In most public discussions, the issue of same-sex marriage is posed as a simple question – for or against? – where to be for or against is to be, more or less, for or against gay people. Although it doesn’t get much airtime beyond queer counterpublics, there is an adamantly left-wing, progressive and pro-gay perspective that suggests same-sex marriage is not a necessary good.
As Leader of the Opposition, and now Prime Minister, Tony Abbott has consistently opposed the legalisation of same-sex marriage, so far refusing to allow MPs a conscience vote on the issue. In late October and despite the fact that such marriages had no legal standing in Australia at the time, Christine Forster, Abbott’s lesbian sister, announced her engagement to her partner, Virginia Edwards, via a photo-spread in New Idea.
Events – as we know – have moved swiftly since then. The ACT passed laws legalising same-sex marriage, which will be effective from today, although within 24 hours of the legislation’s successful passage the federal government had lodged a writ in the High Court challenging the constitutionality of the new legislation.
Days later, a pan-political working group introduced to the New South Wales parliament a bill allowing same-sex marriage, which will be debated this week. Like a consciousness-raising plot twist in a socially progressive soap opera, the Tony/ Christine narrative offers a familial inflection to a set of political issues currently being played out at national and international scale.
Yet the terms on which this broader public conversation is taking place are remarkably narrow.
Since the 1961 Marriage Act, the definition of marriage in Australia is:
the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.
A lot of attention has focused on that opening phrase — “the union of a man and a woman” — but we need to look as carefully at the rest of this almost entirely fanciful definition. Defining marriage in terms of exclusivity and permanence is, at best, a wishful description; it’s an idealised account of how we, individually and collectively, hope marriage might work.
The credibility gap between the soft-focus idealisation of marriage and its grittier realities suggests something of the scale of bad faith implicit in public discussions of marriage. Lesbian and gay communities, and the feminist communities with which they have historically overlapped, have long celebrated the values of sexual diversity over the sexual conformity represented by marriage and the ethical importance of sexual straight-talking rather than the double-standards so frequently observed in marriage’s vicinity.
Gay men and lesbians can sneak around with the best of them, of course, but marriage, as it is legally defined, generates conditions for dishonesty, disavowal and sexual hypocrisy.
There’s a tendency among its proponents to represent same-sex marriage as the final chapter in the story of gay acceptance, “the last civil right” as it has sometimes exaggeratedly been called. But marriage today has been strongly shaped by the social and sexual everyday life experiments of those groups of people who, across the long 20th century, have chosen or been required to organise their sexual and social lives in post-traditional ways outside the institution of marriage.
It is in large part because of feminist and gay innovations in living that marriage today is increasingly understood not as a religious but a social relation; characterised not by male domination but equality and mutuality between the sexes; valued not in terms of its contractual basis but in terms of its ongoing contribution to a person’s sense of well-being; and maintained not until death-do-us-part but for as long as both parties find satisfaction in it.
Rather than admit lesbians and gay men to marriage as currently conceived, we should avow more fully the range of options that characterise a lot of our lives and living arrangements. Why not support and recognise the alternative intimacies that gay communities, among others, have been developing for decades?
To extend the conformist embrace of marriage to same-sex couples is to lack imagination.
The argument in favor of extending legal marriage to same-sex couples depends primarily on wanting to extend the benefits and privileges of marriage to lesbian and gay couples. But it must be recognised that this comes at a cost. Allowing gay men and lesbians to marry will not stop marriage from being exclusionary.
That’s because marriage is not a private matter. Despite the fact the decision to marry — like the desire to marry — is experienced by most people as an intensely personal one, marriage is in fact a public institution and has significant implications for those outside its circle of privilege and recognition.
In recognising some gay and lesbian relationships as marriages, same-sex marriage emphasises the continued illegitimacy of other sexual arrangements and the continued exclusion of other social actors. The legalisation of same-sex marriage has risky consequences that exceed the good intentions of many of those arguing for it.
Therefore, the recognition of same-sex couples through marriage is not a wholly benign or even a neutral act because, like the historic form of marriage itself, it recognises the worth of some relationships by valuing them more than others.
Outside the newly enlarged circle of social approval and privilege afforded by same-sex marriage stand those whose erotic lives are not organised around the values symbolised by marriage: coupledom, monogamy, permanence, domestic cohabitation.
Unmarried mothers, for instance; adulterers; the devotedly promiscuous; sex workers; the divorced; the bigamous and polygamous; those who are not strangers to the august traditions of the dirty weekend or the one-night stand; single people.
Now this ragtag bunch might not seem as worthy of social protection and prestige as the loving, caring, long-term gay and lesbian couples that are the shiny new poster boys and girls for same-sex marriage. But it reminds us to ask something that advocates of same-sex marriage, in their eagerness, forget to ask: why should marriage continue in the 21st century to be a primary mechanism for the distribution of social recognition and privilege?
Important questions of social justice, equity and social belonging cannot get worked out across such an absurdly constrained and increasingly irrelevant category as marriage. Presenting itself as a magical solution while only distracting us from the real and unaddressed conditions of social inequity, marriage is a red herring for the 21st-century pursuit of social justice.