In the wake of electoral losses in California and Maine, the global Gay Rights movement have become mired by a growing sense of disunity that could threaten to derail future progress in its agenda. This seeds of disillusionment have been sown by confluence of recent factors that includes a disintegration of vision, poorly articulated goals, an organisation that seems disinterested and lacking the resources necessary to carry its forward its agenda and an electorate that seems largely unresponsive to its message. But perhaps the greatest impediment of all stems from a systemic fragmentation within the community itself over the critical question of just what rights are being fought for in the first place?
The issue of gay marriage has long been the lynchpin that has held the movement together; however, this seems to be dissolving as sections of the community begin to bicker about just what the new end-game should be. Is the pragmatic goal of securing equitable rights in matters of social security, adoption, immigration, IVF and health more important than the symbolic goal of full and equitable marriage? Electorates across the United States, Europe, Latin America and Australia have become slowly more tolerant of the idea of “civil partnerships” or secular marriages yet the “Holy Grail” of the movement – full and complete marriage rights – still seems a distant El Dorado, unlikely to be attained uniformly within this generation.
It is my argument, however, that full and complete marriage rights should remain the focal goal of the gay rights movement for now and into the future as a rallying cry that will re-energize and unite the community under a common vision. In recent years, the debate over gay marriage has reached a cool modus vivendi wherein the gay community seems willing to accept, in many jurisdictions, the legally similar, but symbolically divergent, civil partnership over full and complete marriage rights. Left-leaning politicians like this arrangement because it keeps in abeyance the question of gay marriage while allowing them to straddle their socially liberal gay constituents without provoking the wrath of their socially conservative working base (think Labour party in the UK). However, I maintain that this is still unsatisfactory and that the gay rights movement should continue to agitate for full same-sex marriage rights. But why should societies permit gay marriage? Is there a rational and justifiable reason why it seems permissible to deny marriage rights to homosexual couples? In considering the issue, I cannot think of a rational reason why it would be appropriate to deny full and equitable marriage rights to homosexual couples.
Consider the arguments against homosexual marriage. Perhaps the strongest is that marriage has always been the union of one man to one woman to the exclusion of all others and should continue to be so. This is the common law definition of marriage that has now been codified by many jurisdictions across the world – including the United States’ provocatively titled Defense of Marriage Act (which the title of this post plays of). Historically, it is true, that marriage has always been about the union of one man to one woman. But I would counter that historical interpretations as to the meaning of marriage are changeable and constantly in flux. Marriages were institutions that bonded a man and a woman together, sometimes for pecuniary reasons, sometimes for reasons of power (consider the marriages of royalty across Europe), sometimes for security. In fact, many marriages in the Middle Ages used to be arranged by betrothal with love rarely considered as an important or essential quality.
It seems merely historical coincidence that marriages became intertwined with “the church.” In fact, early Christian marriages (30CE – 300 CE) had little to do with the church in any codified sense. It wasn’t until much later that marriage and the church became connected with marriage being recognized as an official sacrament. This probably has more to do with the historical significance of the church and the feudal structure of society at the time than any sort of religious imperative. In the 1960s, anti-miscegenation laws were common. This prevented the marriage of two people from different races, which is an idea that would seem utterly preposterous to most rational people today. Just who can get married and why they would get married has held no historical consistency over the past 2000 years. In fact, it is has more to do with the power of social institutions of the times than sort of enduring “essence” or “quality” of what marriage is. In modern society, I would argue that the social structure is sturdy enough to support the inclusion of homosexual marriage without a concomitant destruction of the societal structure itself.
Now of course a particularly intelligent person who sees it fit to quibble with me over my last statement would probably point out that while it is correct that the particular reasons and circumstances pertaining to why two people might get married are prone to flux, there is one essential quality to marriage that has endured over the past 2000 years and that is it has always been between a man and a woman. This is true (although there are cases in which a marriage between two men has been postulated by anthropologists – consider adelphopoesis). However, I would retort that this means we need to consider the essential nature or essence of marriage. If we are to believe that the definition of marriage can be changed subject to the flux associated with changing social structures, except for that one essential and enduring quality of man and woman then we must take this to its logical conclusion and that is we should be willing to condone the arrangement of marriages in society based entirely on random allocation (providing that the two people who are randomly allocated to get married are a man and a woman). Of course, almost everyone would consider this to be utterly preposterous. Why? Because to us, the essential nature of marriage is not merely (and certainly not only) that it is between a man and a woman. There is any number of other factors that constitute the essence of marriage in modern society. Volition perhaps? The two people must agree to marriage, right? But as I pointed out, marriages in the Middle Ages were often organised by betrothal, often without the express consent of at least one partner to the marriage.
It seems to be that you cannot argue that there is only one enduring quality of a marriage and that is that it is between a man and a woman, because if you take that to its logical conclusion it results in an absurdity. Marriage is flourished with many other qualities which we deem essential to us, but yet which we must admit that this has radically changed from what marriage was 1000 years ago. It seems that an argument for the historical endurance of man and woman is flat. In modern society, the essence of marriage has more to do with notions of volition, love and commitment, than the hollow idea of man and woman. If you believe the only essential nature of marriage is between a man and woman, then you would surely have to support random allocation, if you concede that it is more than just a man and a woman than you must be willing to accept that marriage is subject to changing notions of its essential quality.
But perhaps you might argue that yes, I can accept that the essential quality of marriage changes, but that we shouldn’t change the essential quality of man and woman. One might conjure any number of reasons for this. The first one is that the institution of marriage supports reproduction. Homosexuals cannot reproduce therefore they should not be allowed to marry. But any sensible person must reject the initial premise of the argument. If the institution of marriage is solely as an institution to support reproduction then surely we must prevent those heterosexual couples who cannot reproduce together from getting married. In fact, if we were to take the notion of reproduction to its logical conclusion than surely you would be in favour of a society which allocates marriages not randomly but rather on the basis of the quality of the genes of the two people getting married. Perhaps we could establish a Ministry of Marriages and Births which genetically profiles everybody so that a male and a female with the most complementary genes are placed together in a marriage for the purposes of procreating the most genetically superior offspring. This again, would hardly be accepted by any rational person (perhaps a few Social Darwinists out there, but thankfully you are in the minority).
I would also make a more pragmatic argument in relation to this point. Homosexual couples are going to cohabitate regardless of whether they are able to get marriage or not. It is not as though legalising same-sex marriage will cause a deficiency in child rearing because all these potential mothers and fathers have opted for homosexual marriage. The argument that legalising same-sex marriage would threaten the proliferation of the human race because homosexual couples cannot procreate is once again hollow. Marriages between heterosexuals will happen, even if homosexual couples can marry. And when heterosexual couples marry I am sure that they will copulate with as much vim and vigour as they did when homosexual couples couldn’t get married. Marriage will still function as an institution which enables a child to be raised in a loving and nurturing environment, but it will also function as an institution that allows society to grow in a loving and nurturing civic environment.
Another argument trotted out by those opposed to same-sex marriage is there “where does it end” argument. If we allow same-sex marriages why not allow polygamy, or why not allow pederasty or why not allow people to marry the Ikea catalogue? This however, is a desultory argument. We are not having a civic debate about polygamy. If we were then we could rationally consider all the arguments for and against legalising polygamy. I love Pepsi Max. If I wanted to marry a 1.25L bottle of Pepsi Max and I was asking for society’s consent to allow me to do that then we can have a debate on the merits of this. Of course, allowing me to marry a 1.25L bottle of Pepsi Max would involve a whole gamut of different arguments that are completely separate from the debate about same-sex marriage, not in the least whether a plastic bottle can actually possess the faculty of mind to consent to a marriage with me. But then again, who the fuck wouldn’t want to marry me? Seriously, one cannot let a discussion about same-sex marriage be sidetracked by a specious association that on appearances seems to have a connection, but in reality necessitates a whole range of different issues and a different debate.
Perhaps the strongest impediment to acceptance of same sex marriage is not rational, but aesthetic. Most people just do not like the “look” of same-sex marriage. They feel it cheapens the institution (because you know Zsa Zsa Gabor’s 7 marriages didn’t do that already). Unfortunately, with aesthetic judgements there is no truth value to quibble with; it’s just a matter of personal tastes. The same disgust would have been felt 60 years ago if a black man and a white woman were getting married. Personal tastes change. I feel to make a determination as to whether you support gay marriage or not based on personal tastes is unfair and unreasonable. Rather you should consider just what kind of society it is that you want to live in. Would a virtuous society, one which venerates tolerance and respect, diversity and freedom, kindness and inclusiveness support same-sex marriage? It is my belief that if these are the qualities to which we as a society aspire than a virtuous society would surely endorse same-sex marriage. Ask yourself do you oppose same-sex marriage based on reason or is it something more aesthetic? And if it is aesthetic ask yourself is this fair. Likewise, there are many people out there who support same-sex marriage, but they do so based on a reticence. Rather than entering the public debate they are more comfortable saying that “it doesn’t affect me, no skin off my nose.” However, I feel extricating yourself from the argument is pointless. If we are to accept that we live in a society you cannot straddle this argument, for even if you don’t care about same-sex marriage by allowing it to occur or preventing it to occur you are either implicitly endorsing or disendorsing a position. So might I suggest rather than civic reticence, you consider supporting same-sex marriage not because it doesn’t affect you and it’s not your business but because you support an inclusive, tolerant, respectful, open society and are proud to support and include any members of the community who do so too.
As for the gay rights movement, it is important to not get distracted by the many divergent paths that could be taken in response to continued failure on the goal of gay marriage. All great civil rights movements have focussed on a largely symbolic end-game, not on the minutiae of pragmatic concerns. The best way forward is to not necessarily to get angry, protest or sign petitions. It is to start talking with those around, to confront the real fears that people have about same-sex marriage in an open and rational dialogue. The silent majority of good, kind and virtuous people out there who maintain reservations simply need to have their fears addressed sensibly. There is no use in chiding people for what they believe. The road to salvation is slow and it will take time, but it is important to not lose sight of what is being fought for, and it is important not to accept the lesser compromise of civil unions. This is a fight for recognition, not just “all the privileges associated with marriage, but not marriage itself.” Recognition can only come through equality, not a semantic screw-around.