The perfection of heterosexual marriage?

8 Feb
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This article  written by me was first published at On Line Opinion December 2010.

Editor Graham Young published it in response to the earlier anti gay marriage piece by Bill Muehlenberg.

I have just read the article by Bill Muelhlenberg, Dismantling a homosexual marriage myth, published in Online Opinion Thursday November 25 2010, for the second time.

The sentiments expressed are the polar opposite to my own views on the subject of same sex marriage, views I’ve expressed in articles on this site. However, there is one point on which we agree.

The struggle for the right to same sex marriage does have several dimensions, as the article suggests, not all of them immediately apparent. The struggle is indeed about far more than a simplistic change to the wording of the Marriage Act. (Though it must be noted here that the wording of Marriage Act was in fact changed by the Howard government in 2004 to define marriage as only permissible between a man and woman. So perhaps the wording of the original Act was not quite so simple, if Howard felt compelled to change it).

I do not agree, however, that these deeper dimensions of the debate are gay conspiracies designed to subversively change the nature of marriage altogether. Indeed, I find the arguments for this theory rather bizarre.

For example. There is nothing currently in the Marriage Act that speaks to a legal prohibition against infidelity. Monogamy is nothing more than individual hope and intention. That is, there is no legal requirement for monogamy in the Marriage Act that faces revision or extinction should gays and lesbians be allowed to marry.

I am completely at a loss as to understand how permitting marriage between gays and lesbians will encourage infidelity and promiscuity in heterosexual married couples.

The author claims that, “The wonderful interaction of a man and a woman in the complementarity of heterosexual marriage is what makes it so special and beneficial.” De facto relationships aren’t blessed with this special beneficence, according to his paradigm. The author doesn’t mention whether this “complementarity” is only available in Christian marriage, and denied to those who marry in the Registry office or in mosques and synagogues.

I’d like to suggest that what makes a marriage “special and beneficial” is the commitment of the couple, to one another and to the love they live and create, regardless of their gender, religion or lack of it. I’d like to remind the author that very similar arguments were made, not so very long ago, against marriage between blacks and whites.

There are heterosexual marriages that work really well. There are heterosexual marriages that are sites of nuclear devastation and certainly do not work at all. And there are heterosexual marriages that occupy a place between these two extremes, and muddle lovingly along without much drama, one way or the other. But how, I ask in all good faith, will permitting gays and lesbians to marry affect the nature, progress and outcome of any of those marriages?

“The truth is,” the author instructs us, because he clearly believes he is someone who knows a) what the truth is, and b) what most of us think the truth is,  “homosexuals do not at all have in mind what most of us understand marriage to be.” I have to take Meulhlenberg up on this, because I was taught from an early age to always question terms such as “most of us.” To someone from my background (and there are many of us), the use of the term “most of us” to support an argument implies an unsubstantiated but hegemonic perspective that may well be highly inaccurate, if not delusional, and we must treat it with caution.

It is always inadvisable to assume that everybody else thinks like you, or that a “most of us” even exists.

Just what demographic is this “most of us” supposedly comprised of, anyway?

Whether or not all homosexuals have a different concept of marriage from “most of us” has not been determined. But whether they do or not is actually quite irrelevant in terms of the effects of their concepts on heterosexual marriage.

Heterosexuals can already do exactly whatever they choose within their marriages. There is nothing to stop them pursuing any and all kinds of perversions, unless one party in the marriage complains to the police. Gay and lesbian marriage is not going to change the status quo for heterosexuals, even if their ideas are as different as the author claims.

Back to the point on which we do have agreement. The struggle for same sex marriage is indeed about much more than allowing gays and lesbians the same marriage rights as heterosexuals. It is a struggle for equality. It is a struggle for the legal recognition of the all-embracing power of that force we call “love.” All embracing, that is, not exclusive. I do not believe that love excludes. I believe inclusion is one of its prime characteristics. I won’t presume to add that I believe “most of us” agree with my perspective, but I know some people do.

The struggle for same sex marriage is about our nation having the generosity of heart to acknowledge, in its laws, that love comes in many and varied ways, and there is not one amongst us who has the right to judge which loving way is right, and which loving way is wrong.

