Heteronormativity and the Book of Order
[Disclaimer: one of the functions of the MLP editorial board is to lift up alternate perspectives around the church. If others have a different take on this or other issues, your comments are also welcome here. ]
As I watched John Wilkinson offer an amendment to the proposed amendment to the Book of Order on marriage at the 221st General Assembly in Detroit, my heart sank. A clean simple statement that marriage involves commitment “between two people” had to be qualified: “between two people, traditionally one man and one woman.”
With the amendment coming from a More Light church pastor, and with this not being my first observation of GA plenary, I immediately recognized the move as strategy. I appreciated the “big tent” intention to include a wide range of views on marriage in the PCUSA. I understood the strategic move to appease some “traditional marriage” advocates in the church in order to ensure passage of the amendment in the presbyteries. Still, this is deeply problematic language to enshrine in our constitution.
No one should be surprised this amendment got sent to the presbyteries with more than two thirds majority. The popularity of this measure is based in its compliance with heteronormativity.
I’ve written in other posts about marriage as a form of privilege and called on our community to queer marriage, to challenge its normative presumptions that reproduce unequal relations of power. Others in the LGBTQ movement have been more articulate than I about the ways marriage has dismantled some of the real opportunities queers had to build something new with our relationships, to embody an intimacy that resists hegemony.
The new proposed Book of Order language reproduces rather than resists hegemonies of heterosexual marriage. Referencing one man and one woman as the normative state of things reassures Presbyterians with the implicit presumption that same gender marriages ought to emulate “traditional” straight marriages. And while many Presbyterians know both straight and queer couples whose marriages we might like to emulate in various ways, the ideal “traditional” marriage required one man and one woman because each had different, rigid, and inequitable gender-normative roles.
This language is strategically problematic because it can be used to preference heterosexual marriages over all others. The language chosen wasn’t the more neutral “historically,” but the politically loaded “traditionally.” Some have said that “traditionally one man and one woman” is merely a descriptive statement of fact. But it is much more. The former statement in the Book of Order, “marriage is a civil contract between a man and a woman,” should have been seen as a neutral statement of legal reality, rendered anachronistic when Massachusetts allowed same-gender marriage a decade ago. Instead it was interpreted prescriptively to restrict same-gender marriage.
Even the most cursory critical glance at the word “traditionally” reveals its ludicrosity. During the General Assembly floor debate on this language, queer folks liveblogging on Facebook began to speculate that we could also add traditionally women as property, traditionally polygamous, etc. Advocates of “traditional” marriage are actually quite selective about which traditions they honor.
So does it matter? Pragmatic and Machiavellian strategists would argue it doesn’t, as long as ministers are allowed to perform marriages, as long as the Church recognizes same-gender marriage among legitimate relationship structures.
But let’s consider the near future where, by the next General Assembly, we may well have national same-sex marriage, and if not by then, certainly by GA 224. This language in the Book of Order will again be anachronistic at best, and as YAAD Kyle Coombs eloquently noted, it establishes a less than full welcome for LGBTQ people.
So as we consider our votes in the presbyteries, LGBTQ people and allies need to consider the extent to which this amendment carries forward an oppressive history of marriage. How can we continue as a queer movement to confront, re-imagine, and re-shape traditions of marriage through the presbytery process and in the life of the future church?