Montreal Pride 2005 has come and gone and, in the midst of post-pride blues, I’ve managed to use the experience of my 4th year as a participant in these events to tie up some loose ends with regards to blog topics that had been spinning around in my head for a while without any specific direction. This posting is therefore the first in a short series of posts that will take a look at queer-related phenomena in an anthropological framework.
The recent event that stands out the most in the queer world is probably the legalisation of same-sex marriage (yes, same-sex marriage as opposed to gay marriage, please) in Spain and Canada. Anthropologically (and yes, personally) I find this quite interesting.
I haven’t done a quantitative study on introductory anthropology textbooks, but it seems to me that many of them, with some exceptions of course, persist in defining marriage as a “insert series of qualifiers here” union between a man and a woman. This is usually followed by explanations of the various forms of marriage, including polygamy which contradicts the “a” in the above definition already (but whatever. . .)
I remember feeling very confused as an early undergrad because of this. I never spoke up because I was far from being out as queer at the time and I figured that maybe same-sex attraction was, after all, some kind of European/North American phenomenon and that I, a lowly undergrad, shouldn’t start messing around with the Established Ones.
One woman in my intro class, who fit the butch-stereotype almost to a T, dared to denounce the definition as heterosexist and I stared at her, wide-eyed, as she blushed and as her voice trembled, knowing that all eyes were on her and that everyone was branding her as a lesbian. The professor brushed her off, saying that in all other societies, marriage was between men and women and for the main purpose of reproduction. Any aspirations that I had at the time of someday being as brave as that young presumably lesbian woman were smashed.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I learned that the ethnographic record contains examples of recognised same-sex unions and that the standard anthropological definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman was flawed. And it wasn’t until a few years into my studies that I had the gumption to say “well, even if it were just a North American / European thing, we’re part of the ethnographic record too, ain’t we?”
As it stands, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada have legally sanctioned same-sex marriages. In addition to that, a host of small-scale societies around the world have, at some point in time, recognised same-sex unions that would qualify as marriage according to an anthropological definition (except for the man-woman part, of course) in various forms and for various reasons. Whether they all still recognise these after contact with Christian missionaries is unclear however. Of course the irony is that many people who are from societies that recognised same-sex unions “once upon a time” are probably appalled by the recent moved toward this very recognition in Western nations.
In any case, with this turn of events in the queer world, I am curious to see how many textbook authors will alter their definitions of marriage. Some already have, of course, even before these high-profile cases in recognition of the above-mentioned same-sex unions that were noted even by early anthropologists. The benefit for anthro teachers and profs is that it will make it easier to discuss same-sex marriage in the classroom without appearing to have an “agenda”, which is often a risk for an openly queer academic. The benefit at large is that fewer queer students will feel cornered and marginalised in the classroom because they will finally see themselves represented in the discipline that specialises in humanity in all of its aspects.
Of course, these textbooks would run the risk of having stickers put on their inside covers saying something like: “This book contains material on queerness. Queerness is only a theory and . . .” Well, you know the drill.