Marriage certificates include the father's name, but omit the mother. Photo: Getty
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Why I refuse to get married until we have equality on the certificate

Marriage certificates only include your father’s name – to reinvent marriage as a twenty-first century institution, this must change.

A few months ago, my boyfriend proposed. I have dubbed his proposal the “nonposal”, a label he vociferously rejects. The words “marry” or “marriage” were not mentioned, making it hard to grasp what he was getting at. The next stage I entered into was denial, because the nonposal came off the back of a pretty intense argument. But eventually, I accepted that his casual “Well shall we get engaged then?”, was in fact his lovingly inelegant way of telling me he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me.

I said yes.

And then the doubts set in. Not about my boyfriend – I know I love him, I know I want to make a commitment to him. The doubts were about the institution of marriage itself – and they took me by surprise. On the few times I'd vaguely thought about getting married, my concerns had been with the ceremony. I didn't want to “obey” anyone; I didn't want to be “given away” like I was a chattel. Having always considered marriage to be no more than a public declaration of commitment, by two people who love each other, I held no reservations about the institution.

But having got engaged, my concerns now were with the state of being married itself. Suddenly all I could think about were the hundreds of years where marriage was little more than an oppressive means of exchange, where women were worth no more than the property they represented and the children they could bear, where consent had no meaningful status. History weighed heavily on my mind. I felt deeply uncomfortable about the whole thing. I felt dishonest. I didn't want to pledge my allegiance to such an institution. I didn't want to assimilate my private love into a system that represented everything I hate about society. To get married, no matter how equitable and loving our own relationship was, felt like a betrayal of all the women who had gone before me, who had been sold into a system with no way out, who had been abused, beaten, killed. Whose names had not mattered, only those of their fathers, husbands and sons. How could I, in good faith, take part in such a charade? I thought seriously about giving up my embarrassingly traditional dreams of a church wedding with beautiful vows and a drunken champagne-soaked bash to follow.

But, over time, I became used to the idea. I talked away my concerns. I convinced myself that I was being ridiculous. I thought of all the marriages that I admire, that made me think “that's what I want”. I told myself that I, along with all the other people who get married today in full awareness of marriage's oppressive past, could reinvent marriage for the twenty-first century. And I knew that, for me, the central part of the whole event, the public declaration of commitment, was something I wasn't prepared to give up. It felt like such a beautiful and sacred thing to do.

I haven't really thought about marriage much since those early weeks. The actual wedding is over a year off, because there is no way either of us have time to plan anything before then. So we've just been muddling along, being happily engaged.

But this week, I read an article by Holly Baxter about civil partnership. Apparently, our revered prime minister, our dear leader in all things moral, has been expressing concerns about allowing civil partnerships for heterosexual couples. Such a step would, he gravely claimed, “undermine the sanctity of marriage”. And therefore he intends to veto such a step.

To be honest, I've never really considered a civil partnership – and not just because I can't have one. The term sounds so bureaucratic, so soulless. It seems totally at odds with the type of relationship it is meant to honour. For the same reason, despite my reservations about the patriarchal nature of the Church of England, I would never consider having a civil wedding. It is no doubt illogical, and obviously many people feel differently, but I personally find something comforting, awe-inspiring, about repeating words that are centuries old, in a building where thousands of couples down the ages have done the same. It reminds me how small I am, it reminds me of community, of the stretch of history. It feels solid – like I want my marriage to be.

But then Holly started explaining what the differences were between marriages and civil partnerships: “Civil partnerships also include the names of both parents of each partner on the certificate, rather than merely the names of the fathers,” she wrote. I read this simple sentence with horror and felt all my reservations rush back, with a new intensity. I can deal with the “walking down the aisle” thing – I can simply choose not to do it. But this? This was a legal document. And it would have a space for my father – and nothing for my mother. Like the woman who has brought me up, who has been an inspiration and rock for me all my life, who has taught me how to pick myself up, dust myself off and keep going, no matter what life throws at me, doesn't matter. Like she doesn't exist.

I cannot, in good faith, take part in an institution that, in the twenty-first century, thinks this is an acceptable state of affairs. I will not take any vow issued by a system that is complicit in the symbolic and cultural annihilation of women. I cannot sully a relationship that means so much to me, by associating it with an institution that renders my mother worthless, invisible, surplus to requirements.

