Healthy disregard for my lack of skill with a cue kept me out of San Juancito’s pool hall during my first year in the Peace Corps in Honduras. That and the insistence by the villagers that women weren’t allowed. But then another American, one with thoroughly feminist notions about why she absolutely would enter that pool hall, came to town.
Our attempt to play billiards prompted not just displeasure but hostility from the owner. His shaking hands — part fury, part local made jet-fuel — gestured to a sign above the door: “Se Prohibe la Entrada a Menores de Edad” (Entry to Minors Prohibited.) Worldly 22- and 26-year olds, respectively, we pointed out that this sign didn’t bar us. But he insisted, for women the sign would always apply.
I can’t say I was exactly eager to become a regular — habit, testosterone and crappy plumbing meant the players peed into a trough at the back of the room. But the implication that as a woman I hadn’t reached — nor indeed could ever claim — adulthood pissed me off. Perhaps you’re thinking…well, that was Honduras — a less developed country without benefit of our enlightened feminist ideals.
But think now about whose right to decide is constantly questioned and tested and proscribed. I’ll give you a hint — it’s not heterosexual men.
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Among the hallmarks of adulthood is the right to make decisions — even colossally stupid, spectacularly unsuccessful ones. Those around you may beg you not to marry that tax evader or beg you to put on some sunscreen or stop living on celery — but for better or worse if you’re an adult they can’t actually make you do or desist from what you deem right. It is not, as some opponents of abortion rights claim, the relative merits of a particular decision that grant the freedom to make it. The idea that because some people are troubled after termination is grounds for outlawing abortion makes just as much sense as prohibiting marriage. Our divorce rate attests to how often it’s a much-regretted and very bad choice.
One marker of adulthood is the right to make your own bed and the expectation that you’ll lie in it. This separates the capable from the immature. We’ve staked these rites of passage to particular ages, 16, 18, 21 or 25 — depending on what abilities are at stake. This obvious confusion about what counts as maturity notwithstanding — the more troubling reality is that certain groups in our society just never get to be considered adult.
When Justice Roberts argues that women can’t possibly know what they want when they contemplate ending a pregnancy, we’re hearing a sober version of the logic that kept me from the pool hall. If women cannot be trusted to know what they want and act on that knowledge, then in effect we are saying they aren’t adults. Women aren’t the only ones whose right to make their own decisions is subject to outside approval. Gays and lesbians in almost all states are prohibited from selecting who to wed.
In a society where marriages are not arranged, selecting a spouse is the prototypical decision of adulthood. It’s no accident that our society fixates so much about weddings — this is a shared social ritual that marks us as grown up. Girls are taught to fantasize and hasten the arrival of this event; it’s a time they are granted some public recognition as adults. Boys, on the other hand, will grow into men whose ability and right to be considered mature is never in question. They don’t need any extra status and thus have no reason to long for their day as a groom.
Dr. Ilan Meyer, during the trial to restore marriage equality in California, spoke about the role marriage plays in our common notions of the desirable rites of adulthood:“We all grow up and are raised to think that there are certain things we want to achieve in life…It is I think quite clear that the young children do not aspire to be domestic partners. But certainly the word marriage is something people aspire to…a common socially approved goal for children as they think about their future and for people as they develop relationship. It’s a desirable and respectable goal.”
So what does it mean when a group is systematically denied the right to pick who they want to marry? Or another group whose desire to decide what happens to their bodies is questioned and constantly curtailed? At some level, even if only unconsciously, it means we think they aren’t adults. The great irony of this is that it’s only in making decisions and living with the consequences that we can both become and demonstrate we are more mature. What we deny outright to gays and lesbians and attempt to diminish for women is not just the mantle of adult but the opportunities to become worthy of this designation.