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                                                          Are Heterosexuals Worthy of Marriage?

                                                  – Michael Parenti

During 2003-2004, as heartland America gawked in horrified fascination, thousands of homosexual men married each other, as did thousands of lesbians, in San Francisco and several other obliging locales. A furious outcry was not long in coming from those who claimed to know what side of the Kulturkampf God is on. President Bush Jr. proposed an amendment to the Constitu­tion making same-sex wedlock a federal offense. Heterosexual marriage, he declared, is "the most fundamental institution of civilization."

According to opinion polls in 2004, a majority of Americans believed that marriage should be strictly a man-woman affair. At least fourteen states had passed laws or amendments to their state constitutions banning gay marriage. Eight of these also outlawed civil unions and domestic partnerships, including heterosexual ones. It has to be man-woman marriage or no bonds at all.

Opponents of same-sex wedlock do not offer a single concrete example of how it would damage society. Gay marriage is legal in Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the state of Massachusetts, and thus far it has neither impaired traditional marriage nor subverted civil order in those societies. In fact, the mentioned countries have less crime and social pathology than does the United States.

If matrimony really is such a sacred institution, why leave it entirely in the hands of heterosexuals? History gives us countless examples of how heterosexuals have defiled the sanctity of this purportedly God-given institution. A leader of a Michigan group called Citizens for the Protection of Marriage proclaimed that the people in his community supported "the traditional, historical, biblical definition of marriage."18 But for millennia the traditional historical biblical marriage consisted of a bond not between a man and a woman but between a man and any number of women. Polygamy is an accepted feature in the Holy Bible itself. King Solomon, for instance, had 700 wives, not to mention 300 concubines, yet suffered not the mildest rebuke from either God or man (at least not in the Bible). Polygamy is still practiced secretly and illegally in parts of Utah among dissident Mormon splinter groups and in places like New York where it is estimated that some thousands of male immigrants from Africa have two or more wives under circumstances that prove less than happy for the women. It is seldom prosecuted.19

In some parts of the world today, polygamy is commonly practiced by men who have the money to buy additional wives. Buy? Exactly. Too often heterosexual marriage is not a mutual bonding but a one-sided bondage. The entrapped women have no say in the matter. In various countries, mullahs, warlords, tribal chieftains, or other prestigious or prosperous males lock away as many wives as they can get their hands on. The women often find them­selves railroaded into a lifelong loveless captivity, subjected to periodic violence, prolonged isolation, enforced illiteracy, unattended illnesses, and other degrading conditions.

The defenders of straight marriage say little about how their sanctified institution is used in some places as an instrument of child sexual abuse and female enslavement. Girls as young as eleven and twelve are still bartered in various parts of the world, with a nuptial night that brings little more than child rape, often followed by years of mistreatment by the groom and his family.

A longstanding but horrific avenue to heterosexual matrimony is rape. In parts of southern Europe and in fifteen Latin American countries, custom—and sometimes the penal code itself—exonerates a rapist if he offers to make amends by marrying the victim, and she accepts.20 In Costa Rica he is released even if she refuses the offer. Relatives often pressure the victim to accept in order to restore honor to the family and herself. When a woman is gang raped, all the rapists are likely to propose marriage in order to evade imprisonment. "Can you imagine that a woman who has been gang raped will then be pressured to chose which of her attackers she wants to spend the rest of her life with?" comments one disgusted male lawyer in Peru.21 Such laws implicitly condone the crime of rape by making it easily absolved with an opportunistic marriage offer.

Another practice long associated with heterosexual wedlock is its use to cement political alliances, shore up family fortunes, or advance careers. From ancient Rome to the latter-day European aristocracy, females of the best families of one nation or political faction were treated like so many gaming pieces, married off to well-placed males of another nation or faction. And not only among aristocrats. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in respectable bourgeois society the suitability of a prospective spouse was just as often determined by purse and pedigree as by any genuine emotional attachment.

Throughout history marriage has been more closely linked to property than to love, usually to the benefit of the male spouse. For generations, in parts of the United States and other western countries, a married woman could not own property. She had to forfeit her family inheritance to her husband. Arranged marriages continue today in many parts of the world, with little regard for the feelings of the young women and men involved but with much concern for the dowry, social status, and financial condition of the respective families. Even in our own country there are hetero­sexuals who marry for money, social standing, or some other reason having little to do with personal regard and affection. Do not such opportunistic calculations devalue the institution?

Another dismal chapter in the history of heterosexual wedlock is the way it has been used to bolster racism. In some seventeen states in the United States, holy matrimony was an unholy racist institution, with laws forbidding wedlock between persons of dif­ferent races. Hence for generations we lived with legally mandated same-race marriage. The last of these miscegenation laws was not removed from the books until 1967.

For millions of women heterosexual marriage is not a particularly uplifting or even safe institution. An estimated two million females in the United States are repeatedly battered; most are married to their attackers. Domestic violence is the single greatest cause of injury and one of the leading causes of death for U.S. women. An uncounted number of wives are raped by abusive hus­bands. Almost three million U.S. children reportedly are subjected to serious neglect, physical mistreatment, or incest rape by a close family member, usually a father, uncle, stepfather, grandfather, older brother, or mother. Each year tens of thousands of minors run away to escape abusive homes. Taking the sacred vows of holy matrimony is no guarantee against the foulest domestic mis­deeds.

