Why gay marriage?

Why gay marriage?

02 Mar 2011

dennis-altman-big Professor Dennis Altman
Email: d.altman@latrobe.edu.au

First published in the Australian Literary Review on in February 2011.

At the end of last year my partner and I were invited to include our photos in a “Potential Wedding Album” to be presented to the Prime Minister to underline the denial of same-sex marriage within Australia. I refused, saying that while I agree that the legal restrictions should be removed, I was uncomfortable with an approach that seemed to buy into the most conventional morality. I understand why this issue has become so important for many homosexuals, but I mourn the loss of radical critique that was central to the early gay and lesbian movement.

For various reasons same sex marriage has become a major issues for social conservatives, the Greens and a new generation of gay/lesbian activists. Australia will probably legalise same sex marriage within the next decade, but this is less because of political pressure and more a result of the changing nature of marriage itself. Those who oppose the move are doing so in defence of a romanticised notion of marriage whose meaning has changed fundamentally over the past few decades.

Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton next year will further the myth of fairy tale romance, even as it tacitly acknowledges that couples now marry after long periods of cohabitation, that in most western societies the idea of celibacy before and monogamy after marriage is long past, and that many marriages end in divorce. Fifty years ago William’s aunt was forced to publically renounce the marriage to a divorced man.  
Historically marriage has been based on the subordination of women to men, symbolised by the wife surrendering her father’s name for that of her husband. Marriage was an economic and social arrangement, tightly bound up with ideas of property and legitimacy, as generations of novelists, from Jane Austen to Barbara Cartland make clear.

But it is also a way of publicly acknowledging the central relationship of an adult life, and bringing a partner into one’s biological family. This is particularly important where children are involved, and opponents of same-sex marriage need to consider the impact of their views on the growing numbers of children who live in families with same sex parents.

The marriage debate has opened up a strange generational gap, where a few aging liberationists are uneasy with what a younger generation of activists, often irrespective of their own sexuality, see as a matter of basic human rights. We used to worry about being beaten up in the street if seen walking hand in hand with someone of the same sex. Young queers now worry about the cost of wedding receptions.
Recently I found myself arguing with two younger, straight friends, for whom gay marriage was a far higher priority than it is for me. This is not uncommon: Albury radio host, Katie Dimond, says she “gets worked up about it than my gay mates do”.  It is precisely because heterosexual and homosexual lives are becoming more similar that same-sex marriage seems less threatening to a growing number of young people who have no first hand memories of times when being homosexual was almost universally portrayed as a sickness, a crime and a sin.
The argument is quite simple: marriage is the ultimate legitimation of equality, according same-sex relationships the same status as heterosexual ones. Essentially this is a symbolic claim, for there is a whole raft of ways in which the state regulates relationships outside formal marriage. These include laws regulating immigration, superannuation, hospital and health costs [and visitation rights], pension benefits and adoption and surrogacy, all of which remain major issues for gay activists in the United States. These rights have largely been won in Australia, although inconsistencies remain between states.

The campaign for marriage first emerged as central to the gay/lesbian movement in the 1990s, and quickly saw recognition of same sex unions in several European countries, beginning with Denmark and the Netherlands. Nowhere was the debate as heated as in the United States, where it echoed the particularly American mix of an assertive gay movement and equally strong resistance to homosexuality in a culture imbued with religiosity. The issue emerged very quickly, and marked a strange turn in the American movement from the apparent radicalism of ACT UP in the early 1990s: it’s as if, over night, the assertion of radical difference was replaced by the desire for integration.

Of course this is a lazy generalisation. George Chauncey has pointed out [in his book Why Marriage? Basic Books 2004] that there were earlier moves for same-sex marriage, in particular through the Metropolitan Community Church, which has been a central institution in American gay life for thirty years. Chauncey attributes the rise of interest in gay marriage to the losses from AIDS and the “lesbian baby boom” which began in the 1980s. I think there is a third factor, namely the triumph of conservatism in the United States. After twelve years of Republican Presidencies the country seemed to have shifted to the right, and President Clinton’s failure to remove discrimination in the armed forces—which produced the equally offensive “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies—signalled clear limits to acceptance. Fairly quickly military service and marriage became the markers for a new sort of homosexual militancy, one which insisted not on difference, as had queer radicals, but rather on equal rights.

In the United States the battle over same sex marriage is moving inexorably towards the Supreme Court after a referendum in California overturned a state court ruling in favour, which in turn has led to further legal appeals. The confusion for many couples is summed up in Armistead Maupin’s latest novel, Mary Ann in Autumn:  “Michael and Ben had been married for the third time in August. The first wedding had been performed at City Hall but was thrown out by the state courts. The second had happened at a B & B in Vancouver but was valid only in Canada. The third one Michael had referred to as ‘the shotgun marriage’, since he and Ben had rushed to say their vows before the November election, when the voters would have their say.” [Doubleday 2010] The battle lines are not predictable: even one of the Tea Party’s high profile supporters, broadcaster Glen Back, has indicated he’s not bothered by gay marriage.