There are many arguments to be made against marriage, heterosexual and gay. There are many arguments to be made for it. There is no reasonable argument to be made for same sex couples being excluded from this institution, with all its wonders and all its failings. If some gays and lesbians wish to marry, for better or for worse, then it is their business and there is no good reason to exclude them from the joys and the catastrophes of the married state.

If there is fear abroad for the future of marriage, then address that fear at its real causes. For example.  Family violence in heterosexual marriage. The abuse and sexual abuse of children within heterosexual partnerships. Infidelity, overt and covert.  Inequality in heterosexual marriages.

To quote the magnificent Leonard Cohen on this last point, there’s “the homicidal bitching that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.” As far as I am aware, much of this ‘homicidal bitching” goes down between heterosexual couples, and frequently concerns how much more housework women do than their male partners.

As well, there are heterosexuals who could well write an article titled “How to be married and still be a slut.” (I have strong reservations about the use of the term ‘slut’ in this pejorative manner, but that discussion is for another time and place).

The impression Meulhenberg has worked hard to create in his article is that heterosexual marriage is some kind of perfect state that no one other than heterosexuals may aspire to, and whose perfection will somehow be threatened by including gays and lesbians in the Marriage Act. This is simply not true. Anything bad that can happen in marriage is already happening, and nobody seems to be able to do very much about preventing it, if the child abuse and domestic violence statistics are anything to go by.

The questions that immediately arise in this reader’s mind are, how fragile is this institution, that its proponents must circle their wagons against any and every perceived threat?  How fragile is this institution that some people must fight with all their might to keep it exclusive?

Will focusing on the perceived evils of gay marriage distract heterosexuals from their collective responsibility for the parlous state of the institution of which they are currently in sole charge? Because whatever is going wrong in marriages, and there’s plenty going wrong, responsibility for it certainly can’t be laid at the doors of gays and lesbians.

In our culture, marriage is still an extremely powerful public and legal acknowledgment of love and commitment. This acknowledgement ought to be available to anyone who wants it.

As I have written here before, “Same sex marriage and same sex adoption are not dangers from which governments need to protect us. But the tyranny of religions destroying anybody’s democratic rights to these things, most certainly is.”

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5 Responses to “The perfection of heterosexual marriage?”

  1. Jennifer Wilson February 17, 2011 at 10:01 am #

    I see it in terms of equality – I’m ambivalent about the institution, but given it exists, is a powerful ritual (for better and for worse!) should be available to same sex couples.

    Plus I have a problem with religions determining the parameters of social customs , and that’s what’s happening in this instance.

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  2. PAUL WALTER February 17, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    Hmmm. But metaphysics is behind so many issues, because we simple dont know. Also, people plump for a Pascals wager and in return for surrendering a little autonomy to the group, get a little certainty in a contingent world, in return for adherence to certain norms. For my part, religious fanaticism as exhibited in some one like Tony Abbott is worrying beecause if he is a fair example of the human group, he is angling for what he can’t possibly obtain, is primed for failure, because he doesn’t understand his own individuation and there will be many like him, including some times even secularist fanatics. I think you used the word “processive” some where. In which case you and I will be a little alike, we will enjoy watching and working these things out, without judgement.
    Our game is to bat off their restricitve subjectivity in exchange for a different freedom that accepts a certain finitude in life humbly as a blessing and seeks to make the best of what’s going. We are, of course, lucky; no illusions and as far as Im concerned no quarrell with “God” who probably would have wiped me out years ago If she’d been a bad dude. I think people make their own problems and then blame”God”, but seldom show much inclination to share the credit when it’s a win.

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  3. Jennifer Wilson February 18, 2011 at 4:43 am #

    I manage to have a very rich “spiritual” life, for want of a better term, without any particular god, and no institutional mediation.

    I was raised Anglican, by Anglican nuns, who were actually very progressive – they though it essential for a girl to be educated and independent. I owe them much.

    But long ago became bored with the church.

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  4. PAUL WALTER February 17, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    My gut response is usually to dismiss it as a second tier issue, but I always come back for a second think. Emotions are a powerful thing and gregarious humans always live in dread of rejection and exclusion so,as you say, aint funny.
    Maybe marriage is now an atavistic relic of an era with a different mode of production. A long way from the affirming bonding rituals of the medieval village to the high rise towers of Sydney and New York awash with properity and contraceptives.

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