Gay Marriage and the Demystification, Essay Example

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Essay

Contemporary human rights movements have sought to combat ideologically dominant discourses that appear to close the opportunity for a social structure that commits itself to an equality without exception. One of the crucial means by which hegemonic discourses, such as those founded upon patriarchal normativities, aim to marginalize the rights of minorities such as females and homosexuals is through the distinction between private and public spaces. Hence, as Rao (1996) notes, feminist theory, for example, seeks to demystify the private and public distinction: “a wide range of feminist literature addresses the contradictions in the law’s role in regulating the two spheres.” (p. 242) What feminist discourse attempts to accomplish is to demystify the illusory dichotomy between the public and private spheres. How this dichotomy maintains inequality is crucial. For example, various discourses that oppose gay marriage will argue that homosexuals should not be legally wed in the public space, but what they do in the private space is their own free choice. These anti-gay marriage discourses therefore attempt to create a space where they feign a commitment to equal rights: in the private sphere, the message is one can do whatever they want, ergo gays should not request rights for marriage in the public sphere. However, as Rao notes, the contradictions that appear when we study these two spheres makes it apparent that hegemonic social discourses themselves are responsible for creating and shaping what they consider to e the private sphere. Therefore, the evocation of some imaginary split between private and public becomes a technique of control, whereby it is possible for the dominant social normativities to marginalize the Other. In the context of the issue of gay marriage and arguing from its validity from a human rights perspective, it thus becomes crucial to expose the mask of the public and private dichotomy that functions to merely preserve the dominance of patriarchic, heterosexual and other similar types of normativities that refuse participation in the public space to all.

Weeks attempts to show the exploitation at stake in this dichotomy of public and private by introducing a concept of the sexual citizen. The sexual citizen “could be male or female, young or old, black of white, rich or poor, straight or gay.” (Weeks, 1998, p. 25) Namely, the sexual citizen is profoundly heterogeneous. Furthermore, “the sexual citizen exists – or, perhaps better, wants to come into being – because of the new primacy given to sexual subjectivity in the contemporary world.” (Weeks, 1998, p. 25) That is, the citizen is not something that has existed historically in the heterogeneous form Weeks gives it, except as a heterosexual coupling. The sexualized citizen by definition is an expression of the various forms that sexuality may take; by definition, therefore, it opposes the reduction of sexuality to the heterosexual relationship. The emergence of the sexualized citizen is an attempt to critique the privilege afforded to only a certain type of sexual relationship. Because of this reduction to heterosexuality, the public sphere’s conception of sexuality is one that is exclusionary in its very essence. Advocates for gay marriage rightly critique this preference that exists in the public sphere’s sexuality, understanding that the confinement of certain sexual relationships to the private is not the granting of an autonomy on a given level, but rather an oppression engendered by the very society that determines the boundaries of private and public. As Weeks (1998) writes, therefore, “the idea of individual freedom cannot be confined to one sphere; it interpenetrates all, dissolving traditional bonds and producing a new ‘moral fluency’ with incalculable consequences.” (p. 25) The allocation of sexual freedom to a particular sphere determined by the dominant social context is in fact a false proclamation of freedom: the sexual lives of individuals are subject to control and partition. And it is precisely phenomena such as gay marriage that disrupts the order which such a system wishes to maintain for its own best interests: by opening the door to gay marriage, it no longer is able to maintain its strict separation of public and private. What Weeks terms the sexual citizen, epitomized in the notion of gay rights, undoes this illusory separation, showing it to be a product of a particular and contingent set of normativities: the latter happen to be, insofar as they segregate gay marriage to some illusory private realm, is a heterosexual normativity, since this is the only norm permitted in the so-called public sphere.

The argument against gay marriage thus hides behind false claims related to the private-public dichotomy such as private choice. As Allen (1999) describes private choice, it “seems to presuppose that social life is divided into distinguishable public and private spheres, the private sphere being a realm of individual decision-making about sex, reproduction, marriage, and family.” (p. 724) However, the contradiction in this notion is that the dominant social discourse has decided what entails private choice and what entails public choice. Hence, the apparent freedom of private choice is entirely determined by the public sphere. What the reduction of sexuality to private choice entails is an ideological gesture that asserts the ongoing hegemony of a particular group, and thus infringes the possibility of any type of egalitarian system. As opposed to the public and private distinction functioning as the protection of the individual, it more insidiously operates as a means of segregation, permitting only certain types of forms of behavior in the public level, while confining the unwanted “Other” to the realm of supposed private autonomy.

The importance of gay rights is therefore not only its attempt to criticize the dominance of heterosexual norms within the so-called public sphere. Rather, it is an exposure of how ideology itself functions, and how supposedly liberal societies that make the distinction between public and private ultimately oppose a notion of universal human rights, insofar as they accord particular rights only to particular members of the population. The right to marriage within the public space becomes a right conferred only to a particular group, and therefore is itself a discriminatory policy. The fight for gay marriage attempts to highlight the discriminatory practice that is at the heart of any proclamation of the private and public distinction. Hence, Franke (2005) summarizes the importance of gay marriage on this greater political level as follows: “tolerance within liberalism works so long as that thing about you to be tolerated remains both private and individualized – that is to say, so long as it does not make a political claim.” (p. 239) Yet it is on the political level that greater societal changes are enacted and made reality. However, as Franke (2005) further notes, this recognition does not mean that homosexuals, in their demands for gay marriage, should conform to the state, since the state is that wchih has discriminated against them. “I find it rather astonishing that the core value of gay and lesbian politics would transform so quickly into a powerful desire for recognition by and identification with the state.” (p. 245) Franke’s point bears some merit: why would the homosexual community wish to be recognized by a state that has discriminated against them? The answer, however, lies in the fact that with this very recognition the state itself is changed: the illusory delineation it maintains between the public and the private sphere is unraveled. The gates are stormed by this very recognition: it is not only, as Franke states, that gay and lesbian politics are transformed by this demand, but that such a demand itself transforms the state.

Accordingly, the issue of homosexual marriage is defined in liberal society by the illusory freedom of the private and public sphere, thus disclosing the false dichotomy of this division. Gay marriage is not only a positive affirmation of individual freedom against a discriminatory apparatus, but shows how this discriminatory apparatus functions. The importance of gay rights transcends its own inherent demands, insofar as it becomes a fight for all marginalized people in society, showing how this society itself creates marginalization.

References

Allen, A. L. (1999). “Coercing Privacy.” William & Mary Law Review. No. 723. pp. 723-757.

Franke, K.M. (2005). “The Politics of Same-Sex Marriage Politics.” Columbia Journal of  Gender & Law. Vol. 15, No. 1. pp. 236-248.

Rao, A. (1996). “Feminist Perspective on International Rights.” Global Governance. No. 2. 241-248.

Weeks, J. (1998). “The Sexual Citizen.” Theory, Culture, Society. Vol. 15, No. 3-4. pp. 35-52.

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