Equal marriage could only threaten gender roles if it magically turned everyone gay

The modern basis of marriage is partnership and equality rather than innate difference.

One of the favourite arguments of those opposed to same-sex marriage is the idea that the institution of marriage embodies the "complementary" nature of men and women. Just as (they would say) marriage and civil partnership are "equal but different", so are the genders. The fact that the argument invariably comes from those espousing what they like to call the "Biblical" view of marriage (conveniently skirting over all those polygamous patriarchs in the Old Testament, but never mind) is apt to raise suspicions that what they really mean is that women belong at home in the kitchen while their husbands are out winning the bread in appropriately manly ways. But I doubt it's necessarily as reactionary as that, at least not in the minds of many of those putting it forward - liberal Anglican bishops, for example.

Speaking yesterday in the House of Lords, the Bishop of Leicester offered a superficially convincing modern twist on the idea. 

I could not help noticing in the debate in this House on International Women's Day the underlying assumption that women bring a special quality to the public square and that the complementarity of men and women is what encriches and stabilises society. Yet, in the realm of public discourse, assertion of sexual difference in relation to marriage has become practically unspeakable, in spite of the fact that it is implicity assumed by most people in the course of everyday life. Equal marriage will bring an end to the one major social institution that enshrines that complementarity.

He's got a point. Not, I think, about the threat that equal marriage would allegedly pose to "sexual complementarity": inasmuch as that matters, it matters to the individuals concerned, so that equal marriage could only threaten "complementarity" if it magically turned everyone gay. Where the bishop might just be on to something is in his identification of the importance that society still, indeed increasingly, attaches to gender difference. There does indeed seem to be an "underlying assumption" that men and women are essentially different beings, and arguments for expanding the role of women do often come down to enumerating the unique gifts that women are said to bring. "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus," as the ever-popular relationship manual assures us.

In the Church of England itself, the case for appointing women as bishops has been made not just on simple grounds of equality (here are some excellent potential bishops who just happen to be women) but by stressing the special qualities of women - the "maternal" quality of their pastoral care, for example. The same is true of politics and the world of business, where it has become commonplace to blame macho attitudes for wars or the banking crisis.

And what special qualities do women bring? Invariably, they turn out to be the very attributes that have always been considered quintessentially feminine and that were once trotted out as reasons why women's proper place was in the home. The contribution of women is celebrated, even by many feminists, on grounds of difference (though it is a difference disguised as superiority) - women are assumed to be more consensual, less competitive and aggressive, more concerned with nurturing and supporting others. One side-effect of such thinking is that women who are none of these things (the late Baroness Thatcher springs to mind) are apt to be denigrated as un-feminine.

The potency of the idea of sexual difference is remarkable, given the speed with which women have joined professions once considered a male preserve, from the legal profession to the military, where they operate increasingly (though not yet fully) on equal terms. Barely a day goes by with out some new scientific study confirming the existential difference between men and women, where a statistical correlation is interpreted as an iron law of biology and the interplay between biology and culture is never examined. Women may have more economic independence than ever before, but that hasn't prevented the increasing commercial and cultural enforcing of gender norms, with Tesco categorising chemistry sets as boys' toys and Disney reimagining the tomboyish Merida as a slim-waisted princess. Gender binaries rule.

So the bishop of Leicester really has very little to worry about. In the days when a woman had to promise to obey her husband and all her property became his the bishop might have had a stronger case. Such an institution would indeed have provided a most inappropriate model for same-sex relationships. The modern basis of marriage, on the other hand, is partnership and equality rather than innate difference. Far from being the sole redoubt of sexual "complementarity", in a world seemingly more convinced than ever that men and women come from different planets marriage has in fact become a challenge to it.  

Would same-sex marriage pose a threat to "sexual complementarity"? Photograph: Getty Images
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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt