I wrote this some months ago, then almost let it slide because it was almost not relevant. Then this headline happened:
Mail Online: Married couples tax break ‘in next budget’ to try and appease Tory backbenchers over gay marriage
And this one:
And this one:
And this one:
This Is Money: Tax break for married couples expected ‘sooner rather than later’ as Tory MPs say benefit changes hammer stay-at-home mums
…so I thought I’d better get back on it.
Gay Marriage seems to be the major social debate of the modern era, with activity on both sides of The Pond. In the USA, a Biden gaffe (or perhaps deliberate blunder) forced Obama to show his hand and support marriage in line with his progressive attitudes on sexuality, as shown by the 2011 repeal of “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell”. Arguably this stance contributed to Obama’s victory in Ohio and Florida; more clearly, it was approved by Maine, Maryland and Washington referenda. In Australia, nowhere near the pond, it’s a talking point.
In the UK, the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition push for marriage legislation, which their Tory partners are alternately embracing or delaying in the face of hostility from certain Conservative and Christian groups. There is a particularly nasty backlash coming. Watch this space.
However, mainstream debate on the pros and cons of homosexual marriage law is labouring under a number of delusions, which I hope to address. I will go on to examine two overlooked aspects of the marriage issue – the implications of the pro-marriage camp’s reasoning, and the existence of LGBTQ communities that oppose equal marriage laws.
1. UK Civil Partnerships give full marriage rights
– Many pension schemes, which would accrue and pay out to a spouse (‘survivor benefits’), don’t recognise civil partners in the same manner.
– Adultery is not a valid ground for the dissolution of a civil partnership but is for a divorce.
– It is prohibited for civil partnership ceremonies to include religious symbols, music or readings. This is in addition to the fact that no religious body may legally be compelled to perform a civil partnership or host one in its buildings.
– Civil partners of male peers or knights do not receive the courtesy title to which a female partner would be entitled.
– Wilkinson vs. Kitzinger 2003 found that same-sex couples married abroad (i.e. legally married in Canada) were not afforded the same recognition of marriage by the British government as heterosexual foreign spouses are. They were recognised as civil partners when the legislation was passed.
2. Legislation would force religious institutions to perform marriages
– It wouldn’t.
3. Legalising equal marriage would encourage more homosexual relationships and cause social change
– Ok this isn’t exactly a myth. I have no idea whether it’s true (although Canada’s example suggest it is.) It’s a huge fallacy, though, since this criticism assumes homosexual relationships are a bad thing which should not be spread. Which is the exact opposite of what the legislation would be saying. D’uh.
4. There are no homosexual women or bisexuals or trans*people in the world at all
This isn’t so much a myth as a personal observation in every media discussion and campaign for equal marriage that I’ve seen.
5. Marriage has existed the traditional way forever
– It hasn’t. Neither the state-religious way we ‘get married’, nor the reasons for getting married, were that similar in 16th Century Europe, let alone elsewhere or elsewhen. And, by the way, 16th Century Europeans were not absolute arbiters of morality. We have stopped doing quite a lot of things they did back then. Leeches. Witches. God. We might as well base our laws on the views of classical Trobriand Islanders or pre-contact Samoans.
That’d be nice.
INFORMED CONSENT IMPLICATIONS
The marriage debate is fixed on a change of marriage definition from:
iii) who aren’t related
iv) of opposite sexes
iii) who aren’t related.
Uh oh. If all that is required is adulthood and informed consent (as implied in the Supreme Court’s decision over sexual liberty in Lawrence vs. Texas), then surely polygamy (by which I mean any combination of three or more partners) is equally logically valid? Moreover, if the ‘traditional’ definition of marriage can be changed on the grounds of rights and consent, what is to stop consensual incestuous marriage?
The most extreme equal marriage opponents (Rick Santorum, Defence Secretary Philip ‘Cuddles’ Hammond, various bishops) deploy the “slippery slope fallacy” to argue that if homosexuals are allowed to marry, the aforementioned forms are inevitable. I imagine the proposition of laws recognising them would be political suicide, and if a party pushed on with them, would be extremely difficult legally since institutions (tax benefits, inheritance, adoption) currently assume a family-unit based on two people.
This isn’t the real problem, though. Pro-equality commentators rush to ridicule this suggestion as extremist, absurd or beside the point. They don’t need to.
The real issue is the a priori assumption that polygamy or consensual incest are Bad Things. This seems totally ridiculous, especially from secular commentators. What it’s doing is looking at a little-understood, marginalised group then declaring that an outcome in which they can practise what they like is so Wrong we don’t even need to really consider how and why. You know. A bit like we thought about homosexuality in 1850.
