Marriage and the Patriarchy

Recently, the media has been awash in different perspectives of the issue of same sex marriage. This has been highlighted by independent decisions by cities in several states to grant marriage licenses to same sex couples, by the court action of the state of Massachusetts to legalize marriage for residents of that state on one side; and by the highly-touted, though clearly doomed attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution to state only heterosexual couples can be legally married and the new Marriage Protection Act currently wending its way through the legislative process, as well as myriad local protests and laws passed to prevent recognition of same sex marriages on the other side. Clearly, this is an issue whose time has come to be dealt with squarely in the public and private, governmental and societal arenas.

The debate, centered on whether or not same sex couples have a legitimate right to marry, seems to be a fairly simple one to resolve. There is no question that same sex couples have long enjoyed the intimacy and commitment of lifetime relationships. In these relationships, they have chosen to have children or not, have parented children from previous heterosexual relationships, have bought homes together and pooled their monies in joint bank accounts. The only thing missing is the legal protection and societal recognition of these relationships as not only valid, but of enduring nature that will serve to strengthen and enrich the community at large as well as the lives of the individuals desiring to enter into holy matrimony.

The question that often goes unasked in the rush to the altar of same sex couples and the equally determined efforts of the conservative elements of society to barricade the door to the chapel before they get there, is this: Should the gay and lesbian communities be seeking marriage at all, or is this an opportunity for society as a whole to re-examine the efficacy of marriage and the entitlements that currently are the first wedding gifts (heterosexual) newlyweds receive?

In this paper I will address the Judeo-Christian historical contours of marriage and how those foundational patriarchal beliefs about marriage still shape public and social policy regarding marriage entitlements, explore the unconscious reasons that conservative politicians and religious leaders oppose same sex marriage, and finally, seek to answer the unasked question with a different ethic that, in the words of Dr. Mary Hunt spoken to a summer school class in July, 2004, seeks relational equality for all rather than legal privilege for a few. I also want to note that, although the queer community is often addressed in terms of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, for the purposes of this paper I will be focusing on unambiguous gay and lesbian relationships. This is not to say that the bisexual and transgender communities have no voice in this debate. Indeed, I believe in large part those communities will present our state and legal governments with the conundrum of gender and sexual identity that might just will be what it takes to widen the hole in the dam obstructing same sex marriage so that justice can flow like the river and righteousness like a never-ending stream. In this paper, I will be dealing with the patriarchal attitudes towards those who identify as biologically male and female, however, and so will use the terms gay and lesbian when referring to same sex marriage.

A cursory look at the historical implications of marriage in the Judeo-Christian tradition make it abundantly clear that it has only been in recent years that love and marriage were presumed to go together like a horse and carriage. In her book Body, Sex and Pleasure, Christine Gudorf (1994) notes the particular cultural aspect of marriage in the nomadic tribes of Israel had nothing to do with romantic love and everything to do with the transference of property rights (the woman) and the differentiation between the Israelites and their neighbors, many of whom practiced heterosexual and homosexual sex acts in pagan rituals (1994, p. 57). The patriarchal view of women cannot be underscored enough. Indeed, a truly “biblical” marriage would open the door to polygamy (for the man) as seen in numerous biblical texts (Genesis 29:17-28; II Sam 3:2-5, 5:13; I Kings 11:3 and II Chronicles 11:21, to name a few), and death to women who weren’t virgins on the wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). In fact, the concept of chastity meaning virginity and sex only within the confines of the marriage bed stem from this view of women as property. The husband needed assurance that any children born were, in fact, his children, his property. Thus the codes regarding marriage were more cultural and practical than moral. A woman must be a virgin and monogamous; a man was not bound to those same requirements. In fact, throughout the Hebrew Scripture it is virtually more common for men to have more than one wife and/or concubines than not. As basically the only means of survival for women, marriage was clearly a restrictive yoke placed on them that assured the continued domination by men in society.

In the period of early Christianity in which the New Testament was written, we see a relatively short period of time-less than 100 years – in which sex roles were relaxed, allowing women more freedom and leadership roles within the church. Gudorf attributes this to the widely held belief that the end of the world was at hand and the return of Christ, imminent. Given that focus, the priority was on the mission fields rather than on maintaining societal constructs. However, when it became clear that Christ was not on his way back to earth the Church was thrown into an identity crisis. Additionally, the Roman Empire was hostile to the Christian cult. In an effort to both stabilize the Church and appease the government, the church reverted back to the strict patriarchal views of marriage, family and women’s roles that mirrored both their Jewish tradition and the secular norms of the day (Gudorf, 1994, pp.56-59). In the Roman Empire, marriages were arranged for any number of reasons: political alliances, family obligations, the need for offspring. Love was not one of them. As Jean Ponder Soto states in the essay The Church and Marriage: Looking for a New Ethic, “In the Greco-Roman world, marriage and the begetting of children were considered a duty one owed to the Roman state.” Soto goes on to assert that the patriarchal family structure was the basic unit of that society and that men married to establish a family, produce heirs to carry on the family name and fortune, and to provide citizens to maintain the Roman state (Jersild, Johnson, Jung, Jung, 1998, p.59).

