Commentary Law and Policy

Dear Everyone Discussing Marriage Equality: ‘Gender’ and ‘Sexuality’ Are Not the Same Thing

Lauren Suchman

Is the Prop 8 case really about gender, as I keep hearing? It seems to me that no one really cares if two women are raising a child together, unless those two women are lesbians.

As I was listening to a National Public Radio report on this week’s U.S. Supreme Court hearing on California’s Proposition 8, I heard the word “gender” a number of times—but far fewer times than I heard the word “sexuality.” This seemed odd to me when discussing a case about non-heterosexual marriage.

At one point, the lawyer arguing against Prop 8 (which is to say he was arguing for same-sex marriage) addressed the opposition’s concerns that children of same-sex couples will somehow be damaged by their parents’ sexual identities; he said that children’s health and happiness is not about the “gender” of their parents. I expected him to use the word “sexuality” here, but instead it was “gender.”

In another instance, a lawyer defending Prop 8 expressed dismay that, if the court strikes down Prop 8, marriage will be “re-defined as a genderless institution.”

Is this case really about gender? It seems to me that no one really cares if two women are raising a child together, unless those two women are lesbians.

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I find these discussions of gender unsettling for two reasons. For one thing, they conflate “gender” with “sex.” Secondly, they mask a larger discussion of sexuality, and an anxiety around the relationship between sexuality and gender.

When I teach about gender in my undergraduate anthropology classes, I start with a discussion of gender, sex, and sexuality. I do this because I think these concepts are foundational to the course, but also because these words are used so often in everyday parlance, and yet they are often used incorrectly.

In the social sciences and beyond, we have long recognized that “sex” is biological, “gender” is a social identity, and “sexuality” relates to erotic desires. As many scholars (looking at you, Judith Butler) have established, there is a prevailing social expectation that a certain kind of genitalia must always correspond with a certain gender identity. However, this is by no means always true. There are many people in the world who identify as transgender or intersex, providing us with ample evidence that the relationship between biological sex and social gender is not so straightforward as we are often led to believe. In light of that, the conservative concern about children being raised by two parents of the same gender, and therefore supposedly without a mother or a father, is particularly nonsensical. We have long established that all women don’t have to be mothers, so do all mothers have to be women? Add sexuality into this mix and things really get complicated, because there is also an assumed link between gender and sexual identity; biological women act “feminine” and sexually desire men, and vice versa. Switch out any piece of this equation and you are likely to upset someone (for example, biological men who act feminine and desire men and biological women who act masculine and desire men).

So, gender, sex, and sexuality are all bound up with each other and partially depend on each other for their very definitions. This is why, at least to me, it is so wrong that official discourse around “same-sex” (I won’t even get started on that label) marriage often substitutes the word “gender” for “sexuality.” I think that this is happening, though, not just because in the United States we tend to be uncomfortable discussing sexuality in general, but because there is a profound anxiety circulating around the relationship between sexuality and gender hidden under the gender discourse. The institution of marriage is only one way (but a big one) in which society has been ordered based on presumed relationships between gender, sex, and sexuality. So, legally recognizing that there is no direct causal arrow from biological sex to social gender to sexual identity opens up the possibilities for other, larger social changes. This makes people nervous, especially people who enjoy a lot of power under the current system—non-poor, heterosexual, white men.

But more to the point, I wonder if using a language predominantly of gender is a way to smooth over this potentially groundbreaking moment. By making this case more about gender than about sexuality, or about the precarious relationship between the two, anxiety around non-heterosexual identities gets downplayed in favor of a safer discourse around gender roles detached from sexual identity. However, as mentioned above, I suspect gender wouldn’t be an issue at all here if it wasn’t attached to non-heterosexual identities. So, as the Prop 8 case and the hearing on the Defense of Marriage Act move forward, I hope to hear the word “gender” used in conjunction with “sexuality,” because isn’t that really what we’re talking about?

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