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Monday, May 28, 2012

Gay Marriage - Is It a Right?

I saw that there is a debate tonight in Sydney on whether or not same-sex marriage should be legalised, featuring NZ Queer Theorist Prof Annemarie Jagose amongst others. She is taking the position that it shouldn't. And on my friend and  fellow blogger Jeremy Lambert has raised the issue as well, but he's for it, wondering where the activists to push it are.

I am ambivalent on this one. But I'm amazed at how it has gone from a total non-issue for the gay world 30 years ago to the central item of gay activism in the Western world. I saw some Australian research last year saying that for young queers it was now seen as the most important issue.

I've been thinking about it this last week because someone referred to it as "a right" - and that word made me stop and think. Searching for images for this blog I saw a protestor holding up a sign reading "Marriage is a Human Right, Not a Heterosexual Privilege."

I would describe myself as a "Human Rights Hawk", I think the development of the idea of human rights is one of the most important things in human history.

But marriage as a right - really? I'm still unconvinced.

The symbolic power of the act of getting married is incredibly strong for a lot of people though. It has such deep cultural roots, it has so much meaning, even though so many of them end up in divorce.

And I can remember at the age of about 18 at a cousin's (first) wedding, at the reception afterwards, getting a bit drunk and feeling sorry that my family would never celebrate my love for another man in this way, or so I thought then. Now I suspect there is nothing they'd like more than to see me settle down with a nice man and a couple of dogs.

I have loved and been loved by various men over the years, but never felt like I wanted to marry any of them, to join my life together in that way. Maybe it's just the way I am.

I know so many friends who are in long-term relationships, some of 30 or more years, but most of them haven't gone off to get a Civil Union, and don't seem all that interested in pushing for marriage. But for some it is a real aching pain that they feel dismisses their love as second-rate when compared to married straights.

I was talking with friends this weekend, a lovely couple of men, and they have always been clear they saw no need for a Civil Union, until earlier this year when one of them got very seriously ill. Even though they had absolutely no problems with the hospital system, they realised that legally they weren't seen as next-of-kin, and this could place them in a difficult position.

That legal argument is I think the strongest one, and I suspect that the whole drive for legally recognising same-sex relationships might have grown out of the fight against AIDS, when so many times one partner who was sick or dying and had been estranged from his family suddenly found their family had legal rights in their lives and his partner did not. There were some real horror stories of families coming in after a death, sometimes on the same day, and clearing out all they thought was theirs, leaving the loved partner doubly bereft. I don't know, but maybe that's where this all came from.

But is it a right?

Conservatives who say that allowing same-sex marriage is redefining the entire concept of marriage are completely correct I think. Marriage has always been intricately bound up with ideas of property, religion and social continuity. It has largely been about knowing who was entitled to property and who wasn't. There is simply no common historical precedent for same-sex marriage anywhere that I can find - it is a huge change - but I admit that doesn't mean it shouldn't happen.

To me, the real issue is for consenting adults to be able to have their relationships recognised by law. That seems more like a right to me.  That is something I can totally support. If you love someone else so much you decide that you want to bind your lives together in a legal fashion, then fine.

But why marriage? Why only a couple? Why doesn't New Zealand, or most of the Western world, allow polygamous marriages? They have been incredibly common in human history - I have met Muslim women who are very happily living in such marriages with a couple of other wives, some Mormons still practice it - but we won't allow them that here - don't they have that right too? If marriage really is a human right, who gets to define what marriage is?

I know of guys living in long-standing, stable threesomes - why shouldn't they be able to have their relationship recognised as legally valid as well? Why can't they be married? From all I have read or seen of the push for gay marriage, the only form that activists think is acceptable is a couple.

And that points to what I see as a deeply conservative side to this argument, and old activist that I am I am not keen on that. It seems to me to speak of a desire to assimilate, to try and be the same as the straights, to follow them, rather than to consider that in fact we are different and maybe other forms of relationship should be on the table.

Ideally I guess I'd say there should be some legal mechanism that allows any consenting adults to legally tie themselves to any other or others if they wish.

I can understand the desire that some people have to celebrate their love for each other in a public way, and to be sure that their relationship has equal legal privileges, but I can't understand the desire to copy heterosexuals.


Bill Logan said...

It is true that this matter is ALMOST trivial. But it is hugely important to the people who most hate us. And it is also true that it is a bit bizarre to call marriage a RIGHT.

However, equality before the law IS a right--and an extremely important right.

A simple repeal of the Marriage Act is a perfectly sensible way of achieving equality before the law. Remove the "right" of state-sanctified marriage from everyone equally. But while marriage remains a state-sanctioned insistution, then it whould be equally available to queers.

Michael Gray said...

Interesting take on the current state of affairs.
I would draw your attention to a few things, however.

There are some references to same sex marriage before this century.

It is believed that same-sex unions were celebrated in Ancient Greece and Rome,[73] some regions of China, such as Fujian, and at certain times in ancient European history.[74]

73. a b Alderson, Kevin; Lahey, Kathleen A. (2004). Same-Sex Marriage: The Personal and the Political. Insomniac Press. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-894663-63-2.
74. Hinsch, Bret (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China. Reed Business Information, Inc.. ISBN 0-520-07869-1.

There are also references to polygamous marriage in the bible (and from earlier nomadic sources).

"But Abi­jah grew mighty. And he took four­teen wives and had twenty-​two sons and six­teen dough­terse." The Sec­ond Book of Chron­i­cles 13:21
"Ashur, the father of Tekoa, had two wives, Helah and Naarah;" The First Book of Chron­i­cles 4:5,

As a side note, additionally, there are biblical references to divorce - see verse 7:
Matthew 19:3-20.
3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?

As a 20 something gay male, I can identify with your impassiveness regarding gay marriage. I too remember thinking that my family would never get to throw me a wedding - however one day that may change. I am sure that, one day, my partner will express a desire to get married (if it is allowed). I am not sure that it will change our relationship much for me if we do tie the knot.

The roots of marriage were originally steeped not in love, but rather in property and ownership. I would even go so far as to say that often it was about owning your wife! However, the transition of marriage to be about visitation rights in hospital, medical AND legal rights, as well as an expression of love, rather than ownership, is a welcome change in my eyes.

Equality is a right in today's society, and if it matters to people - we need to stand up and support our fellow men and women that feel marginalised.
Just as we should still champion the rights of the marginalised everywhere - females, males, our transgendered community, young, old, healthy and infirmed.

Paul said...

This marriage debate is characterised by rules just like the Royal Enclosure at Ascot ,,,,,and customisation is not permitted!
'Gentlemen are kindly reminded that it is a requirement to wear either black or grey morning dress which must include:

A waistcoat and tie (no cravats)
A black or grey top hat
Black shoes.

A gentleman may remove his top hat within a restaurant, a private box, a private club or that facility’s terrace, balcony or garden. Hats may also be removed within any enclosed external seating area within the Royal Enclosure Garden.

The customisation of top hats (with, for example, coloured ribbons or bands) is not permitted in the Royal Enclosure.'