As Christianity entered the highly influential Reformation era the theologians continued to tighten the Church’s control on relationships by asserting the only marital sex that was good and “allowed” was sex that was procreative in its’ function. They had taken the sexual codes of conduct of the early Jewish tribes and moralized their meaning so that there was a clear distinction between “good” sex and “bad” sex. And the bad sex wasn’t just bad, it was evil. At this time marriage was still not about love so perhaps that provided a reprieve for woman for who sex with their husbands was neither welcomed nor fulfilling. This in itself served to continue to control the bodies of women, but the other implication was that marriage was still primarily a contractual agreement about the current property of the bride and future property of any offspring. In fact, up until Vatican Two the Roman church taught that procreation was the primary aim of marriage (Jersild, et, al, pg. 59).

According to Marvin Ellison in his book Same Sex Marriage? A Christian Ethical Analysis, marriage was still largely overseen by community elements and the patriarch of the family until the 19th century when the rise of industrial capitalism precipitated a massive overhaul in how family units were patterned. It was only at this time that marriage was redefined as “a contract between two adults who pledged to build a life together on the basis of conjugal love and a desire for companionship” (2004, p. 18).

Marriage has undergone it’s most drastic and numerous changes, perhaps, in the past 50 years with the overturning of the laws against interracial marriage, the criminalizing of spousal rape, the addition of convicted felons to the list of those who have the right to marry and the economic changes that have given women, in particular, more freedom to delay marriage and/or to leave an unhappy marriage. Yet there is a subtle understanding that women are still expected to bear the brunt of domestic duties, regardless of whether or not they have a job or career outside the home, (and to feel the guilt of that if the couple has children) and the men are still seen as the primary bread-winners and the ones with the most control over the running of the family.

As marriage as evolved in the United States, over 1,000 entitlements and benefits have been attached to the legal state of marriage. These include benefits in the areas of tax status, inheritance rights, social security, child custody and others. Additionally, most companies will offer health care benefits to the legal spouses of their employees. All of this serves to extol marriage as normative and beneficial while those in alternative families or who remain single are seen as the “Other.” By attaching these benefits to marriage the State has, in effect, not only discouraged but blatantly disregarded the creative ways in which families can be formed. As a result, heterosexual couples marry who might not otherwise do so. For example, last year I officiated at the wedding of two friends of mine. They had anything but a typical romance. They met in the aftermath of the passage of Amendment Two in Colorado, a prohibitive, anti-gay measure that made it illegal for any governmental or business entity to include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination clause. Ultimately, Amendment Two was overturned as unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court, but until then “Bill” was working for a political activist group and “Marge” for a non-profit philanthropic organization that was housed in the same suite of offices. Although each identified as gay and lesbian, respectively, they fell in love. At that time they consciously chose not to marry since the religious and social function meant nothing to them. However, last June, after 10 years together they took the plunge. Their reason? To ensure protection for their year old daughter should one of them should die.

This is the ensnaring logic of marriage. In order to protect assets and ensure your partner has agency in making decisions should anything untoward happen to you, in order to collect your partner’s social security payments as a widowed person, marriage is the only way to achieve true peace of mind. And when heterosexual couples marry, they participate in a patriarchal system that has, at its foundation, control and subjugation of women and children. Moreover, they continue to enforce the perception of marriage as normative and healthy and alternative arrangements as suspect and inferior. Underscoring this view of marriage is the Bush Administration’s ill-conceived “Healthy Marriage Initiative” which proposes a $1.6 billion allotment over the next five years to promote marriage to lift people out of poverty. To their way of thinking, it’s the early bride that gets the tax break. The fallacy in this plan is that there are daunting reasons why poor couples don’t get married, including infidelity and drug use (Lerner, 2004). The initiative also largely ignores the very real possibility of domestic violence and would leave these women to fend for themselves for a lower poverty rate to tout as success. Even the fact that this would be a serious consideration for reducing poverty, rather than spending the $1.6 billion on education, workforce training, rent assistance, etc. speaks to how entrenched the institution of marriage has become and how much a tool of the patriarchal system it is to enforce societal expectations.