In Australia, where the resistance to acceptance was somewhat less, there was less interest among homosexuals in marriage. John Howard put gay marriage onto the Australian political agenda by changing the federal Marriage Act in 2004 to define marriage as “the union between a man and a woman”, in which he was supported by Labor. Howard was clearly influenced by his Republican friends in the United States—Karl Rove used the spectre of “gay marriage” to rally voters behind Bush that year—but its impact in Australia was limited. The then Liberal federal member for Adelaide said it would cost her seat, and she was right, whereas there is little evidence that it swung support towards the government.

Since then there has been a growing movement in support of same-sex marriage, and public opinion surveys suggest a majority of Australians support it. Given this, the timidity of both major parties is somewhat surprising, although it is likely that politicians are somewhat more religious—or scared of religious criticism—than the population at large. One of the features of the 2010 federal campaign was an emphasis on gay marriage, to the embarrassment of both major political parties. As both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott struggled to avoid the issue it was raised persistently in public forums, most movingly by the father of a gay man in a live television interview with Abbott, who struggled to balance his own conservative views with apparent sympathy for a father who felt his son was denied a basic right. Labor was even more embarrassed by persistent questions of its openly lesbian minister, Penny Wong, who supported her leader’s stance against same sex marriage during the election campaign, but has since said she will seek to change Labor’s policy.

The Greens used the issue effectively in their campaigning, especially in inner city seats, and it was a factor, though not the decisive one, in Adam Bandt’s success in the seat of Melbourne. Already civil or domestic partnerships are registered in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT, and the Labor Party faces a divisive debate on the issue at its next national conference.

Social conservatives see gay marriage as weakening the institution itself, though without demonstrating just how this happens. A spokesperson for the marriage equality movement, Rodney Croome, claims that “same-sex marriage is good for marriage” [with Bill Muhlenberg: Why Gay Marriage? Pantera Press 2010], and it is certainly good for the marriage industry. A study of the Dutch experience by M.Lee Badgett suggests that same-sex marriage has clear social benefits for both those involved and society more generally. [See her book When Gay People Get Married New York University Press 2009]

The gay movement developed out of extreme alienation from a model of the family which was predicated on particular gender relations, monogamy and the biological link between children and parents. This model remains, but is increasingly distant from the experience of more and more people as marriages break down, living together outside marriage becomes more common, and new family structures, involving step-parents and children moving between two homes become more common. It is becoming easier to accept gay and lesbian family members within increasingly diverse family structures.
For many gay and lesbian activists the recognition of same-sex marriage has become the ultimate test of acceptance, with claims that its achievement will be a powerful blow against homophobia. As someone who has been in a primary relationship for twenty years I appreciate the real importance of formal equality. But two doubts remain: does the institution of marriage really advance acceptance? And is there a danger that homosexuals are parodying an outmoded institution by seeking inclusion in the romantic myth of marriage?

The argument that gay marriage weakens homophobia is only correct if the great majority take the marriage seriously. It can also become a parody, as it is in the opening scenes of the film Sex and the City II, which mocks a same sex wedding while apparently endorsing it.

Campaigners for same-sex marriage claim it provides “role models, development paths and stability”: “Is there no connection between this and the disproportionate numbers of suicides and risky and addictive behaviours found in gay communities? Are we not denying the very best safety net of all to some of the people who need it most?” Yes, perhaps. But the assumption that the answer to deep feelings of inadequacy and marginalisation will be met by the availability of a marriage certificate seems to me as yet unproven. There are many models of long lasting same-sex couples who thrived in the absence of marriage. Surely it is more useful to offer a range of possible ways of living one’s life than to buy into the myth of monogamous marriage, whose record is generally not inspiring.

When gay marriage became a major movement goal, some radicals expressed unease about what they saw as accepting mainstream heterosexual values. The U.S. group “Against Equality”, a small but very active ginger group, proclaimed: “In their constant invoking of the “right” to gay marriage, mainstream gays and lesbians express a confused tangle of wishes and desires.  They claim to contest the Right’s conservative ideology yet insist that they are more moral and hence more deserving than sluts like us.  They claim that they simply want the famous 1000+ benefits but all of these, like the right to claim protection in cases of domestic violence, can be made available to non-marital relationships.” I am uneasy with the frequent equation of the prohibition of same-sex marriage with interracial ones: in the latter case racism prevented marriages which were indistinguishable for any other reason. Same-sex partnerships are as valid and as significant as heterosexual ones, but they are also different, and maybe we should celebrate, not deny that difference.

Feminists have long criticised marriage as the institutional basis for male supremacy and restrictive notions of monogamy, and sexual radicals have long denounced marriage as a declining and oppressive institution. The notion of marriage implies a long term commitment to both sexual and emotional commitment. Yet the two are not necessarily synonymous, and most gay men, at least, accept a whole range of sexual adventuring as co-existing with long term partnerships. There seems something hypocritical in the rush to embrace marriage vows, which were designed to restrain any idea that commitment was to be measured entirely by sexual fidelity.

