March 31st, 2008
Editor’s note: Last week, we began a discussion on anthropological views of marriage, with special attention to its implications on same-sex marriage. Patrick Chapman, biological anthropologist and author of the forthcoming book, “Thou Shalt Not Love”: What Evangelicals Really Say to Gays (Haiduk Press: 2008) began the discussion. That post was followed by a response from Glenn T. Stanton, director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus On the Family and co-author (with Dr. Bill Maier) of Marriage On Trial: The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage and Parenting (InterVarsity Press: 2004). This week, Dr. Chapman replies and begins round 2 of the discussion.
The editors of Box Turtle Bulletin requested that Glenn Stanton and I continue our discussion about marriage. I recognize that Stanton is at a disadvantage in this discussion because I essentially have the “home-field advantage:” his comments will come under much greater scrutiny by Box Turtle Bulletin’s readers than mine. As such, I credit Stanton for his willingness to participate further. However, as an anthropologist I remain in disagreement with his “anthropological” assessment of same-sex marriage.
In a limited space and with limited time, it is difficult to address all of the issues raised in Stanton’s response to my critique. I am concerned about his unscientific methodology, disagree with his comments about the American Anthropological Association, find inadequate, given the context, his explanation for including Colin Turnbull’s biographical information, and find unconvincing his dismissal of anthropological authority: he does not consult artists when trying to rebut definitions of marriage! However, in this round of the discussion Glenn Stanton and I have agreed to focus attention on two important themes: the distinction between gender and sex and the definition of marriage.
Sex and gender
Upon reading Stanton’s response, I am of the opinion he does not comprehend the implications of, or difference between, sex and gender. Sex, a biological entity, and gender, the socially constructed roles we play in society, are not synonyms. The folk belief in American society, which recognizes only two sexes and two genders, is that a person’s sex determines his or her gender: all biological males are gendered masculine and all biological females are gendered feminine. Our language reinforces this “reality:” we say “he” and “she,” implying there are only two sexes and two genders. We have no pronouns for biologically intersex individuals (sometimes called hermaphrodites), or for individuals who are transgender. However, other societies do not necessarily accept our binary construct and interchangeable sex and gender categories.
In the initial critique, I described the five genders recognized by the Bugis of Indonesia.1 Unlike American society, which blurs the distinction between sex and gender, the Bugis separate biological sex (male, female, and intersex) from gender roles, creating the five gender categories. Stanton’s comment that the Bugis situation “Seems pretty binary to me and not very inventive when it comes to expanding the boundaries of the two genders,” demonstrates ethnocentrism: he imposes upon the Bugis an American understanding of gender, dismissing the Bugis’ recognition of the five genders being different. Contrary to Stanton’s belief, the calabai and calalai do not fit into the gender categories of man or woman and are not simply transvestites. While a calabai performs many tasks associated with women, it is the calabai who often provides economically for the husband: a calabai performs some tasks associated with women and others associated with men.
A compounding problem in understanding the difference between sex and gender is that heterosexuality is the most common expression of sexuality. As such, societies normally expect same-sex marriages to conform to the heterosexual model. This heteronormativity and the confusion between sex and gender help explain Stanton’s surprise or disbelief that the Bugis recognize five genders, and why he dismisses the nature of their same-sex marriages. I believe it also lends understanding to his comment that he has
never met anyone who wasn’t either male or female or didn’t present themselves with easily discernible male or female qualities. Out of the eight different genders one student told me about, you would think I would have the privilege of meeting at least one of these non-male/female folks.
There are many individuals who are neither biologically male nor female; they are intersex. Unlike Mr. Stanton, I have met many intersex individuals and many individuals who are considered a third gender in their societies, including Tongan fakaleiti, Hawaiian mahu, and Native American two-spirit. That Stanton has yet to meet one of these individuals indicates to me that they are not comfortable “outing” themselves to him, that he is seeing people through a culturally-conditioned lens, does not accept that which does not fit his worldview, or that his social circle excludes individuals not fitting the socially prescribed categories.
Social construction of homosexuality
It is important to discuss the problems inherent in applying Western terms and concepts to non-Western cultures. We have a different worldview: the words and concepts we use to describe our physical and social environments are not consistent with the words and concepts others use. Generally speaking, when constructing sexuality Western society is concerned with the genitals. If a sexual pair has the same genitals, they are homosexual. If the genitals differ, they are heterosexual. However, most societies are concerned with the gender individuals perform, not the genitals. As such, there are often no recognized homosexuals in their societies, particularly if they accept gender-transformed marriages.
