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The Politics of Gender in the Debate over Same Sex Marriage

David Little

Legislation is deeply entrenched in language and the continual process of interpretation. Laws are created as a response to cultural and societal needs, wants and norms and are restructured and interpreted as these desires and standards change over time. The importance of the words chosen and the syntax used in order to translate society's standards into legislation are amplified over time because they are continuously deconstructed, examined, and analyzed. As these laws are applied to and challenged by society, policymakers must examine them and then change them through discourse and dialogue. As current sentiments towards marriage are changing and shifting, policymakers must begin to examine our nation's legislation that dictates how marriage works in our country. They must attempt to create a policy that is ethical and constitutional which at the same time accurately represents the majority's opinions.

The issue of same-sex marriage became relevant in the recent election due to the actions of courts and local officials in both California and Massachusetts. President Bush proposed an Amendment that would limit marriage rights to only heterosexual couples in all states. Many government officials felt that this was unnecessary due to the success of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which John Kerry, who would come to run against George W. Bush in 2004, spoke out against. The Act passed through both the House and Senate with resounding majorities. Because of the media attention of the same-sex marriage debate in this election year, constituents of both parties have examined the arguments that both Bush and Kerry have made for and against legislation which limits marriage rights. By examining the rhetoric and legislative interpretation of both John Kerry's argument against the Defense of Marriage Act and George Bush's call for a Federal Marriage Amendment, one can analyze the ways in which two individuals can deconstruct and restructure the same legislation in order to argue two diametrically opposed points.

In his 1996 speech against the Defense of Marriage Act, John Kerry chose to speak not only of the legal implications of the law but took the opportunity to step back from the politics of Washington DC and consider the human, embodied, and gendered effect of this law on our Nation. John Kerry, in 1996 and 2004, does not support a homosexual couple's right to marry yet he has spoken out against proposed legislation which is based on the denial of a right to someone who is a homosexual. In his speech, he criticizes the use of the word "defense" in the title of the act saying that if it was truly concerned with defending marriage it would, " provide for counseling," "guarantee day care," and "expand protection of abused children" among many other things (232). This, he argues, would be defending marriage against that which threatens it. In order to defend, one must first be put on the defensive by offensive and threatening actions and behaviors. Marriage is threatened by alcoholism, domestic violence, etc. but not by the fact that two people of the same gender love each other.
Unlike Bush and the conservative voice on the issue of same-sex marriage, Kerry, and other liberals, are not afraid of taking about the issue of gender and love when it comes to marriage. Kerry points out, "For a bill which purports to defend and regulate marriage, there has been so little talk of love." (237) Kerry not only focuses of legislative precedent and ethics, but on the human element of the consequences of the Defense of Marriage Act. In 2004, when President George W. Bush, called for a federal amendment that would, in essence, write the Defense of Marriage Act into the constitution, no talk of love, human life, and barely even gender was made.

Bush and other conservatives selected to leave these issues out of their argument citing only court battles, legislation, and statistics. Bush speaks of societal institutions and national interest when discussing an issue of emotion and love. By ignoring the human element of marriage, Bush can disembody and abstract gays and lesbians to an idea that can threaten our, "basic social institutions" and force people not see them as simply people who are in love, which is quite simply what two people who wish to marry are (343). The power afforded to the conservative voice by being able to abstract the LGBTQ population is incredible because it allows them to define how they are represented to the general public and can therefore perpetuate ungrounded fears in the conservative coalition.

By choosing to focus on the human element of the marriage debate, liberals like John Kerry can appeal to the section of the American population which is concerned with the preservation and expansion of a citizen's rights but the conservative approach of playing into the weaknesses and fears of conservative heterosexual faction of American population, they can offer a scapegoat. Many people believe this issue was brought into the spotlight in order to distract people from the deplorable condition of Bush's war in Iraq. It provided the conservative base an enemy against whom it could rally. It provided a cohesion to conservatives everywhere that was lost due to the state of the war. By examining the ways in which each candidate structured there argument considering same-sex marriage legislation, one can gain insight into the interplay between the two parties on a national and a personal level.

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