Proposition 8: Reconciling Compulsory Heterosexuality and Civil Rights

Posted By: Coco Buchanan

Oh, the holidays– that wonderful merging of a so-called “vacation” and forced political confrontations with relatives.  As I’m sure many of you experienced some version of during this holiday break, I got into an argument with one of my relatives about California’s Proposition 8.  My relative expressed, though, that she did not oppose civil unions or the concept of people of the same sex in a relationship, there was a pretty clear disagreement about human sexuality and biological determinism.  Specifically, that I think that human sexuality is very complicated and that most people who claim to understand it based solely or mostly on biology don’t have a clue.  She disagreed and asserted that gender and sexuality somehow correspond to one another in a “natural” way and that our sexual behavior is determined mostly, if not completely, by biology.  Complicating this further, is that I actually view marriage as a very basic institution that, along with others, support and reinforce the status quo by systematically disenfranchising people and is part of an interlocking web of hegemonic systems within Western culture.  Are you bored yet?  I hope not.

So I dunno how familiar anyone is with these Women’s Studies/academic terms, but here’s one that is pretty relevant to this conversation about Prop 8: that of compulsory heterosexuality.  Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence is an essay written by Audre Lorde, and thus, she essentially coined the term.  Compulsory heterosexuality can be seem as a synonym for heteronormativity-another fun academic word that means that as a culture, we value monogamous heterosexuality above all other types of sexuality/behavior/lifestyles and that therefore, our culture is structured to guide people to this end.  Though I disagree with some of what Lorde says about political lesbianism (not to mention my issues with her ideas about the vaginal vs. clitoral orgasm), I think that marriage as we know it today within our culture is one of THE main vehicles for driving compulsory heterosexuality.  Generally speaking, people in general think that marriage is somehow natural or inevitable, and possibly even a part of human nature.  That’s the hegemony being put forth in our culture, whether you as an individual agree with this or not.  In fact, I would argue that this a notion completely socially constructed in part by institutions like marriage.25806pcn_Speidi

It is in fact because I don’t agree that one type of romantic relationship should be valued over others that I don’t believe LGBT people should be limited in their relationship choices-i.e. should not be forbidden from getting married.  However, I also don’t think that the LGBT community should have to “legitimize” themselves by accepting someone else’s terms for what constitutes the “ultimate” in human romantic relations.  I may perhaps be getting ahead of myself here, but shouldn’t we be thinking about how marriage as an institution is not only incorrect in reflecting the realities of human sexuality and gender, but how its intention historically is to limit and disenfranchise people? 

At the same time I understand that it is a civil rights issue in the realities of the present, but perhaps we need to be thinking a bit bigger.  I saw Milk the other day, and though I found the film to ironically be pretty conventional, Harvey Milk stood for taking action and not compromising who you are.  He asserted that people should be flamboyantly  proud of who they are in order to MAKE others accept that gay people are a reality-that although outside the norm, are not unnatural, immoral, evil, psychologically ill, or wrong, etc.  Therefore, there is no reason they be persecuted, vilified, devalued, or discriminated against.  In my view, the framework of marriage in our culture doesn’t recognize other types of non-monogamous heterosexual relationships as equally valuable.  Could this mean that by allowing gay people to get married that we can change “the system” from within?  Or will this just homogenize and indoctrinate more people into structuring their relationships in more unequal ways and just reinforce the alleged superiority of marriage?  I don’t have the answer to this, but I think the bottom line here is this: if any real change is going to happen with regards to really fixing structural inequalities in our society, our ideas about gender and sexuality have to change.  And ultimately, institutions like marriage should seriously be re-evaluated as they reflect actual realties.  




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