Gay Marriage: The Gender Gap

To my surprise and delight, some prominent neocons have broken ranks with their right-wing peers over gay marriage. New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that conservatives should not only support it but insist on it. (What a novel way to stop public sex: Force any two homos caught in the act to wed!) Meanwhile Brooks's conservative colleague William Safire has concluded that, as a libertarian, he has no objection to the state licensing same-sex couples. But like many people who can't find a logical reason for opposing gay unions, Safire worries about the potential of this issue to spark religious schism. Call it the dogma demurral.

Religious beliefs and biblical teachings are the most common reasons people give for opposing same-sex marriage. As in so many matters, pleading one's faith can be a cover for other anxieties -- so my experience teaches me. Back in the old days, segregationists made speeches in Congress about the Bible's curse on blacks (the infamous Children of Ham routine), and don't get me started on the Christ-killer pretext for anti-Semitism. In both cases, the real issue was maintaining the stigma that condemned blacks and Jews to pariah status. The entire social order seemed to rest on an arbitrarily defined difference between purity and pollution. After centuries of struggle, we've finally begun to question that system when it comes to race and religion -- but not sexuality. Queers have taken on the role of the accursed. If you ask me, that's what has freed Christian fundamentalists to see the virtue in their Hebrew brethren -- at least for now.

I've been examining a recent report from the prestigious Pew Research Center, about Christian beliefs and public attitudes toward homosexuality. It seems that the more frequently people go to church the more vehemently they oppose gay marriage -- and the more likely they are to have an unfavorable attitude toward gay people. No scoop here. But there are interesting variations within this fold. White evangelical Protestants are twice as likely as similarly committed white Catholics to think homosexuals can change. That jibes with the teachings of their respective faiths. Race also plays a part in how people feel about the enigmatic question of sexual identity. Blacks are less likely than whites to think it's mutable. But here's an interesting paradox: Though they may be more realistic about homosexuality, blacks are even less likely than whites to favor gay marriage. Clearly, something deeper than doxy is involved.

There's an even more striking contradiction in the Pew survey. In nearly every group, men are more likely than women to recoil from the idea of same-sex unions. If religion is the major motivating factor here, this gender gap shouldn't exist, but it does. As the Pew researchers note, "Women tend to express more favorable opinions of both gay men and lesbians, and this is especially true among very young people." Though youths are the group most likely to favor same-sex marriage, that sure wouldn't be the case if it were only up to young men.

The libraries are filled with tomes explaining why guys are so threatened by male homosexuality. There's the struggle of boys to separate from their powerful mothers. There's the castration complex, which leads to an association between gay sex and ravishment by the father. There's the theory that male hierarchies depend on the subordination of queer -- or at least effeminate -- men. I'm not about to deny the Freudian analysis or the feminist one. But there's something else going on that makes gay marriage a formidable issue for men in general, young men in particular, and African Americans to an otherwise puzzling extent. The hidden factor I'm thinking of is social status.

America is a nation of endless identities -- racial, religious, sexual, and affiliational (as in thugs, goths, bikers, and for that matter constructions like "the enforcement community" -- i.e., cops). This proliferation reflects an economy that depends on ever more differentiated market niches. In order to stoke the need to consume, each segment must be made to see itself in a competitive relationship with everyone else. That's not hard in a country where ethnic groups, geographical regions, and lately whole genders are constantly struggling over status.

Today it's possible to speak of masculinity and even heterosexuality as insecure identities. Not that there's a real threat to either, but the prestige they once automatically commanded can no longer be taken for granted. Submissive women and downcast gays were once living proof of straight-male supremacy. Now, both groups refuse to accept subordination, and it's macho that stands to be stigmatized. Straight men still hold the lion's share of wealth and power, but their prestige has definitely eroded. No wonder they have such strong feelings about gay marriage. It's not a question of faith or preservation of the family. The real issue here is the "acceptance" of homosexuals, which, for many straight guys, represents yet another blow to their already fragile status.

Men who command respect through wealth or professional power are far less likely to feel threatened by gay marriage than those who earn little and have only one weapon in the fight for prestige: their masculinity. Young men are especially prone to this bind, and the rise of gay men makes them feel even more powerless. But no stigma is more implacable than race. African Americans are the most fragile group in America when it comes to social status, and the impact of racism weighs heavily on black masculinity. Hence, as gay men rise, a new theme has appeared in black youth culture: fag bashing. Its typical consumer is a young white male.

This is the uphill battle for gay-marriage activists -- and for advocates of homosexuals serving in the military, another important signifier of civic status. We need to convince straight men that their prestige isn't on the line if these things come to pass. It would be even better if we could persuade them that male supremacy isn't necessary for a man to succeed. But these symbolic concepts have a special urgency in a society where no social position is permanent. In America, every group measures its status by stigmatizing others, and if you aren't vigilant you may be the next one smacked down.

Religion can offer an alternative to this nasty social roil. Within its confines, the dignity of every person is a central dogma. How ironic that religion is so often used as a battering ram against human rights. But the dream of equality persists precisely because it's built on a theological foundation. It's sacred as well as secular. And in the end, hopefully, this root value will be our salvation.

Richard Goldstein writes for the Village Voice.


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