Gay Marriage: Liz Cheney’s Antigone Problem

In her bid to become a Republican Senator from Wyoming, Liz Cheney is in a bind. She wants the love of her sister, Mary, who is lesbian, but she also wants the love of Tea Party primary voters (who hate lesbians). What to do?

Chuck her sister overboard. This is at the NBC News website this morning:

Mary Cheney and her wife Heather Poe took to Facebook to express their disappointment after Liz Cheney  – a GOP candidate for Senate in Wyoming – repeated her opposition to same sex marriage during a television interview. 

“Liz – this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree – you’re just wrong – and on the wrong side of history,” Mary Cheney wrote. 

In a separate Facebook post, Heather Poe called her sister-in-law’s comments “offensive.” 

“Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 – she didn’t hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us,” Poe wrote on the social media site. “To have her now say she doesn’t support our right to marry is offensive to say the least.”

Liz Cheney, in other words, has chosen the path of Ismene.

Who is Ismene?

Ismene is the sister of Antigone in Sophocles’ Antigone, and she has a problem: how to respond to her sister’s moral determination to do the right thing by her family (bury her dead brother lying in an open field after a civil war against the king’s wishes). Shall Ismene join with her sister in solidarity, helping Antigone bury her brother despite the political consequences, or leave Antigone to an independent fate? In the play’s opening scene, Antigone puts the moral nature of her intentions to Ismene this way (lines 71-74):

I will bury him.

It will be a noble act, even if it leads to death.

Loving and loved, I shall lie with him–

a pious criminal.

Antigone is focused on love, on the heart, on what’s right, but Ismene thinks more pragmatically. She wants to remain a beloved princess in the court of the king (the king is her uncle), and Antigone’s zealotry could really mess that up.

So Ismene is looking for an easy way out, for some sort of compromise, having this exchange with her sister (84-88):

ISMENE: At least don’t tell anyone what you intend

but keep silent–and I will do the same.

ANTIGONE: No–tell everyone. I insist. You will be more hated

for silence than if you shout it from the city walls.

ISMENE: You burn for deeds that chill my blood.

Adopting (what we would now call) an anti-feminist position, Ismene also tries to explain to Antigone that she is behaving in a way quite mannish and unbecoming of her sex, and simply must remember her place (61-64):

Do not forget that we are women–

it is not in our nature to oppose men

but to be ruled by their power. We must submit,

whatever they order, no matter how awful.

But Antigone is undaunted, declaring that the dead will hate Ismene, “and with justice,” should she fail to join with Antigone in her cause. And of course, things go quite downhill for Ismene from there. She does not join her sister in burying her brother, and as the play proceeds, she finds that she can recover neither her honor nor her political position in relation to her uncle, the king.

It’s not too late for Liz Cheney to avoid Ismene’s fate; she can still reverse course before the Republican primary is over and join her sister in solidarity against the bigots, cost what it may. But she’s running out of time.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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