When I said to my lady that I was going to write a piece on ‘marriage equality’ she asked ‘You mean, wives having the same status in marriage as their husbands?’ I had to say, on the contrary, that the piece was actually about the proposal to enshrine same-sex marriages, already recognised as civil unions. There are bills already prepared in the Federal Parliament by a cross-bench senator and by the Greens, and Labor is offering one of its own. Labor has offered to share the bill with the Liberal Party; it is not clear whether that will occur. Gordon Watson, a friend, asked on his Facebook page what people thought about the issue. Someone said it was a fundamental right, and I began by saying that it was nothing of the sort. That pushed me into realising that I could not do the subject justice on a Facebook entry, but I could have a shot at it on my website. And here is that shot.
There is an astonishing simplicity about just about everything I have read or heard in the media on the topic. It is as though marriage is straightforward thing, and everyone knows what it is. Historically and anthropologically, however, marriage is an extraordinarily varied social institution (see the Wikipedia entry), with enormous differences across societies and across time. The common attribute is simple enough: two people choose each other (for whatever reason and in whatever context) and their choice is recognised by others. It is the matter of recognition, and the enforcement of that recognition, which is the complex bit.
For marriage has traditionally resulted in children, and they were most important in older societies, not simply as blessings in themselves, but also as future workers, gifts, and carers for one’s old age. The children were, at once, the product of two families, which brought in other responsibilities and privileges. The children were also the hope of the future, and they still are today: we place tremendous pressure on our educational systems because our children carry our society forward, and we want that done well, even if we disagree about what would count as doing that well.
Marriage was made a religious sacrament in 1184; before the couple simply had to agree before witnesses. As a civil contract marriage is only as old as the nation-state that regulates it. In outback colonial Australia, when there were few priests and little government, the travelling clergyman would regularise relationships and legitimise any children on his infrequent visits. What else could be done? There has been a marked reduction in the number of couples seeking formal marriage in Australia over the last half-century. Many people just live together, and their living together is recognised by their peers and families. Yes, the state will, if things come adrift, and there is rancour about the dissolution, do its best to sort out who owes whom what. Here there are rights, but they’re aren’t fundamental, just those according to legislation. All our supposed rights are set out in legislation or the common law. There aren’t, at least in my view, fundamental rights that people have because they have been born. Those are aspirational statements only. Real rights depend on real laws.
I have been marred three times. The first was in the Church of England, and as a lapsed and quondam Methodist I had to be baptised before the wedding could take place. That was in 1958. In 1977 I married again, at the registry office. In 1991 I married for the last time, in the garden of an aunt and uncle, surrounded by relatives and friends, with a celebrant, who happened to be someone I knew through work. It was the most informal of the three, and perhaps the cheeriest. Of our nine children, five are married (two on beaches, one in a park, one in our house, and one in someone else’s garden), one is a single mum with adopted children, one lives with his partner and children, one is separated and on her way to divorce, and one has chosen to be unmarried. My guess is that such a breadth is typical of Australian society.
Same-sex marriage is historically rare, and indeed same-sex sexual relationships, especially between men, have commonly been frowned upon in most societies. In Australia there has been a profound shift from the permitted homophobia of my youth and earlier, to the more-or-less acceptance of gay couples of today. Same-sex relationships have been granted the status of civil unions, but there is a strong push, from a passionate minority, for more: the same kind of status that is accorded heterosexual couples. Since Christian religious practice is now way down, even if a majority still assert that they are Christians at the Census, arguing against same-sex marriage on theological grounds can’t carry much weight. Why should it matter to anyone else?
Well of course, it does. It matters to everyone who is used to something, or a settled state of affairs, and sees the status quo about to shift. Not because it is going to affect them personally in any way, but just because most people are conservative. They will cry, ‘Why can’t things just be the way they always have been?’. Then there are the worriers who have in mind the thin edge of the wedge, and propose dire happenings if this sort of thing (whatever it is) goes ahead. And there will be professionals of various kinds who can see that what they are used to will change, and they’ll have to learn something new. The law is not simple, and changing it will involve changing other matters as well.
Will Australia as a whole be any better if the change comes? Probably not in any significant way. But among the passionate minority there will be people who do really feel that their life and its context have changed materially for the better. I’m neither for same-sex marriage nor against it. If there were a referendum on the Irish pattern I’d probably vote in favour, because I know people for whom it would be important. I do expect same-sex marriage to win through in in due course, and expect also that life for everyone else will go on as before.
But I am reminded of a cartoon I saw recently. The wife in one armchair is reading a newspaper, and says to her husband, sitting a long way away from her, ‘It looks as though gay marriage is getting close!’
He replies, ‘The poor things. Haven’t they suffered enough?’
I have written about ‘rights’ before: http://donaitkin.com/what-are-rights-anyway/