Moreover the constant stress on marriage as the ultimate test of gay equality risks making invisible those homosexuals who either do not want, or cannot find, a long term relationship. There is an extensive feminist literature on the ways in which women are restricted by the emphasis on seeking a husband to the exclusion of all else. It would be ironic if the lesbian and gay movement forgot these warnings, and reified marriage as the only acceptable way of living one’s life. Yet as Gore Vidal once said, the only people left who believe in marriage are homosexuals, and who am I to deny them that pleasure?  

For those of us old enough to remember the 1960s, or earlier, the changes in being homosexual are enormous. From a time when almost everyone accepted the need to hide their sexual preferences, often to enter into sham heterosexual marriages, we now live in a world in which homosexuality is largely taken for granted as part of social life, so much so that ‘coming out’ often seems redundant. It may seem as if we have achieved a huge amount, and on balance we have.

Yet it is an illusion to believe that homosexuality has achieved full acceptance. Most organised religions oppose the acceptance of homosexuality, and anti-discrimination laws allow them to maintain homophobic practices in the name of religious freedom. There is considerable evidence that teenagers are frequently teased, and sometimes abused, if they are suspected of being homosexual, and fear of their sexuality drives some to suicide. In many parts of the world there is growing persecution of homosexuals, often in the name of preserving traditional morality against western decadence. In 2009 legislation was introduced in Uganda which decreed the death penalty for ‘repeated offenses’ involving homosexual behaviour. Under considerable international pressure, including a direct appeal from Secretary of State Clinton, a decision on the bill has been postponed. That “traditional morality” is often the legacy of colonial imports is rarely acknowledged.

Homosexuals of older generations grew up with a strong sense of self-doubt, which we tried to assuage with the slogans of radical liberationism. If today’s messages about our sexuality are more sophisticated—there is, after all, powerful opposition to branding homosexuality as a sin, an illness or even a deviance—they persist nonetheless. The push for same sex marriage is, at least in part, a search to resolve those taboos, and persuade ourselves, as much as others, that there is no moral or ethical distinction  between sexual preferences. And, yes, I acknowledge that I might be guilty of the reverse motive, namely resisting marriage out of some outmoded desire to stress the particularity of homosexuality, much as some older men thought decriminalisation would remove the thrills of being illicit.
Contemporary society is both solidifying sexual identities and breaking them down. On the one hand there are the almost obligatory homosexual characters in television shows: Glee; Modern Family; United States of Tara; Desperate Housewives all have their openly gay/lesbian characters. Australian shows have followed this pattern less enthusiastically, even though we pioneered the trend in the 1970s with Number 96. A few years ago a show like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was hugely successful on the premise that there was a clear divide between two tribes; any sense that the ‘straight guy’ might be attracted to his gay role models was scrupulously avoided. But in more recent series there is a mixture of both fixed homosexual identities, and suggestions that these are fluid, and homosexual desire can cut across them. One finds a similar pattern in local culture; recently Melbourne’s throw away evening newspaper ran set of letters about “straight-boy crushes”. In a sense we may be approaching “the end of the homosexual”, which some gay liberationists saw as the ultimate goal of the movement forty years ago.

The debate around gay marriage now extends even to societies where acceptance of homosexuality is far less than ours. Last year a male couple in Malawi were imprisoned after they held a symbolic marriage ceremony, and were eventually released after considerable international pressure, including intervention by the Secretary General of the United Nations. The gay movement in Nepal is pressing for recognition of same sex marriage, and in the Philippines it was part of the platform put forward by Ang Ladlad, or "Out of the Closet," a party formed to contest one of the three seats reserved for minority groups. Cambodia’s King Father Norodom Sihanouk, when nearing the end of his reign in 2004, announced that he thought same-sex marriages should be allowed in the Kingdom. He said that, as a liberal democracy, “this kingdom should allow, if they wish, marriage between man and man or between woman and woman,” adding that “[God loves] a wide range of tastes”.

Australia was a pioneer in recognising same-sex couples in allowing individuals to immigrate, and increasingly federal and state laws have eliminated discrimination against gays and lesbians and their children in areas such as social security, workers compensation, superannuation, child support and Medicare. As each of these gains is made the case for gay marriage is ironically less important and harder to oppose.

Yet once the issue is on the mainstream political agenda the debate changes, and whatever my own reservations I applaud those who are pushing for legalisation. Indeed the strongest argument is one I have rarely heard, namely that as marriage, as distinct from civil unions, is essentially based on religious beliefs it is discriminatory for a secular society to restrict marriage between two adults of the same sex. That is an argument that should appeal to an atheist, unmarried Prime Minister.

Dennis Altman is a Professor of Politics, and Director of the Institute for Human Security.




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