Even more chilling is HB751, the recently enacted law in the State of Virginia that not only reaffirms the state’s ban on same-sex marriages but takes it a step further by prohibiting all contractual rights between same-sex partners. The ramifications of this new law have yet to be seen but it is a stunning backlash to the demands of the GLBT community to have equal legal rights for their relationships. It is almost as if in their fury at the audacity of lesbians and gays to seek these rights, the conservative politicians are bent are not only denying rights, but taking away even more that the queer community has once enjoyed.

This again speaks to the inherent patriarchy and sexism in marriage as a legal contract. I believe that there are three main reasons that are the unconscious driving force behind the religious right and others of their ilk to speak so vociferously against same sex marriage. None of these have to do with the destruction of society, biblical mandates for marriage to be between one man and one woman, or even the moral “sin” of homosexuality. Instead, I see three reasons all embedded in maintaining the patriarchy at the cost of women.

The first reason is the unconscious, or at least unspoken, fear of the disruption of the social order of men and women in marriage by being in relationships that do not continue the oppression of women and the dominance of men. While, admittedly there are instances of non-consensual domination and control in same sex relationships, as a whole they speak to the lie of patriarchy by taking away the coupling necessary for patriarchy to continue on unabated and, indeed, validated. Two men or two women who choose to share their lives together will have many difficulties and will have to figure out their unique roles and gifts they each bring to the relationship. However, those roles can be created without the underlying assumption of what the man’s role and woman’s role is to be.

Even in lesbian relationships that are self-identified as butch/femme both people in the couple were enculturated as women. They are regarded by society at large as women and they have no first hand knowledge of being in the dominant gender in the world at large. Moreover, to identify as butch or femme is not to take on a heterosexual role because the relationship is still between two women and are distinctly lesbian cultural roles that vary from one butch/femme couple to the next. More commonly women, who have known the sting of sexism and gender discrimination, seek to create an egalitarian relationship in which each is honored and input is necessary, regardless of whether or not they identify as butch/femme.

In the same manner, two men who set up house together each have the privilege of power that our culture ascribes to males. Any roles or gifts they bring, they bring to a level playing field, again with no pre-set expectations from society’s template. In fact, there may be issues that arise when they each realize they must share the power in order to have a healthy loving relationship of mutuality and intimacy. However, having the confidence of being in the dominant gender, they more likely than not come to the table assured that they can resolve the issues and establish a healthy, authentic commitment.

The second unconscious reason for the conservative politicians and religious leaders to oppose same sex marriage is an extension of the first, and that is fear of a sexual expression that is different. This fear strikes at the very core of patriarchy because our sexual expressions as gay and lesbian people dares to make no pretense about the role of sex in relationship. While many gay men and lesbians do parent, there is no question about the possibility of conception in lesbian and gay sex. The only purpose of sexual intimacy in gay and lesbian relationships is that of pleasure. I believe this is fearful for the right-wing element to contemplate because our society over all is sex-phobic. This, too, is a result of a patriarchal culture in which sexual roles are clearly delineated. To be sure, heterosexual couples can and do enjoy a variety of sexual positions and acts, yet at its most subliminal level there are two roles: the penetrator (male) and the penetrated (female). Subconsciously in the very act of the most widely acceptable form of heterosex the man is dominating the woman. While this is (hopefully) mutually acceptable and pleasurable for both, it still reinforces the image of man as having power over woman, even in her body. Gay men and lesbian couples also enjoy a wide variety of sexual positions and activities, and these can and do include penetration. However, the penetrative act is performed on someone who is biologically and culturally similar and the role of penetrator and penetrated can be changed with ease. The act of sexual intimacy apart from cultural patriarchal models rides roughshod over the sexual roles assigned to men and women in a way that threatens the heart of patriarchy.

Finally, and ultimately, these two above unconscious fears about same sex marriage leads to the third, and that is the deconstruction of patriarchy from the inside out. As stated earlier, gay men and lesbians have always been in long-term intimate relationships. Some of these couples have been very closeted and some have been very open about the nature of their relationship. If, however, we legitimize those relationships by sanctioning same sex marriage the right-wing people unconsciously fear that such blatant disregard for patriarchal norms will seep over into the heterosexual community like a virus, challenging other old ways of being. In other words, perhaps the conservatives are right: same sex marriage does threaten the fabric of society. By this I mean that once state-legitimized role models for families exist that color completely outside the lines of patriarchal norms we may enter a kind of creative Zeitgeist in which all citizens suddenly realize the vast possibilities of change and social transformation in other arenas of society and culture.

