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Raising Questions About Roles

[Cross-posted from SDA Gender Justice] This is my attempt to consider various elements of conversations taking place around the question of sex/gender. A recent post questioning homosexuality inspired me to write. I’d like to complicate “the question” by stepping back to what philosopher Derrida calls “the question before the question.” Though when Derrida said this he was asking a different question.
I recently reconnected with a high-school friend I haven’t spoken with in at least six or more years. We’ve been chatting back and forth on Facebook. He noted my use of the word “spouse” in place of “husband” during the course of our conversation and asked me why the latter term doesn’t suit me. I admit I’m not absolutely consistent in using one or the other term. But I frequently find myself in a place where I feel wary of traditional and what I consider prescriptive identifications of a married couple that are wrapped up in words, terms, roles, expectations, and so forth (staying clear of proposing that everyone identifies these ideas in exactly the same way, which comes pretty close to my point in the end). As a person in a heterosexual marriage, I don’t feel compelled to restrict myself to act in accordance with assumptions of how women “naturally” or “essentially” are. Why? Because I recognize that such roles are prescriptive. I hold this in contrast to the behavior, aspirations, and capabilities of women and men who believe they are more than what categories or stereotypes ask of them. I don’t feel obligated to pursue a career track friendly to “a woman’s role,” or to submit (ouch) to my spouse so as to prevent disorder in our home, church, and larger community. There are a lot of reasons why my spouse is reluctant to take up his “God ordained” patriarchal rite/right. In his words, “the acceptance of hierarchy in relationships just doesn’t make any sense.” His position is more complicated than that, but I’ll leave it to him to explain elsewhere.
Is there any basis for fearing that the openness my spouse and I have with our roles will damage children we raise in the future, if we have children? A connection I find with Goffar’s post on homosexuality is that any person out there can look at my spouse and I and be reassured that despite any funky ideas we have of ourselves as a couple we must still express our biological capacities to be a man and to be a woman. I imagine that this is more reassuring to those who fear breaches in sexual identity in comparison to observing homosexual couples raising children. Why? Because at the surface-level one argument is that my husband and I are more qualified to raise children because we can’t help but be who we are—a man and a woman. But I’m very suspicious of this reduction.
I appreciate a comment made by Beth to Goffar’s post:
“In fact gender roles are a prime example of a situation where differences among the groups (i.e. how women are different from each other) are way way stronger then differences between the groups (how women differ from men). This is important to remember when we start saying how women are a certain way or men are a certain way. Which woman and which man? And can children really not figure that out?”
Now I can get into my “question before the question.” I recently gave a paper at a Science and Religion conference. I considered the relationship between metaphysics (what is reality?) and ontology (what is being and existence?), affirming the idea of difference and becoming rather than individuals as expressions of essential beings configuring homogeneous social and ontological categories. It’s a slightly radical thing to tell most scientists. The first comment in the Q&A came from a philosopher of science who urged me to consider what science objectively tells us about sex and gender, and that one ought to begin from the facts when researching these areas. His gentle and irritating urge resonated in my mind with appeals from resources considered safer when negotiating questions of morality, such as scripture and tradition, that if uncritically taken up fail to alert us of the difference between describing and prescribing humans, of men and women. “Objective” descriptions of things can conceal that a person is really asserting what he or she believes a thing ought to be, the described sometimes having no opportunity to sway the question through self-identification. Here is one question before the question: who is speaking? We should take science, scripture, and tradition seriously and engage them as though everything is at stake. But I have reservations about whether these resources can reveal what is “essentially so” and I think we have to recognize that as bases for morality interpretations of these resources are not absolute. Mine included. Here is another question before the question: what are the conditions that make us capable of posing questions and how do these conditions constrain our answers?
Now some implications of my position: choosing to do away with the absolute necessity of a husband role and a wife role is part and parcel of my commitment to complicate conceptions of what masculinity and femininity mean. I don’t think that women are reducible to a feminine nature, that men are basically masculine, or versions of the argument that say we should at least act in such a way. I’ve discussed this with classmates who are homosexual. Some of these friends really dislike interrogations such as, “so who’s the man and who’s the woman in your relationship?” I think it’s worth questioning whether marriages must be made up of a masculine element and a feminine element. My inkling is that these qualities are more like group performances than group projections, and that such performances are not just variations on a theme. The difference between performance and projection, for example, is that many women “perform” feminine qualities because these traits are valued and learned early on. But women as a group do not project womanhood or woman-ness because no such thing exists essentially for the collective. Some women are very comfortable and happy with these traits, and it suits many men when they realize they resonate similarly. Other women come off as more masculine and might be seen as exceptional or abnormal. But in my effort to complicate what is usually neat and clean, I don’t understand the obligation to work with only two descriptors. The point I intended to make in this “nomadic” post is that we would do well to find ways of considering the impact of time, place, cultural expectations, religious commitments, and so forth as they influence the way we pose questions and approach conversations.

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