Children are as badly mistreated in traditional Christian fami­lies as in any other. Conservative religious affiliation is "one of the greatest predictors of child abuse, more so than age, gender, social class, or size of residence."22 Nor do women fare all that well in fundamentalist households. Frequently confined to the traditional roles of wife, mother, and homemaker, they are dependent on their husbands for support and therefore more vulnerable to mistreatment. The fundamentalist clergymen they consult are often inclined to dismiss their complaints and advise them to suffer quietly like good wives as God ordained. Restrictive divorce laws and heartless cutbacks in welfare support make it still more difficult for women with children to leave oppressive and potentially lethal relationships.23

As women gain in education and earning power and become less economically dependent on men, they are less likely to stay in abusive marriages. In fact, they are less inclined to marry. In countries like Japan, about half of the single women from 35 to 54 have no intention of ever marrying, and over 71 percent say they never want children. Women prefer to remain single so they can "continue to maintain a wide spectrum of friends and pursue their careers," according to one report. The same trend can be observed in Singapore, South Korea, and some other countries. Despite high jobless rates, women are putting their education and careers first, showing no eagerness to submerge themselves in a traditional marriage.24

In the United States marriage is becoming less popular among both men and women. Census Bureau figures show that the number of unmarried men between ages 30 and 34 climbed from 9 to 33 percent over the last several decades. During that time the percentage of out-of-wedlock births more than tripled.25 Again, if marriage is in decline, it is not because gays have been undermining it.

Millions of heterosexual couples in the United States and elsewhere find marriage to be a gratifying experience, if not for a lifetime certainly for some substantial duration. One survey reports that 3 8 percent of wedded Americans say they are happily married.26 But for most U.S. marriages the predictable outcome is divorce, 51 percent to be exact. Yet society has not unraveled. Perhaps, then, marriage is not the most fundamental institution of civilization, the foundation of society, as Bush Jr. claims. If anything, in the more abusive households divorce is actually a blessing.

Americans are more religious than Europeans, yet they lead the world in single parenthood and divorce. According to a 2001study by Barna Research Group Ltd., born-again Christians are just as likely to get divorced as less confirmed believers, with almost all their divorces happening "after they accepted Christ, not before." Jesus worshippers may pray together but they do not necessarily stay together. Census Bureau figures from 2003 show divorce rates are actually higher in areas where conservative Christians live. Bible Belt states like Kentucky, Mississippi, and Arkansas voted overwhelmingly for constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage, while having the highest divorce rates in the country, roughly twice that of more liberal states like Massachusetts.27

Fundamentalist keepers of public morals do bemoan the high divorce rate, but they don't rant about it the way they do about gay wedlock. The point is, if straight individuals, such as reactionary radio commentator and admitted substance abuser Rush Limbaugh, can get married and divorced repeatedly without den­igrating the institution, what is so threatening about a gay union? Does Limbaugh feel that gay marriage makes a mockery of all three of his past forays into holy matrimony (and subsequent three divorces) and any future marriages he may venture upon? If anything, happy gays wanting to get into the institution might help make up for all those unhappy straights wanting to get out.

Proponents of the sanctity of heterosexual matrimony frequently prove themselves to be among the biggest moral hypocrites afoot. A prime example is Republican congressman Dan Burton of Indiana, a married father of three, and a champion of the right-wing Christian Coalition. Burton had to admit to fathering a child in an extramarital affair. He also used campaign money and federal funds to hire women of dubious credentials. He set one of them up in a house and gave her about $500,000 in payments without making clear what she did to earn so much so quickly.

Another Republican congressman, Henry Hyde of Illinois, a great proponent of "family values," was found to have carried on an adulterous affair over some years; so too Pennsylvania Repub­lican Don Sherwood, whose extramarital girlfriend accused him in zoo6 of physically abusing her. One congressman, Florida Republican Mark Foley, professed a special concern for the well- being of America's youth but himself was forced to resign from Congress when it was discovered that he had been trolling for young male pages on Capitol Hill, an addiction that Republican House leaders knew about and had covered up for many months.28

While preaching the sanctity of marriage, televangelist Jimmy Swaggert, married with children, was forced to admit that he was regularly patronizing a prostitute. A leading fundamentalist tele­vangelist preacher, Rev. Ted Haggard, close ally to the Bush Jr. White House and head of a 14,000-member mega church, vehemently denounced gay marriage and homosexuality until it was revealed that for three years he had been paying a male prostitute for monthly sexual encounters.29 I, for one, was shocked and dis­gusted upon reading this particular news item. It certainly lowered my opinion of male prostitutes.