Our term “homosexual” does not fit the categories used in other societies for people who are same-sex oriented. While same-sex oriented individuals apparently exist in every culture, different societies channel them into different socially approved roles: how they construct “homosexuality” and how they categorize who we label “homosexuals” differs. Some societies prohibit the expression of same-sex attractions. Some societies accept it only if it follows a heterosexual gender model. Some societies view only the penetrated male as “homosexual:” the penetrating male is “heterosexual” because he is acting in a manner consistent with his gender norm. Meanwhile, American society is not accepting of gender transformation but is more accepting of egalitarian homosexuality, presumably because heterosexual relationships are commonly gender non-differentiated.
In Samoa there are no homosexuals; but there are fa’afafine. The fa’afafine are biological males who perform many of the tasks of women. However, unlike the gender category representing women, the fa’afafine do not necessarily dress as women and often perform traditional tasks of both men and women. Thus, the fa’afafine do not fit neatly into the gendered man or woman categories. They are a bridge between the two; they represent a third gender. Esera Tuaolo, a former Super Bowl lineman and author of Alone in the Trenches, explains how his American expression of homosexuality is not acceptable in his native Samoan culture because both he and his partner are masculine. While it is acceptable for a fa’afafine to have a socially recognized man as a lover in Samoa, it is entirely unacceptable for a socially recognized man to have another socially recognized man as a lover. Relationships must follow the heterosexual model.
Other Polynesian and Micronesian societies construct sexuality in a similar fashion. In these societies two biological males or two biological females fall in love, marry with full social recognition and acceptance, live together, raise children together, and are integrated into the kinship system. Martha Ward briefly discusses one such marriage in Pohnpei,2 while Alexandra Brewis discusses them on the island of Butaritari.3 Stanton will likely protest that these marriages include gender transformation, but this is irrelevant: the societies recognize the marriages as fully legitimate.
What’s love got to do with it?
Stanton demonstrates naÃ¯ve realism, the assumption that every culture has a worldview identical to ours, when he demands that we provide examples of
culturally-approved marriage in the anthropological record, similar to the unions we are discussing today, where two men or two women fall in love, marry under the embrace of the community and its mores, set up a home and raise children together and both are accepted as part of the larger kinship group.
If other cultures construct sexuality differently than we do, we cannot expect to find exact equivalents to our expressions of marriage, heterosexual or homosexual. However, it is nonetheless possible to provide meaningful examples that fulfill Mr. Stanton’s basic requirements, as mentioned above with the examples from Pohnpei and Butaritari.
Stanton’s objection is that modern same-sex marriages lack strict gender differentiation. This objection is disingenuous because modern heterosexual marriages lack strict gender differentiation. Modern heterosexual marriages have no historical precedent: only in the last 50 years have they become common. Throughout history same-sex marriages mimic opposite-sex ones: that same-sex marriages in America do so once again is not grounds for banning them. If Stanton uses lack of historical precedent for gender undifferentiated marriages as the basis for rejecting same-sex marriages, then he must reject opposite-sex marriages.
Of interest, Stanton shape-shifts the definition of marriage. His report uses definitions from anthropologists that are inclusive of same-sex marriage because the central feature of marriage is the social and economic ties a marriage creates: biological sex does not matter. In the response to my critique he says: “as Christians, we define marriage as a union of one man and one woman. But biological connection is not a requirement.” If biological connection is not a requirement, then he has no issue with same-sex marriages provided one individual changes his or her performed gender. However, in his report he dismisses as legitimate gender transformed same-sex marriages, recognized by their societies as “one man with one woman.” Stanton then demands examples of same-sex marriage using falling in love, raising children, and living together as the important defining criteria for marriage. If these are the defining criteria for marriage, then most heterosexual marriages throughout history do not qualify. As historian Stephanie Coontz indicates, “not until the late eighteenth century, and then only in Western Europe and North America, did the notion of free choice and marriage for love triumph as a cultural ideal.”4 Historically, traditionally, cross-culturally, marriage is a social and economic union that creates social ties: love is irrelevant, in many societies biological sex is irrelevant, and in some societies even whether a groom is alive is irrelevant.
