Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On Gender Complementarity, Part I

An oft-used argument against allowing same-sex couples to marry and/or raise children is that a same-sex relationship or parental unit is not "complementary" with respect to sex/gender. Representative Marilyn Musgrave (in)famously invoked this argument in support of the Federal Marriage Amendment saying:

"The self-evident differences and complementary design of men and women are part of [God's] created order. We were created as male and female, and for this reason a a man will leave his father and mother and be joined with his wife, and the two shall become on the the mystical spiritual and physical union we call 'marriage.' The self-evident biological fact that men and women are designed to complement one another is the reason that for the entire history of mankind, in all societies, at all times, and in all places marriage has been a relationship between persons of the opposite sex."

If you ever engage in even a cursory discussions with "marriage defender" proponents of the "gender complementarity" theory they will often invite you to take a moment to imagine how the penis and vagina fit together in a complementary manner, much like a lock and key. Or, creepily, like a bullet and a gun. True story. The lock-and-key concept, if you will, is then extrapolated and applied to the entirety of male and female relations. It is "self-evident" to these folks, and I suppose then to everyone else as well, that men and women are meant for each other in a very special way. Virtually every conservative "family values" group believes in the theory of "gender complementarity" in some form or another.

Now, my main issue with the idea of "gender complementarity" is that I tend to think that we as individual human beings are complete the way we are. Any model of complementarity implies that if one of the two is missing then that one, by itself, is incomplete in some manner. As human beings capable of expressing the gamut of human emotion, trait, and experience, I do not think we require connecting with another person to make us whole. Rather than existing on opposite poles, I think that human beings exist along a gradation of what we call masculinity and femininity. The mere existence of intersex individuals, transgender people, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and other so-called gender non-conformists is evidence of much greater nuance when it comes to constructions of sex/gender and creates undeniable complications for the "gender complementarity" theory. Contrary to what some people believe, we are not anomalies somehow outside of the "real" male-female sex/gender binary. We exist in reality. We were created by nature. And by definition we are natural parts of the human experience that cannot be explained away as mistakes.

Bearing my point out a bit, it should be noted that another aspect of the "gender complementarity" argument is that one of the purposes of marriage is to regulate "otherwise unruly heterosexual desire that otherwise causes 'immense personal and social damage.'" This so-called "unruly heterosexual desire" basically refers to the male's alleged "inherent need" to spread his seed and abandon the mother(s) of his child(ren). Because of this evolutionary "fact," "the passive, unregulated heterosexual reality is multiple failed relationships and millions of fatherless children."

This argument, however, contradicts the essential premise of the entire "gender complementary" theory- that men and women are naturally compatible complementary beings that make each other whole. One must ask, how can it be that these complementary beings are so naturally suited for marriage and parenthood when their "heterosexual reality," if left to Mother Nature, results in "multiple failed relationships and millions of fatherless children"? To me, the alleged "heterosexual reality" of male promiscuity suggests mostly that, when it comes to anything other than the lock-and-key anatomical reality, the sexes are not actually as "complementary" as promoters of the theory claim. It's not exactly the most flattering portrait of heterosexual unions (or of men) if a key purpose of marriage is to entrap men into being faithful to their partners and helping to raise their own children. And, as an aside, this whole line of reasoning makes me wonder if the price men pay, so to speak, to be head of family and society is submitting themselves to marriage.

Anyway, the creation of human life via male-female human reproduction is a wonderful thing, but given the fact that we are individuals I do not believe that that happenstance of nature tells us much, if anything, about an individual's position on the gender gradation. Nor does the fact that a sperm and an egg create human life tell us anything about who the creator of that sperm or egg ought to form relationships with. You will notice that I refer to a "gender gradation." While one's sex is biological, I believe that a person's gender, that internal sense of self-identity, exists in shades of gray. Men are not from Mars. Women are not from Venus. We really probably all exist as unique, oddly-shaped chunks floating in that asteroid belt-thingy between Mars and Jupiter.

I'm not saying that men and women are exactly the same. Yet, I do think there is much more overlap than proponents of the "gender complementarity" argument would like to admit.

I know I haven't cited much in the way of research yet. I went into this blog post knowing that this is a highly flammable topic that, in my opinion, is laden with many more questions than answers. Simply because there is so much uncertainty with respect to these issues, I don't trust those who profess absolute truths when it comes to sex, gender identity, and "optimal family form." I am wary of those who claim, as does Rep. Musgrave, that issues of sex and gender are "self-evident" as though their particular (often religious) opinions are self-evident to all people. Calling one's beliefs "self-evident" as though such beliefs are universally true for all people does not make them so. There are far too many people in this world for whom "gender complementarity" is not a "self-evident" fact that such blanket statements simply cannot be accurate.

To end today, I'd also like to urge "marriage defenders" to do better than to present their usual sentimental idealizations of the oh-so-speshul heterosexual marital relationship as though these types of relationships are inherently "more" and "better" than what we experience. I'm not saying same-sex relationships are superior or that heterosexual relationships cannot be good, but I have seen far too many broken homes, abusive relationships, and shoddy examples of parenting to know that the universal idealization of heterosexual love often exists mostly as figments of the "marriage defender's" imagination. To heterosexuals, I am sure their relationships are special. But, to us, our relationships are just as special, even though they're not endowed with the magical unicorn quality of "gender complementarity."

Tomorrow, I will cite research supporting my position and discuss the Myth of Gender Complementarity in greater detail.

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