Last fall, I began to write a post addressing an aspect of the publicity surrounding Prop 8 that did not garner much attention on the bloggernacle but seemed critical to me: what does the recent focus on same-sex marriage mean for the future of Mormon feminism and Mormon heterosexual couples? At the time, I pulled this post from publication in order to prevent unwelcome controversy from entering the BCC site. But now that the immediate impact of Prop 8 is over, I think it is time to ask how the goals of Mormon homosexuals and married Mormon feminists might support or conflict with each other. This post is not intended to pass a value judgment on any camp, and it certainly doesn’t presume to understand the complexity of desires amongst Mormon homosexuals and women, but it does seek to open a discussion.
Supporters of same-sex marriage and some strains of Mormon feminism all want marriage to be redefined and reconsidered, but it is unclear to me that all parties want the same kind of redefinition. While both presumably want to see partnerships with equality between spouses, basic civil liberties, and a rethinking of “natural,” hierarchical gender roles, heterosexual marriage must generally find ways to reconcile the issue of childcare with equality in ways that do not as strongly factor into same-sex marriage.
Although the focus on same-sex marriage has brought to attention questions about the rights of consenting adults to form life-long partnerships, its focus on choice, privacy, and identity don’t address married women’s needs for more equity in the child-rearing process. For women in heterosexual marriages, I believe that assertions of equality with men, while welcome and doctrinally necessary, are less needed than real social measures to help make such equity (especially within the workforce) a reality and to give women more real choices. The focus on privacy in same-sex marriage seems sometimes at odds with the desire by many women for more public support for issues like childcare, and the rhetoric of privacy seems to provide fewer incentives for the state to support or subsidize marriage as an institution.
My point is neither to judge between what I perceive to be the desires of both camps nor to suggest that both cannot, should, or should not achieve their aims. But I do want to point out that the desires of both groups in respect to marriage are somewhat different even if they share a desire for reform and fatigue with prescribed ideals about gender. I am concerned that the focus on same-sex marriages is rendering less visible within the public/church eye the need to ask how marriage might be reconceived and fostered for the heterosexual majority. Heterosexual marriages are, I think, “under attack,” but I believe the culprit is changing economic and social expectations rather than same-sex marriage.
As an organization, we are often failing to publicly invest in and to seriously address the needs of modern married couples. As it becomes increasingly harder for families to economically survive with a sole breadwinner, and as women increasingly view careers as opportunities for growth that complement their roles as mothers, we need guidance and serious thought about how to preserve the best aspects of “traditional” marriage while adjusting to these changing social realities. While same-sex marriage is a serious issue that deserves attention, even more attention is surely due to the changing needs of the heterosexual majority.
But the focus on same-sex marriage seems to have created a renewed sense of urgency within mainstream Mormonism to define and reassert traditional marriage norms and with them traditional gender roles. That said, I am not sure that these reassertions have increased the pressure on women to actually conform to gender roles. I feel that many Mormon women actually have found more power to define their marriages on their own terms as the focus on regulating intimacy has shifted elsewhere. I am concerned, however, that the current controversies will make it harder for serious discussions about heterosexual marriage to occur in the near future.
The questions posed by homosexuality about the role of gender in God’s plan nevertheless seem to complement those posed by feminist Mormon women and to present a long overdue opportunity for us to seek further revelation about gospel paradigms that do yet adequately articulate a role for women and for non-heterosexuals. Or, since I confess that I am tired of gender roles being dictated or revealed, they might at least present a time to decide if the rhetoric of gender is worth preserving in its current form. My hope is that the needs of Mormons of all genders and sexual orientations will in fact be complimentary; even if we cannot endorse solutions that please everyone, this is an opportunity to discuss an issue that has been silenced too long.