How long, O Lord, must we listen to the totally bogus justification for marriage inequality that says: “Traditional marriage is between one man and one woman?” I suppose probably as long as we’ll hear all the other old, long-ago-debunked, bogus arguments against LGBTQ+ people.
Historically we know that marriages were seldom based on who someone loved anyway and that many marriages were bigamous or polygamous. At the least, a marriage was seldom sexually monogamous for the male partner. One needs only skim through the Bible for example after example among its heroes.
Even in the New Testament, Paul tells Timothy and Titus in the first century that he should choose as church elders those among its membership who are “the husband of one wife.” Scholars debate the actual meaning of this requirement for leaders in the first-century Church and its relationship to Roman laws for those classified as “citizens” — many in the early Church were not from that “citizen” class.
But why is it still a powerful argument to say that something is “traditional”? Just because something is labeled traditional, does that make it good, moral, humane, just, caring, or even valuable enough to preserve?
‘History is bunk’
“Tradition” has something to do with being historical, right? But does that even matter?
No one is sure about who first claimed: “History is just one damned thing after another.” But Henry Ford agreed: “History is bunk.”
In a time like this, though, we need to know our history to see how much is possible and to be aware of all that’s been accomplished by our predecessors.
History tells us how we came to this place, for better or for worse, and whether we’re stuck here or not (usually not). And knowing how things have changed inspires hope that other things can too in spite of any current darkness.
But in what sense does history somehow provide us with norms, tell us how things should be, or model what must be done? And are we victims of our past?
Now, a lot of those past things could be considered “traditional” because they made it down through history, sometimes against apparently overwhelming odds. Slavery is traditional. Women idealized as male property is traditional. Living with cockroaches is traditional. So are an assortment of diseases such as smallpox, typhoid, and pneumonia. To fight them is to go against the weight of tradition.
But “It’s traditional!” is evoked by its brandishers to claim that certain things shouldn’t change, as if we’re expected to assume that because something is traditional it’s better than things that aren’t. “Love one another” is a traditional recommendation, but its value doesn’t rest in the fact that it’s an old idea, and certainly not in whether or not it’s traditionally been widely practiced.
That something is “traditional” has been used historically to argue against LGBTQ+ people just as it has against any group that a dominant culture has marginalized. If one thing is surely traditional, it’s discrimination.
‘Family values’ mythology
In America “traditional family values,” refers to the values of white, patriarchal, discipline-oriented, middle-class families in 1950s nostalgia. In fact, all around the world “traditional” seems to mean the values of upper-class males who socially, economically, and religiously dominated the majority in their culture.
Those values are supposed to be better than treating women and children as full human beings who are as good as grown-up males or recognizing the value of letting people love whomever they choose.
“Traditional understandings of the Bible” are assumed to be better than those of modern scholarship, especially if they’re taken to condemn anything that threatens “traditional family values.” Words like “revisionism” and “modernism” are used as putdowns.
And this is so even if these “traditional” interpretations actually were developed as late as the mid-twentieth century.
Religious traditions are defined by authorities who see themselves as somehow more qualified than the rest of us to know what we should all consider true. They include merely a few of the ideas, events, and morals from religious history while ignoring many others.
Then these traditions are used to tell people who they are and to confine them inside internalized, restrictive psychological, emotional, and social boundaries that promote guilt, condemnation, and self-hate in those, such as LGBTQ+ people, who don’t fit in.
It’s the emotional attachment to something called a “tradition” that imprisons anyone. For we were not taught that a tradition is valuable and true merely through logical discussions of it with us.
Traditions were given to us as members of a community, which may have included our immediate families — a community that defined us, accepted us, affirmed us, and validated us. We also learned that that community would do so until we stepped outside of its “traditional” beliefs to live on our terms for ourselves.
Seeing ‘tradition’ as bunk
As LGBTQ+ people coming out to ourselves and the world around us, our attachment to these communities and our way of seeing things has been, not surprisingly, emotionally difficult to sever. We often find ourselves putting much of our emotional energy in relating to, arguing against, or obsessing over these traditions even if the traditions actually invalidate LGBTQ+ people.
Those outside a tradition can be baffled by why the stuck ones just can’t get over it.
So, let’s always ask who it is that has chosen which of the array of events of the past are to be considered traditions, that is, which events are more than just past happenings? Someone had to decide which of history’s events and ideas provide norms for the present and which do not — and their motivations might not always have been the best.
All traditions have been defined by someone or some group picking and choosing from the past while ignoring most of it, usually a dominant group. Otherwise, everything that’s ever happened or been said would be included in every tradition.
And all traditions at one time were new. They began as something other than traditional.
So, who says that you and I can’t define today for ourselves what is a part of our “tradition” and what isn’t? And what loss, abandonment, fear, guilt, and emptiness would we feel if what we then chose was different from that of our parents, our religious communities, or other cultural institutions?
Though we may believe the voices that say we can’t, shouldn’t, or aren’t able to do so, the fact is, we are fully capable of choosing for ourselves. It’s a decision we can make.
Not only is it our choice to make and define our own traditions. It’s also our decision whether or not to be a part of any traditions defined by others.
We are not victims of anyone else’s definitions or traditions. We do not need to live under the belief that we are only worthy human beings when we fit in with others or when others love us.
We can be as innovative as we want. We can choose what to value.
We can choose what ideas and beliefs will define us. We can choose to be victims of “tradition” no longer.
So, Henry Ford: It isn’t history, but many “traditions” that are bunk.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.