With the recent turmoil surrounding the new Church policies on gay marriage, I want to step back for a minute and talk about what this “apostasy” really means, and why, it seems, our leaders are so resistant to it.
A couple months ago I read the fantastic book Men Explain Things to Me, which includes an incredible chapter about the actual threat that Marriage Equality poses to traditional marriage, and why that’s a good thing. You can read the essay here (and I suggest you do), but Solnit’s basic argument is that gay marriage is really the most equal form of marriage, since it lacks the baggage of traditional husband/wife gender roles, which perpetuate the dominating patriarchy. She says,
“Recently a lot of Americans have swapped the awkward phrase ‘same-sex marriage’ for the term ‘marriage equality.’ The phrase is ordinarily employed to mean that same-sex couples will have the rights different-sexed couples do. But it could also mean that marriage is between equals. That’s not what traditional marriage was. Throughout much of its history in the west, the laws defining marriage made the husband essentially an owner and the wife a possession.”
She goes on to explain how traditional marriage favors men, and briefly guides the reader through the inequalities of traditional marriage over the centuries in the form of property rights, inheritance, domestic abuse, etc.
I have never felt more strongly the desire for true marriage equality than while I watched Elder Holland give his talk in Conference last month. The benevolent patriarchy and pedestal sexism that keeps Mormon men in power (and divine authority–whatever) relies heavily on the premise that men and women have different roles. That men preside and provide while women love and nurture. Elder Holland’s talk, “Behold Thy Mother,” is a prime example of how these gender roles are perpetuated in the Church. At one point Elder Holland says,
“Today I declare from this pulpit what has been said here before: that no love in mortality comes closer to approximating the pure love of Jesus Christ than the selfless love a devoted mother has for her child.”
That’s a beautiful sentiment, and it certainly makes women seem not only indispensable, but inherently more like Christ. But this divine love doesn’t come because of any personal development or growth, but because they’ve born a child–and they’re female.
I want to take a quick second and say that I know (because of all the social media posts) that this talk was important to many women. If this helped you in any way, I do not want to invalidate those feelings. Talks that are comforting to some can be crushing to others.
And for me, this one was crushing.
Because what is Elder Holland implying? It felt like by making this talk directed solely at mothers, that parenting and parental love is gendered.
One of the most unsettling portions of the talk, for me, came when Elder Holland told the story of a young man who came home from his mission early because he was experiencing same-sex attraction. At one point he said,
“The beloved father in this story poured his entire soul into helping this child, but his very demanding employment circumstance meant that often the long, dark nights of the soul were faced by just this boy and his mother. Day and night, first for weeks, then for months that turned into years, they sought healing together.”
I don’t want to negate what this mother (or, more importantly, her son) went through, but as soon as I heard this I thought, “are you kidding me?” The father in this story was essentially given a pass and couldn’t comfort his son like his mother could because of, and I quote, “his very demanding employment.” My heart broke. That night while I was on the phone with my own father, I sobbed as I thanked him for never making me feel like his career (as an attorney) and his calling (stake president) took priority over parenting me, over comforting me, over being there for me in my darkest times.
In my home my father presided and provided, as all good Mormon men should, but he also loved and nurtured in a way that my mother couldn’t, even though she’s supposed to have that divinely inherited female nurturing gene. His demanding career and equally demanding church callings never stopped him from answering my calls and listening for as long as I need to talk, vent, or cry during personal crises, and crises of faith.
The Church loves traditional marriage and traditional gender roles. But from what I’ve observed, there are very few who live up to those gender roles perfectly. My mother is amazing. She’s smart and talented and driven, but she loves in a different (and traditionally more masculine) way than my father does. The problem with gendering parental roles is that it severely restricts the capabilities of both mother and father, and it perpetuates the notion that men get a pass, that because of x, y, z, and their wives’ divine nature, they can call watching their kids “babysitting,” or use a career or a calling as an excuse to not be there when their children need them the most.
That’s why I love Rebecca Solnit’s essay about gay marriage. “More equal than others” is brilliant because it shows the importance of gay marriage’s “threat” to traditional marriage. When you take away centuries-long gender roles and power structures, you get two parents who can love their children equally, without one having an inherently greater capacity to love. Let’s have more of that, please.