Nearly two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal, bringing once-unimaginable rights to all 50 states. Yet this seeming human rights victory has failed to fundamentally change the primacy of the gendered, heterosexual nuclear family in our society.
Rather than help dismantle gender essentialism—something we know to be dangerous—the largely white male activists behind the marriage equality movement sacrificed trans rights on the altar of their own desired outcome. In doing so, they missed a salient opportunity to wean the country off the gender binary.
Young men’s views of marriage have actually become more traditional since the ruling, not less. Using a survey that monitored the attitudes of high school seniors for nearly 40 years, sociologists Joanna Pepin and David Cotter found that, “the proportion of young people holding egalitarian views about gender relationships rose steadily from 1977 to the mid-1990s, but has fallen since.”
“In 1994, fewer than 30% of high school seniors thought, ‘the husband should make all the important decisions in the family,’” Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families writes in The New York Times. “By 2014, nearly 40% subscribed to that premise.”
These sharply gendered views play out in real life, too: A 2015 study in the American Sociological Review shows that millennial men revert to traditional roles once they become fathers, even if they had originally planned on a more egalitarian model of parenting. “Of millennial men who were already fathers,” Claire Cain Miller writes, “53% said it was better for mothers and fathers to take on traditional roles.”
At the same time, more than half of high school students identify as something other than straight, 12% of millennials are trans or gender nonconforming, and millennials overwhelmingly support gay marriage.
In a world where millennials are increasingly embracing marginalized groups, you’d think their accompanying views on gender would follow suit.
How is it possible that the queerest generation ever could also have such backward views of women?
Because the patriarchy is old and ugly and powerful, for one thing. For another, there’s probably not much overlap between the trans folks themselves and those who think women shouldn’t be breadwinners. But there’s another reason: The gay marriage movement brought about massive cultural change, but did very little to change straight people’s perspectives on gender.
The patriarchy is old and ugly and powerful.
It was a missed opportunity to push the country toward feminism, improving the daily lives of cis and trans women; instead we’ve got dudes who sound like my grandfather, and an epidemic of transmisogynistic violence.
Mainstream gay rights organizations sacrificed trans rights—eschewing what could have been collective progression—in order to actualize gay marriage; in the wake of this legislation, trans women of color still face epic levels of violence. Nine trans women of color have been murdered in 2017 so far, and that violence is in part related to the same misogyny that affects cis women in their marriages to men. Straight cis people are far more accepting of gays and lesbians than before the marriage movement, but that was a superficial change; straight—and gay—people’s beliefs about gender are just as rigid as they were before.
Gender essentialism — which maintains that men and women are not only inherently different but should stay within the confines of said differences—is what connects transphobia with gender in cis straight marriages. It’s the belief—among myriad others that traverse physicality, emotions, sexuality, and just about everything in between—that women should manage childcare while men bring home a paycheck, because men are from Mars and women are from Venus. (Or because, in a 2017 upgrade, you think women are inherently better than men at multitasking).
It’s the belief that any deviation from this gender binary is a bastardization of what is “natural” and “good” and “desirable” and those who stray from this delineated path are to be persecuted and punished.
Lest you think separate and equal is not so bad, a reminder: Benevolent sexism — in which kind but weak women need men to protect them — justified lynchings of black men, justifies anti-female legislation, and gave us Donald Trump. In short, benevolent sexism that casually supports conventional gender roles is the fuel that keeps the entire system of patriarchy running.
Gender essentialism — which says that men and women are inherently different — is what connects transphobia with gender in cis straight marriages.
Transphobia comes from the same belief, with even more violence behind it: It says that if you blur the lines between men and women, you should be corrected and punished for that transgression of the binary.
But trans people and cis women married to men benefit from a feminism that says you don’t have to look or act a certain way to be a woman or a man. Gender policing keeps options limited for cis women married to men; if women are supposed to be feminine caretakers, there’s little to no room for interests or careers that take them away from home. And gender policing is at the root of violence against trans women, whose lives often depend on being able to pass.
But the gay marriage movement, led by white gay men, ignored all that in exchange for a quick win, and as a result, it had little effect on straight marriage — literally or socio-culturally. It’s true that most of us can fuck whoever we want, and queer youth are safer. These are not small things. But straight marriage looks largely the same: Women’s romantic partners remain a massive threat; three women are killed every day from domestic violence.
Benevolent sexism that casually supports conventional gender roles is the fuel that keeps the entire system of patriarchy running.
Even in situations that aren’t violent, women are expected to be mothers to both their husbands and children, making sure everyone is fed, clothed, and socialized, octopus-style. And they are working themselves to death to make it happen; a 2016 study from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that women who worked long hours were at much higher risk for diabetes, cancer, heart problems, and arthritis than men who worked the same hours, likely because of all the other work they did at home on their “second shift.”
Mainstream gays, in a massively successful and rapid quest for marriage rights, avoided questioning gender, because for most of them, it seemed irrelevant. White gay culture has been historically intolerant of gender variance (in addition to being racist): Witness the popularity of “no fats, no femmes” in online dating profiles, or the gender policing of anyone who isn’t hyper-masculine and visually straight-passing. That individualistic obsession with conformity isn’t making gay men happy, but it drove the marriage movement forward, a potent symbol of the most exclusive of straight privileges.
After all, it’s easier to defend an interest in sleeping with men—if you’re a man—if you can guarantee that it doesn’t make you any less manly. So to make marriage happen, gay leaders threw trans people under the bus. Human Rights Campaign, the most powerful gay lobbying group in Washington, threw its weight behind a federal non-discrimination bill that didn’t include trans protection in 2007 and silenced trans activists at a Supreme Court marriage rally in 2013.
Women are expected to be mothers to both their husbands and children, making sure everyone is fed, clothed, and socialized, octopus-style.
Instead of prioritizing support for gender nonconforming youth or standing behind those whose gender complicates what it means to be male and female, mainstream gays marketed a narrative that convinced straight people that gays were just like them. That meant a lot of photo ops for “normal”-looking men and long-haired lesbians to get America to support the “freedom to marry,” leaving trans and gender nonconforming people subject to violence.
It was a tactical move to get marriage passed, and it proved religious conservatives exactly wrong: Expanding marriage to same-sex couples bolstered the institution instead of destroying it. That tactic enabled gay men to distance themselves from trans women, and we ended up with anti-trans gay bigots like Milo Yiannopolous as a result.
To make marriage happen, gay leaders threw trans people under the bus.
It wasn’t gay people’s responsibility to get straight people to interrogate their relationships, of course. But instead of showing cis married people the freedom in gender nonconformity — how queers reject rigid parenting roles if we want to, for example — mainstream gays shoved aside those who challenge the gender binary.
In 2017, gender essentialism is, perhaps, louder than its been for decades, in the form of gender-reveal parties, glue-on infant bows so no one mistakes your daughter for a boy, and lawmakers who think cis people need protection from trans aggressors. Some of the noxious nonsense is likely backlash against increased trans visibility and the legality of same-sex marriage. But we also have a generation of young men whose beliefs about women are more conservative than their fathers’, because the underlying misogyny hasn’t budged.
Would millennial men’s opinions about gender be different if gay marriage had gone down a more feminist path? Maybe not: Toxic masculinity is strong in this country, and misogyny at home seems to be especially intractable. But imagine the impact we could have had; instead of gay cake toppers and vapid “love is love” slogans, a campaign that had invested the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on gay marriage advocacy to building support for brave trans teenagers.
Imagine a movement that stood up for its trans and gender nonconforming members as fiercely as Black Lives Matter does. Or, at the very least, imagine a gay marriage movement that had refused to abandon trans people to pass legislation. Success might have taken longer that way; I might not be gay-married right now. But if that meant that both cis and trans women dealt with less daily oppression, then I have to think I’d be okay with that.
At the very least, the new statistics are a reminder that cultural change is slow. In the meantime, trans youth have built a vibrant internet culture and are claiming their rightful place in the world, queer parents are doing the boring and radical work of shared childcare, and women married to men are bonding over a viral 70-page PDF about emotional labor.
But the gay marriage movement also gave birth to the newest generation of gay Republicans, who mock trans women in public and, as the Nancy podcast recently reported, have very few plans to push Trump to support trans rights. Straight cis women, feminist queers, and trans people have far more to lose than the white gay men who have Trump’s ear, and it’ll take a movement that’s not mired in gender essentialism to make sure cis men — gay and straight — don’t sell us out again.