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Something Old, Something New

Jennifer Power

A friend of mine recently recounted a story about some friends of hers, a lesbian couple, who had had a falling out with some friends of theirs, a gay male couple. The two couples had fought because the men were planning to marry. If the ACT Government was successful in passing their bill allowing civil unions between same-sex couples, the two men were planning a weekend trip to Canberra. Their lesbian friends were horrified; they couldn’t understand why two gay men would willingly submit themselves to the traditionally heterosexual and patriarchal institution that is marriage.
My first reaction to this story was: ‘Is this really something to lose friends over?’ Surely marriage is simply about individual choice. If these two men want to be married then their friends should be supportive. Isn’t the issue of allowing gay marriage simply one about freedom of choice and equality?

But of course it is not that simple. The fact that there is such vocal critique of gay marriage within the gay community itself is indicative of the fact that the issue isn’t just a case of ‘for or against’.

The political struggle around gay marriage has led to a polarisation of the debate. It is framed as a choice between competing agendas: conservative versus progressive. Progressives argue along the lines of human rights and equity: the regulations around marriage should be adapted to ensure all people have the right to marry their chosen partner. The conservative argument is that the institution of heterosexual marriage is sacrosanct and cannot be altered. ‘Marriage’ is a universally understood union between a man and a woman, not something that evolves to suit the times.

But what about the problem of marriage itself?

Decades of feminist and Marxist critique of the institution of marriage seem absent in a debate framed by a ‘for or against’ dichotomy. Where is the scope for a critique of marriage as a social and economic institution? Many conservatives argue that marriage must be protected at all costs because it is the fundamental institution of our society. They’re right; marriage is the fundamental institution of capitalism. From its inception it has been a social contract rooted in private property laws. Marriage regenerates and maintains the workforce free of charge and history has shown that, as an institution, marriage contributes to the oppression of women. Couples may challenge gender norms and the sexual division of labour within their own home, but at a structural level the institution of marriage remains steadfastly committed to patriarchal and heterosexual norms.

It’s not surprising that when it comes to marriage many gay people are asking: ‘Why do we want in?’ In fact, marriage is increasingly not the relationship of choice for many heterosexual couples. It almost seems strange that in a climate where marriage is decreasing in popularity, conservatives aren’t supporting a group that is actively promoting the social benefits of marriage.

While same-sex marriage creates new boundaries around the genders of those involved in the contract, it doesn’t necessarily open new conceptual space for imagining relationships and family. The fundamental model of marriage still stands, and many would argue that the capitalist state doesn’t care about the gender of a married couple so long as the institution is doing its job.

Does same sex marriage really create greater acceptance for people whose sexualities defy the norm? Or does it further entrench a traditional, nuclear family model? A model that doesn’t relate very closely to the lives of thousands of gay people.

Ultimately, would legalisation of gay marriage represent radical social change? No one involved in gay politics is kidding themselves. No one believes that legalisation of gay marriage signals the end of oppression. But currently, gay couples are denied the right to engage in a common social contract to which heterosexual couples have access. Marriage laws are a clear target for gay and lesbian activism because they represent an achievable change. It is a barrier to equality that can be overcome within the existing social framework. And, without doubt, there are many gay couples that, on a personal level, don’t have political axes to grind with the concept of marriage; they simply want to walk down the aisle.

Marriage is still a significant social ritual, and the right to engage in marriage is a staple of western citizenship. Without marriage rights, gay relationships have no rituals of acknowledgement and gay people are symbolically denied full citizenship. This creates an interesting tension in the conservative agenda that explains why you see people like conservative Queensland Liberal MP Warren Entsch actively campaigning for gay marriage. Disallowing gay marriage contravenes basic liberal notions of a level playing field. Full citizenshi for nationals, freedom and individual choice are theoretically at the heart of western liberalism.

But marriage clearly isn’t a totally ‘free’ arrangement. Marriage cannot be defined by individuals outside the boundaries of some form of social agreement. Marriage is a social contract that, by definition, must have agreed-upon boundaries for it to be meaningful. If marriage could be on any terms between any one — or any thing — it wouldn’t be a contract of social significance. Howard has been at pains to point this out. What we recognise as marriage, he argues, must be defined by community standards, not by individuals. In Howard’s view, the Australian public would not accept gay marriage because Australians understand marriage to be a union between a man and woman (how he knows exactly what the public feels is not entirely clear). As far as Howard is concerned, the fact that gay people want to be married is not an argument for considering gay marriage; marriage is, and will always be, heterosexual.

It is this logic that allows Howard and his cronies to maintain that banning gay marriage does not constitute discrimination against gay men and women. He presents the current heterosexual boundaries of the marriage contract as ahistorical and universal — not open to change.

But marriage is not something that has universally accepted and unchanging codes. Even within our own culture the idea of arranged marriage was once a social norm, something that even Howard would probably consider undesirable in the current social climate. Perhaps, then, what is radical about campaigning for gay marriage is that it demonstrates that social institutions aren’t static entities; they are products of society and as society changes so to do institutions such as marriage. There is nothing natural about marriage. It is a socially derived formality and society determines the codes that define it.

Fighting for gay marriage could be seen as cow-tailing to an institution that has long been a source of social oppression for women and gay couples. But perhaps while gay men and lesbians are denied access to such an institution they are also denied the legitimacy to challenge the basis of marriage. Maybe full rights of citizenship are needed to be gain the confidence and authority to take the next step?

The gay marriage debate exposes the conservative social agenda of the current government. Howard has claimed that he is simply following public opinion on issues like gay marriage: his legislation dutifully follows the will of his constituents. Of course, when it comes to industrial relations regulations or economic reform he prides himself on his capacity for leadership and reform — he is showing the Australian public where they need to go.

In the end, context is everything. What is conservative in some instances is radical in others. At this point in history, the campaign for gay marriage does challenge a conservative social agenda and it does subvert the idea that marriage is innately about heterosexual unions. In this context, that’s got to be a good thing.

Jennifer Power is a Melbourne writer.

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