In the meantime, kind friends have informed me that I have the option to draw up an agreement with a solicitor, which is what I'm currently looking at. But I still have hope. There is a petition on change.org asking the equalities minister to change this antiquated and needlessly discriminatory state of affairs. I have hope that, given we are in the twenty-first century, given there can be no possible objections to such a simple change and given, as I said, my wedding is a while off yet, we can change this before then, and I can stand up in front of my friends and family, and publicly pledge to spend the rest of my life with the man I love.

 

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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Why can you change gender but not race?

Marina Benjamin on the curious logic of modern identity politics. 

At my daughter’s state girls’ school, many of the students see themselves as gender fluid. Some feel more like boys than girls. Others feel like boys on some days and girls on others. A lot of the girls are out, with many identifying as gay and quite a few as bi- or pansexual. No doubt, in time, a small minority of them will migrate across the gender spectrum entirely, crossing permanently from one side to the other.

Such freewheeling thinking about gender and sexual identity was unimaginable until just a few years ago, yet in this brave new world of gender mutability, most teens are as fluent as they are fluid. It is a testimony to the speed and success with which gender­queer and trans activists have challenged societal norms around masculinity and femininity, bringing about the kind of meltdown in gender roles that feminism was unable to achieve despite 50 years of trying.

This is a world in which, controversially, subjective feeling reigns supreme. If you feel male and wish to be known as “he”, then that is your prerogative, regardless of your sex. As Frank Browning points out in The Fate of Gender, US colleges (those ever-sensitive barometers of social change) now routinely ask students for their preferred personal pronoun. They provide “gender-neutral” toilets and free counselling for transsexual students. One elite college recently cancelled a production of The Vagina Monologues after some students protested that “not all women have vaginas”.

Browning’s interest is in the way “gender radicals” have “[upended] the routines, rituals and rules of gender”, leading to radical transformations in how we live. Like a disaster tourist travelling through an earthquake zone, he finds his eye drawn to “upheavals”: to kindergarten ­teachers in Oslo, dedicated to eradicating what they see as gendered behaviour in the very young children they teach; to same-sex couples negotiating new ways of parenting post-­surrogacy or adoption; to a voyeuristic drive-by past Naples’s femminielli – street-walkers famed “for their beautiful legs, their sumptuous breasts and their large penises”; to discussing masturbation with a middle-aged Shanghai sociologist who offers classes in self-stimulation to empower women.

The politics of the transgender movement skids in and out of the narrative but never moves centre-stage. Browning is more interested in gender equality at work, or how the Catholic Church is and isn’t adapting to gay marriage.

Browning spent many years working as a radio journalist and his book resembles nothing so much as a mid-morning magazine programme. There’s a bit of chat, a bit of travel, a sprinkling of interviews with academic experts and some sharp insights that get somewhat lost in the babble. The result is a loose collection of gender-busting exemplifications, rather than a tightly argued thesis. You could reorder half the chapters in the book and still enjoy the same mildly entertaining reading experience.

Some of the most fascinating subjects that Browning touches on remain underexamined. He notes, for example, that at least one in every 1,500 (some suggest the figure is more like one in 150) children born in the US and Australia is intersex: that is, they possess genitalia and a chromosomal identity that admit of ambiguity. Until very recently, doctors in the US would perform sex reassignment surgery on such newborns, at the risk of leaving them infertile and, just as dreadful, in bodies that they would often grow up believing to be wrongly sexed.

Browning doesn’t interview anyone who has had such an experience, or mine literary works for perspective, or link the intersex phenomenon into broader identity politics, or discuss the painful subterfuges that hermaphrodites such as the late Olympic track and field star Stella Walsh resorted to in order to “pass” – in her case, as female. Instead, he makes a rather tenuous link between the horrors of institutional surgical reassignment and tribal female genital mutilation. Cutting is cutting, of course, and always reprehensible, but readers never get to grips with what it means to be intersex.