The assumption that they are ‘weird’, ‘yuk’, ‘wrong’, ‘Mormon/Muslim/backward/barbarian/pagan’ or anything else means we are completely failing to apply the permissive logic that supports gay marriage to other interest groups.
Why? Why, when through secularism we have happily rejected the religious justifications and restrictions on civil marriage, should not multiple people in love and cohabitation enjoy the same rights as two people in love and cohabitation? Why should not biologically-related people in love enjoy the same rights as others? If we aren’t all afraid of the Great Spaghetti Monster and his rather specific sexual-conduct rules, why can’t we just shut up and let other consenting people put their jiggy bits together however they choose?
The assumption that these perils at ‘the bottom of the slope’ are bad is terrible in that it is intellectually lazy. It’s also pathetic, since by not proving these alternate marriage forms’ faults, the fact that gay marriage might lead to them cease to be a threat.
IN DEFENCE OF YUK
Besides the legal-complexity argument (which seems a small hurdle compared to peoples’ lifelong happiness) polygamy is usually criticised in terms of social determinism. “It doesn’t work”, they basically say, and point at examples like Mormon unhappiness. I’m not denying that specific examples of polygamy seem not to work, but note that they usually include many other legal breaches (coercion, domestic violence, abuse of minors, anti-science).
There are plenty of societies in which it ‘works’ or ‘worked’ (e.g. Celts, Muslims, early Jews, South Africa, Thais, Chinese, Nepal, Tibet, some Native American peoples). It’s possible to imagine others, even more egalitarian. If you think they’re immoral – that’s fine. Nobody is forcing you into them. But if Amanda from Marketing wants to marry two other women and they’re all consenting adults, maybe we should think about letting her.
The standard arguments against incest are a) that children born of incest are at risk to congenital disease, and b) that incest might be coercive or exploitative.
Guess what? Marriage need not beget children. Lots of people marry but do not have kids. It might be possible to legalise incestuous marriage, but sanction (or at least have prenatal checks) on procreation. We do not currently vet non-incestuous marriages according to high chances of congenital disease, even though we could – that would be eugenics. Yikes.
The coercion/exploitation argument is meaningless, since either of those circumstances would invalidate non-incestuous/heterosexual/cisgendered marriages too – i.e. they’d be illegal regardless of the familiar link. Thus this argument is not sufficient to halt incestuous marriage.
Imagine siblings separated at birth by adoption/mishap/tsunami/alien abduction. If they meet as adults and fall in love, then there is no coercion and nothing fundamentally ‘wrong’ with the relationship asides the trappings of post-Christian taboos.
LGBTQ AGAINST MARRIAGE LAWS
The answer relates to the topic above. Marriage is intrinsically an exclusive institution, which legally, morally and socially favours a ‘privileged set’ (those who are married) over the rest. Rather amusingly, where many Christians oppose equal marriage legislation because they think it is a covert attempt to undermine the concept of marriage, many activists who overtly oppose marriage as an institution, oppose equal marriage.
Marriage confers unequal rights on spouses – of child custody, of tax benefits, of inheritance etc etc. These rights are outmoded, the result of a Christian tradition which sees monogamous marriage as the only possible family unit and the only means for procreation. ‘Equal Marriage’ would not undermine these values, but only ‘move the borders’ of what is acceptable and what isn’t. Homosexuality, largely already normalised by civil partnerships, gets let into the club. Lovers who cohabit but do not marry do not get the benefits, whether they be polyamorous, free-lovin’, biologically related or something else cool that I haven’t even heard of.
Why even the emphasis on love? Surely that’s an element of the social construction? Why can’t I leave my millions to my best mate at 0% tax when I die? Why can’t I be designated the fictional next-of-kin for the fictional child of my real friends (without absurd legal difficulty)?
In short, there are people who argue that giving superior rights to married people, which unmarried people cannot have, is inherently wrong. It is based on certain religious and social constructs (rather than biological reality). It’s much like periods in history wherein different laws applied to aristocrats, clergy, monarchs and commoners. Besides a few pesky royal prerogatives, we in ‘the west’ have managed to eradicate legal class-based boundaries. Perhaps there should be a serious debate about the privileges of marriage, too.
Laws are about absolute permission, and civil marriages require consent. Therefore the current debate, and its consequences, isn’t a question of ‘whether x kind of marriage seems moral to me’ since ‘me’ isn’t getting married. All we need to know is whether a working marriage between, say, three men who love each other equally and in a long-term, is conceivable and harmless.
It is, because I just put it into words and am currently imagining it (for some reason, as an American sitcom). So make it legal and let my three imaginary friends try – and if it doesn’t work out for them, they can use our robust divorce/dissolution laws just like everyone else.
And if it does work out, jolly well fuck the doubters.
Feel free to comment!