One could go on. Freethought Today, publication of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, every month presents two full pages of criminal cases involving scores of clergy and other reli­gious leaders, hypocritical keepers of heterosexual family values, who are charged with sexual assault, rape, statutory rape, sodomy, coerced sex with parishioners and minors, indecent liberties with minors, molestation and sexual abuse of children (of both sexes), marriage or cohabitation with underage girls, financial embezzlement, fraud, theft, and other crimes.

As to whether children can hope to have a proper upbringing with gay parents, a judge in Arkansas ruled affirmatively in 2005. He issued a set of findings showing that children of gay and lesbian households are as well adjusted as other children, having no more academic problems or confusion about gender identity, or difficulties relating to peers, or instances of child abuse. There is no evidence, he concluded, that heterosexual parents are better at dealing with minors than gay parents.30

Untroubled by the absence of evidence, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 that same-sex couples have no right to marry under New York's constitution. The court ignored the Arkansas decision and the evidence upon which it was based, and fell back on folklore: "For the welfare of children, it is more important to promote stability, and to avoid instability," and "it is better, other things being equal, for children to grow up with both a mother and a father."31

The major purpose of marriage, argue the religiously orthodox and other homophobes, is the bearing and rearing of children. Male gay couples cannot bear children, and the New York court seemed to think that they are not sufficiently equipped to raise them. But the evidence referenced in the Arkansas case indicates that gay couples are at least as capable of proper parenting as straight couples. Futhermore, are children really the major purpose of marriage? Certainly not for the millions in childless marriages who cannot have children or do not desire children either because they are too old or too poor or just not interested or already have children from previous marriages. Should they too be denied the right to wed?

If same-sex unions do violate church teachings, then the church (or synagogue or mosque) can refuse to perform gay marriages, and many have refused. The gays I saw getting married in San Francisco's City Hall in 2004 were engaged in civil marriages, with no cleric presiding. And what I saw opened my heart. Here were people, many in longstanding relationships, who were experiencing their humanity, happy at last to have a right to marry the one they loved, happy to exercise their full citizenship and be treated as persons equal under the law. As commented one gay groom, who had been with his mate for seventeen years, "We didn't know the shame and inequality we'd been living with until we were welcomed into City Hall as equal human beings."32

But it is not all love and roses with gay wedlock. Less than a year after getting married, a number of same-sex couples filed for divorce, citing "irreconcilable differences," demonstrating again that gays are not that different from the rest of us.

To sum up, here are some of the things that straight-sex marriage has wrought through the ages: polygamy, child-brides, loveless arrangements, trafficked women, battered wives, bartered wives, raped wives, murdered wives, sexual slavery, incest rape, child neglect and abandonment, racist miscegenation laws, rampant hypocrisy, and astronomical divorce rates. If gays and lesbians are unqualified for marriage, what can we say about straights? The Jesus worshippers who want to prevent holy wed­lock from being sullied might begin by taking an honest look at the ugly condition of so many heterosexual unions in this country and throughout the world.


12.  Andrew Cockburn, "21st Century Slavery," National Geographic, Septem­ber 2003.

13.  Quoted in John Pilger, "Afghanistan—What Good Friends Left Behind," Guardian (UK), 20 September 2003.

14.  Yanar Mohammed quoted in Christian Parenti, The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (New Press, 2004), 24.

15.  Elizabeth Rosenthal, "Women Face Greatest Threat of Violence at Home," New York Times, 6 October 2006; this article summarizes a ten-nation report by the World Health Organization.

16.  Maria Roy, The Abusive Partner (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982); Richard Gelles and Murray Straus, Intimate Violence (Simon &C Schuster, 1988).

17.  For further exploration of cultural themes touched upon in this selection, see Michael Parenti, The Culture Struggle (Seven Stories, 2006).

18.  Quoted in San Francisco Chronicle, 25 October 2004.

19.  Nina Bernstein, "Polygamy, Praticed in Secrecy, Follows Africans to New York," New York Times, 23 March 2007.

20.  Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela.

21.  Quoted in Calvin Sims, "Justice in Peru," New York Times (international edition), 12 March 1997.

22.  See the studies by sociologists and social psychologists cited in Kimberly Blaker, "God's Warrior Twins," Toward Freedom, Fall 2003.

23.  Blaker, "God's Warrior Twins"; see also Kimberly Blaker (ed.) The Funda­mentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (New Boston Books, 2003).

24.  Jane Ganahl, "Women in Asia Are Starting to Say 'I Don't,'" San Francisco Chronicle, 14 November 2004.

25.  U.S. Census Bureau report, Associated Press, 2 December 2004.

26.  As reported in Mother Jones, January/February 2005.

27.  New York Times, 20 November 2004.

28.  Russ Baker, "The House Flunks Ethics," Nation, 15 February 1999; Dennis Bernstein and Leslie Kean, Henry Hyde's Moral Universe (Common Courage, 1999); Washington Post, 29 September to 5 October 2006.

29.  New York Times, 3 to 5 November 2006.

30.  San Francisco Chronicle, 1 January 2005.

31.  New York Law Journal, 7 July 2006.

32.  Quoted in Chris Thompson, "Gay Couples Aren't Inclined to Apologize," East Bay Express, 10-16 November 2004.


From Contrary Notions (2007)


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