, 2005

Since most Hollywood entertainers are constitutionally incapable of politically incorrect utterances, they are usually a safe choice for university speaking engagements. They may not shed any new light, but neither are they likely to ruffle any feathers among the perpetually outraged.

Not so actress Jada Pinkett Smith. Invited to speak to the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, which had pronounced her "Artist of the Year," the Harvard Crimson reported that her remarks were panned by something called the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance. (BGLTSA for short -- isn't there a limit to the number of characters that can be used in an acronym?)

Pinkett Smith's thought crime? She assumed that women might want husbands: "Women, you can have it all -- a loving man, devoted husband, loving children, a fabulous career," the film star assured the crowd. "They say you gotta choose. Nah, nah, nah. We are a new generation of women. We got to set a new standard of rules around here. You can do whatever it is you want. All you have to do is want it."

In other words, you've come a long way, baby. This seemingly innocuous statement sent campus activist groups rushing forward to proclaim their deep concern. "Some of the content [of Pinkett Smith's talk] was extremely heteronormative," a BLGTSA co-chair intoned. This is not as bad as being homophobic, he helpfully explained, but it is intolerably "specific to male-female relationships."

Tempting though it may be to dismiss this story as just the latest in a long line of PC campus absurdities, the product of a moral universe where Ward Churchill is an icon of free speech but Larry Summers is not, the mindset it betrays is going mainstream.

Consider Ontario, where the government has advanced legislation to strike words like "husband," "wife," "widow" and "widower" from the province's legal code. In all, some 73 statutes will be subject to these sweeping changes in order to accommodate the new regime of same-sex marriage.

After the commonwealth's Supreme Judicial Court imposed same-sex marriage last year, Massachusetts marriage licenses were similarly revised. References to "bride" and "groom" or "husband" and "wife" were replaced with "Party A" and "Party B." Further adjustments, along the lines of those starting to occur north of the 49th parallel, cannot be far behind.

Traditional marriage, you see, is hopelessly heteronormative. It is based on the realization that heterosexuality is overwhelmingly predominant in most human societies and the inconvenient fact that sex between men and women often creates children. Marriage has functioned as a mechanism for channeling this sexuality into such socially productive purposes as rearing the next generation.

Gay marriage does not simply extend matrimony to a group that has historically been excluded. It fundamentally alters the purpose of the institution itself and rewrites its logic. By obliterating sex roles and gender distinctions, it deletes useful concepts like husband, wife, father and mother from our culture's shared understanding of marriage.

Right now, even in its attenuated form, marriage upholds the connection between children, fathers and mothers as a shared social norm. Once redefined along the lines envisioned by the anti-heteronormative brigade, it will no longer serve that purpose. Even hearkening back to the old language will be considered offensive, exclusionary and discriminatory.

Proponents of the so-called conservative case for gay marriage -- Jonathan Rauch, Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks -- hope that changing marriage laws to assert society's stake in the outcome of same-sex relationships will make those relationships more stable and reduce homosexual promiscuity. But what effect will the redefinition of marriage have on protecting society's stake in the outcome of relationships that produce children and bind fathers and mothers together? Past reforms intended to make marriage more about the mutual affection of couples and adult (hetero) sexual desires have hardly made the institution stronger.

Same-sex marriage advocates are driven by the same misconception that led those Harvard students to protest Jada Pinkett Smith's heteronormic words. They believe if they appropriate the terminology of marriage and insist that we never speak of human sexuality again without reference to the sexuality of BGLTSA members, gays and lesbians will be shielded from the real challenges that arise from being sexually different from over 90 percent of the society around them. The likelier result is to deprive that other 90-plus percent, and the wider community, of a language and set of civilizing shared social norms for their sexuality.

If the idea of men and women joining together as husbands and wives in order to best serve as fathers and mothers is to be replaced in our vocabularies by such locutions as "heteronormative," our culture and posterity will lose more than those agitating for such changes will gain.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.


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