Stanton also demonstrates a strong predisposed bias. I mentioned that George Murdock’s definition of marriage, which Stanton uses in his report, omits the biological sex of the spouses. In response Stanton states that while Murdock does not specify biological sex when discussing marriage, he does so when discussing the family:
Yes, Murdock uses that gender-unspecific phrase in his explanation. But if you continue reading Murdock a few lines down, you get to the quote that I use, where Murdock explains that family “consists typically of a married man and woman with their offspring.” So he is specific, and there you have it again, that nagging male/female thing, without reference to or qualification of these other elusive gender couplings.
However, Murdock does explicitly qualify his comment with “typically.” Such qualifications are common when modern anthropologists discuss marriage and families because each society constructs them differently and exceptions are inevitable. Furthermore, Murdock uses gendered terms, not terms relating to biological sex.
In addition, Stanton demonstrates ethnocentrism by requiring that marriage be defined on his terms: if a society recognizes same-sex marriages as equal to opposite-sex ones, he dismisses them because they do not match his definition of marriage. However, using his criteria, we must argue that no society in the world has ever had marriage.
We are family
Anthropologists find tremendous variation in how societies form families and households. Anthropologists working in the South Pacific have difficulty keeping track of households because the membership is constantly changing: children in particular frequently change residence. Of interest, one anthropologist reports that nearly 50 percent of children in Lamotrek were adopted.5 Same-sex couples typically adopt and raise children in these societies: there is no evidence of harm to the children or society.
Strangely, Stanton argues that same-sex parenting harms children because studies show that children do better in two-parent homes than in one-parent homes. The argument is a non sequitur: same-sex households are two-parent homes. The studies he uses do not compare two-parent same-sex households to two-parent opposite-sex ones and are therefore irrelevant to the discussion. Stanton’s personal example regarding his wife’s loss of her father when she was young is also a non sequitur. Her grief over the loss of her father is irrelevant to a discussion of two living same-sex parents raising children.
Of interest, Stanton says “Some of these studies indicated father-love was a stronger contributor than mother-love to important positive child well-being outcomes” (emphasis in original). This, of course, implies that children raised by two fathers in a same-sex relationship would fair much better than those raised in a heterosexual family. He argues:
Unfortunately the legalization of same-sex marriage would not help us connect more children with their fathers, but often do precisely the opposite. This is one of the leading reasons why Focus on the Family opposes same-sex marriage, along with no-fault divorce and policies that tend to encourage out-of-wedlock child-bearing.
Opposing same-sex marriage does not prevent children from being raised in same-sex households: the 2000 Census reports over 25 percent of same-sex households have children. Focus on the Family’s opposition to same-sex marriage helps prevent these children from receiving the same financial, health, and emotional benefits children in heterosexual households receive: the opposition hurts innocent children. Stanton implicitly asserts that children with no parents, or with abusive parents, are better off than children with two loving same-sex parents, whose lives have been examined in minutia to ensure they will provide a healthy, stable, and loving home for any adopted children. Of tangential interest, but relevant to Stanton’s quote, Coontz references studies that indicate there is a 20 percent reduction in suicides by married women, a significant drop in domestic violence, and fewer murders of women in states with unilateral divorce.6 Apparently, divorce has its benefits.
Focus on the Family appears more concerned with its political agenda than its religious tenets. The organization opposes legislation benefiting children of same-sex parents. The organization wishes to restrict divorce, which has led to lower violence against women. The organization, generalizing from Stanton’s methodology and the recent article that began our conversation, is more concerned about fitting anthropological studies into its predisposed bias than an honest appraisal and reporting of the research. The organization deceives its readers and misrepresents a respected scientific organization: nearly one month later it has not corrected its claim that anthropologists agree with “traditional” marriage: the American Anthropological Association publicly stated the contrary in 2004.
1. My discussion of the Bugis does not derive from the article referenced by Stanton, but from an ethnography by S. G. Davies, Challenging Gender Norms: Five Genders among the Bugis in Indonesia (Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007). [BACK]
2. M. C. Ward, Nest in the Wind: Adventures in Anthropology on a Tropical Island, 2nd ed. (Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 2005). [BACK]
3. A. Brewis, Lives on the Line: Women and Ecology on a Pacific Atoll (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1996). [BACK]
5. W. H. Alkire, Lamotrek Atoll: Inter-island Socioeconomic Ties (Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1965). [BACK]
6. S. Coontz: 293. [BACK]
Round 2: Stanton Replies to Chapman
Round 2: Chapman Replies to Stanton
Glenn T. Stanton Responds to Professor Patrick Chapman
An Anthropologist Critiques Focus on the Family’s “Anthropological” Report on Marriage
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