It’s a shame, because, as Rogers Brubaker argues in his pacy and stimulating extended essay Trans, it is in the in-betweenness that our binaries break down, whether we are talking about nature v nurture (where discoveries in epigenetics are busy dissolving firm oppositions); male and female (those tired categories with which trans politics is playing havoc); or, most interestingly, black v white. Following social scientists such as Alondra Nelson of Columbia University, Brubaker takes up the case that race has little basis in genetics: it is an epiphenomenon, or, to use the lingua franca of anti-essentialists, a “social construct”.

Brubaker’s book was inspired by the media’s synchronous pairing of Bruce Jenner’s rebirth as Caitlyn and Rachel Dolezal’s outing as white in 2015. Dolezal had lived as a black woman for years, braiding her hair and darkening her skin. She identified as black and became head of her local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Yet in most quarters her claim to be black met with angry ridicule. Her reception was in pointed contrast to Jenner’s, whose debut as Caitlyn was heralded by a sexy Vanity Fair cover and a reality TV series. If public legitimation could be ­extended to Jenner, why not to Dolezal?

Dolezal’s teacher memorably called her “a white woman with a black soul”, but this was not enough, Brubaker says, to counter the flurry of negative commentary about “passing, choice, authenticity, privilege and appropriation” – which are precisely the themes that animate his lively book. He makes a persuasive case that the trans movement belongs to “a much broader moment of cultural flux, mixture and interpenetration”, of a piece with the “burgeoning discussions of hybridity, syncretism, creolisation and transnationalism in the last quarter-century”. Simply put, Trans illus­trates a sharpened tension between the language of choice and that of givenness.

The nub of Trans’s argument is that we are culturally primed to be more receptive to transgender journeys, whether male to female or vice versa, because these are framed as identity or even civil rights issues, whereas racial identities are still categorical. In public discourse today, there is no such thing as a racial spectrum: you can’t be a bit black or a bit white. You have to choose and you certainly can’t cross over to the other side. As Brubaker sums it up: “Dolezal was living a lie; Jenner was being true to her innermost self.” Dolezal was guilty of “cultural theft” (in contrast to Michael Jackson, who was deemed a race traitor, she was a “race ­faker”); Jenner was fighting gender oppression.

I remember getting flamed on Twitter when I asked why the hell Dolezal couldn’t be considered black. The hot-button term, it turned out, was “transracial”. This expression emerged in adoption circles, where activists concerned that adoption “could lead to changes in racial identity – in particular to the loss of one’s authentic identity for want of social support for it”, sought to strengthen racial categories. I also received a dozen tweets telling me that Dolezal hadn’t suffered enough to be black – a line likewise pushed by some feminists critical of the territorial claims made by transgender women.

With respect to Jenner, I was sympathetic to views expressed with wicked humour by Germaine Greer, but more acceptably by ­Lionel Shriver, who, in response to Jenner’s claim to have a “female brain”, railed against the neo-essentialism of the trans movement for relying on and reinscribing outmoded gender stereotypes. Pointedly, Brubaker also notes “the remarkable power of the binary gender system to adapt to and reabsorb transgender people”. Better to make a show of taking in migrants than to acknowledge that your borders are fundamentally weak.

With its push-me-pull-you politics, gender fluidity understandably creates controversy. The irony is that, in theory at least, transracialism ought less to do so. Not only is there no genetic basis for racial difference, but the boom in genetic ancestry testing, which tests autosomal DNA (inherited from both parents, and accounting for the full, multi-stranded range of one’s genetic ancestry), often reveals complex mixtures of biogeographic lineage, thus leaving considerable room for what Alondra Nelson calls “affiliative self-fashioning”.

Genetic ancestry testing gives credence to the likes of Dolezal, who might wish to see herself as environmentally, psychologically, culturally, emotionally and intellectually black, even if the “technologies of migration” which support transgender journeys – institutionalised in legal, medical, social and activist bodies – are not yet in place for transracial journeys such as hers.

However mind-bending such ­determined migrations might seem, the brouhaha over race and gender shows that we are primed to understand categories of identity in ways that are legibly embodied. In this, we are not so different from our intellectual ancestors the ancient Greeks, who, as Adrian Thatcher reminds us in Redeeming Gender, championed a “one sex” theory on the basis of bodily homologies between men and women that saw female genitalia as mirroring male genitalia. Only inside out.

Marina Benjamin is the author of “The Middlepause: on Turning Fifty” (Scribe)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times