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Hand-in-Hand: Marriage Equality and Gender Equality

Marriage equality is good for everyone, especially women.

Illustration by Dan Parent

“Definitions of marriage are evolving,” says Liza Monroy, author of the memoir The Marriage Act (Skullcross, 2014). Jenny, a newly-married friend of mine, recently observed that, “We’re all rethinking how to celebrate marriage on our own terms.” Two other female friends have told me, “I wasn’t sure I wanted a wedding, until I saw yours,” referring to my same-sex wedding—an event obviously free of historical references to brides as property. These different, straight ladies all make the same point: marriage equality is good for everyone, especially women.

As we wait for the U.S. Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) to decide whether or not to address state bans on same-sex marriage, we can reflect on how quickly marriage equality has ricocheted across the country since SCOTUS struck down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. We also do well to ask ourselves what these rapid changes imply about our culture.

Richard Posner, the known-to-be-conservative federal appellate judge who earlier this month concluded that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional -- and whose eloquent, cogent, and entertaining opinion went viral -- has been reflecting on this topic for years. And his thoughts are not unlike what my female friends are saying above.

In a 2013 article for The New Republic, Judge Posner linked the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage to the “wide acceptance of sex outside marriage.” The acceptance of “[o]ral and anal sex marital or otherwise,” he continued, “contributed to a growing acceptance of homosexual sex, which was traditionally non-marital as well as non-vaginal. With the decline of prudery, sexual practices formerly deemed ‘deviant’ created less revulsion in the straight population.” Judge Posner argued in the article that, as in all cases involving discrimination, “[d]evelopments in society and culture mattered a great deal more than developments in jurisprudence”—and, specifically, that evolving attitudes on same-sex marriage have more to do with the effects of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s than the effects or actions of the courts.

In other words, according to Posner, our laws are simply going with the flow of societal practices, and we are all practicing more equality and more sexual and creative freedom in our marriages – whether we’re male or female, gay or straight -- than we ever have before.

This is a coup, for women in particular, for a number of reasons. To start with, the idea of equality between spouses -- which many same-sex couples model for our straight friends -- encourages women to be as proactive in asserting sexual preferences as their male counterparts. For example, some straight couples today find it socially acceptable to negotiate open marriages, a concept that was considered to be fairly taboo only a few years ago. (Check out this recent article in Marie Claire, and this one by renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel.) It is now socially acceptable for married women both to attend 50 Shades of Grey parties -- at which they playfully flirt with their sexually deviant side -- and to tell their colleagues at work all about it. In addition to these distinctive examples, women are generally more encouraged now to make their sexual desires known to their spouses, these days, than they were in the past.

In addition to loosening us all up sexually, marriage equality explodes gender stereotypes in a broader sense. “Traditional” couples, for example, can easily fall into heteronormative patterns concerning employment and parentinge.g., husbands should be bread-winners, wives should be child rearers -- but such couples can glean a more gender-neutral perspective on these relationship roles from their LGBT friends. A new study reveals that, in many cases, homes headed by two same-sex parents are often more “harmonious,” due to the emphasis on gender equality, than those headed by opposite-sex parents. And, in another positive contemporary development, women who have chosen not to have children, as well as those who are infertile, are less stigmatized, and receive more positive recognition, for their non-procreative reasons to marry.

As my friend Jenny pointed out, these societal changes have impacted the way we all celebrate getting married. Much as same-sex couples have been doing for years, straight spouses-to-be are now creating weddings that reveal their unique selves – e.g., through very personally chosen venues, text, music, and outfits --facing their nuptials with eyes wide open, as opposed to sleep-walking through tradition.

We do have a long way to go, even if SCOTUS takes up the issue this fall. But our society is clearly moving in the direction of marriage equality for all. Take Judge Posner himself, who was opposed to same-sex marriage for many years, but has since changed his mind. Or has he? In his 1992 book Sex and Reason, the very same book in which he stated his then-opposition to same-sex marriage, he wrote, “Doctrine frequently lags behind changes in social practice, but when it does we predict -- and observe -- a growing refusal to abide by it.” Interestingly, Posner seems to articulate this same principle to opposite effect two decades later in his New Republic piece and recent judicial opinion on Indiana and Wisconsin’s. Both of these were penned, of course, at a time when same-sex marriage had become common social practice.

More than ever before, couples of all stripes are demanding equality, freedom, and recognition in their marriages, and are refusing to abide by laws that lag behind.

As memoirist Liza Monroy says, “Until gender-neutral marriage is federally recognized, there is still a ways to go.” She continues, “[I]t’s not a ‘gay’ issue. It’s a human rights issue, an ‘everyone’ issue.”

Copyright Mark O'Connell, L.C.S.W.

Adapted from Mark O'Connell's book Modern Brides & Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other Nontraditional 21st Century Weddings (Skyhorse, Nov. 4, 2014)


O'Connell, M, The Same Second Class, 2012, Truthdig, Retrieved on September 17, 2014

Posner, R, Sex and Reason, 1992, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP

Posner, R, How Gay Marriage Became Legitimate, 2013, New Republic, Retrieved on September 17, 2013,…