With the man/woman paradigm no long being the only game in town for marriages, I believe patriarchy will have been struck a severe blow that cannot help but weaken its hold in other places. What if, by legitimizing same sex marriages and celebrating non-patriarchal ways of loving, the eyes of the people are opened to other areas where oppression still rules? What if, in insisting on same sex marriage, the door is also opened for domestic partner benefits for unmarried partners of any gender or sexual orientation? What if, with the advent of same sex marriage, there is an increased awareness that gender is not divided in a binary fashion but that there are multiple possibilities for gender expression? Perhaps, in the wake of same sex marriages, universal healthcare will be addressed as a way to address comprehensively the human right of all people to receive good medical care. Maybe in the resultant energized and strengthened communities we will be able to put forth our energies currently going into this debate to address issues of poverty, domestic violence, and war.

Clearly, marriage is not a panacea for societal ills, nor is it historically a blessing of a relationship based in mutuality and love. The soaring divorce rates show that while most heterosexuals still buy the myth of “happily ever after” sometimes forever is ephemeral at best. Yet it is this somewhat scurrilous goal that many gays and lesbians are now vociferously seeking.

As I stated earlier, not allowing gays and lesbians to get married does not preclude the fact that many gays and lesbians are in stable, committed, lifetime relationships. It is important for partners in gay and lesbian relationships to have legal protection for their assets, medical wishes, and children. Many have done so to the best of their ability under current laws. They have named one another as beneficiaries in wills and have signed Living Wills and Durable Powers of Attorney to safeguard their rights. If they were forward-looking, that is. Often, these legal protections have been left undone with the often nightmarish results of property being taken away from the surviving partner, with medical decision made by a “family member” who was often hostile or even absent from the life of the one impaired, and with the emotional pain and stress, often becoming despair and hopelessness, for the dis-empowered partner. And even for those who have filed countless legal documents to ensure their relationships are legally protected, there is nothing to stop contentious family members from contesting those documents. The result can be a protracted legal battle that leaves both sides embittered and financially and emotionally exhausted. The reality is a legal marriage would trump virtually all claims made by others.

Which brings me to the unasked question: Should gays and lesbians be seeking marriage rights at all? Is it be possible to envision another way of legally sanctioning the agency and authority of long-term relationships for both heterosexual and same sex couples in a way that doesn’t privilege marriage over other types of relationships and families that exist on the margins of society? Is marriage, in its current form with its nebulous history, the prize we should all be eying?

Clearly, there is no easy answer. Early on I was tempted to say that the struggle for marriage is one that is a fruitless waste of our energy and resources. However, I am now more inclined to see it as a step in the right direction. Yet we must not make the mistake of thinking that the achievement of legal marriage for same sex couples means the goal has been reached. Indeed, I see the achievement of marriage as a milestone on the road to true equality and mutuality in all of society. With the inevitable approach of that day when same sex marriages are recognized in all 50 states regardless of where the wedding took place, we will have won a major victory not just for gays and lesbians, but for bisexuals and transgender people, for people of color and the impoverished and all those who currently exist on the margins of our society. We will not win this victory at the cost of any other group, but rather this victory will enhance and enrich all of society.

While in many ways I think we are climbing the ladder of same sex marriage only to find it is propped against the wrong wall, I also recognize that it is the ladder we seem to be facing. At the end of the day, there is much more to be done. Marriage needs to be disentangled from the entitlements that give legal privilege to a few while still denying relational equality to all. Perhaps the means in which marriage is disentangled from the entitlements is by the allowing of same sex marriage and the affront to the patriarchal norms that are so entrenched in the current institution of marriage. Marriage needs to be de-constructed so it becomes iconic of “just” love in an atmosphere of mutuality and intimacy. Again, maybe this is one of the gifts that legalized same sex marriage offers to all relationships.

Regardless of people’s motivation for seeking to legitimize same sex relationships, regardless of my own ambivalence on the advisability of that aim, there is one thing that gives me great hope and that allows me to officiate at same sex “weddings” without feeling an ounce of hypocrisy. The gay and lesbian couples who I have seen make the commitment to share their lives together and celebrate that with a public ritual, do so, not out of some hope that their union will be legal one day and they will get all the benefits currently enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts. Nor do they go to the expense and stress of a ceremony to make a political statement. The primary, dare I say the only, reason these couples choose to marry is because they love one another. Anything else is icing on the wedding cake.


Ellison, Marvin M. (2004). Same-sex marriage? A Christian ethical analysis. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press.

Gudorf, Christine E. (1994). Body, sex, and pleasure: Reconstructing Christian sexual ethics. , Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press.

Lerner, Sharon (2004, July 5).”Marriage on the Mind: The Bush Administration’s misguided poverty cure. The Nation, pp. 40-42.

Soto, Jean Ponder (1998). The Church and marriage: Looking for a new ethic. In Jersild, Paul; Johnson, Dale; Beattie-Jung Patricia; Jung, Shannon (ed.) Moral Issues and Christian Response (6th ed.) (pp.59-62).Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.