Marriage equality: what is it good for?

8 Dec

Marriage Equality

I realised during an enthusiastic debate on Twitter yesterday with @amicus_AU and @chronicfemme on the question of marriage equality, that apparently both ends of the continuum fear that same-sex marriage will result in an apocalypse for their cause. Marriage conservatives fear equality will bring about the death of marriage in an inexplicable metaphysical erosion of heterosexual values, while some in the queer community fear it will bring about the death of queer, as queer couples reject the radical demand to abolish state-sanctioned commitments altogether, and instead seek acceptance within the heteronormative paradigm of marriage.

The marriage equality debate inevitably becomes conflated with the debate about the institution of marriage, which is unfortunate, to my mind. They are two separate and equally important issues, and neither is done justice when they are intertwined.

Nobody wants the state in their bedroom. It is not the state’s business whom one chooses to marry, or live in a de facto relationship with. At the same time, when such arrangements break down, there must be protections in place for the wellbeing of vulnerable parties, usually women and children under current arrangements, who are likely to come off second best in serious matters such as property settlements, child support, access to a parent and all the other miserable detritus that commonly litters the personal landscape when things go wrong.

Humans being what we are, and being even more what we are in times of relationship breakdown, many of us cannot be trusted to behave reasonably when we are in the grip of extreme emotion provoked by the collapse of hope and future and the losses involved. We need laws at these times, and state-sanctioned relationships provide us with these laws.

If the argument is for no state involvement at all then we cannot argue for recognised de facto relationships either, as these are also governed by the state at times of breakdown, though not in precisely the same way as is marriage.

If it is heteronormative for queer couples to marry, is it also heteronormative for them to be covered by the protections offered to de factos?

Are queers arguing against marriage equality actually arguing that creating a couple is heteronormative? This is to my mind an interesting argument, and one that takes us into the fascinating territory of theories of constructed desires, et al, however, in practice as a society we have to contend with coupledom and its consequences for the vulnerable being currently rather more in our faces than theories of desire, and requiring our urgent practical attention.

Which is not to say people shouldn’t think about these things if that is our inclination, and radically interrogate entrenched norms.

I’m at a loss to imagine a system of relationship in which the state is not involved. It cannot be left up to individuals to fairly sort out the messes that occur when intimate relationships break down. Therefore, it is absolutely unjust for that protection to be denied to couples other than the heterosexual. There is simply no valid argument to deny marriage equality: every human being is entitled to the same protections, regardless of sexual orientation.

If you don’t “believe” in the state having anything to do with your relationship, don’t call upon its laws to protect you if your relationship breaks down. Find a radical new paradigm, rather than simply calling for our current arrangements to be abolished. I haven’t heard or read any discussion of viable alternatives that can achieve what state intervention achieves when marriages and de facto relationships collapse, and people have to salvage what they can of their lives and the lives of any children involved.

As for the supernaturally destructive powers invested in marriage equality by opponents of all kinds: if your ideology is so fragile that people loving each other in the manner they choose is going to destroy it, maybe it’s time to find a new ideology?

24 Responses to “Marriage equality: what is it good for?”

  1. Ray (novelactivist) December 8, 2013 at 8:20 am #

    Hi Jennifer,

    You say that nobody wants the state in the bedroom. I’m not sure about that. The Church most definitely wants the state in the bedroom because concerned Christians have been pressuring the ‘state’ to impose Christian moral principles since the beginning of Christianity.

    This is what this debate is really about.

    This is the reason so many conservative Christians (liberal Christians are a different matter) have been campaigning so actively over this issue. They are not actually concerned about children but about their power to control what happens in our bedrooms using the mechanism of the state.

    Allowing same-sex marriage makes them largely irrelevant in the issue that concerns them the most – sexual morality.

    The reason the state gets involved is really the issue of property rights – and one of the main concerns of any state is the orderly disposition of property, buying, selling, leasing, inheritance – because the main source of conflict in any society is usually property.


    • Jennifer Wilson December 8, 2013 at 9:37 am #

      Yes, I didn’t want to explore the religious side, but you are right.

      The only reason for the state to be involved is property, in the widest sense of the word, & who is protected & who isn’t. The state has no place in sex and love.


      • doug quixote December 8, 2013 at 9:49 am #

        The religious think they “own” marriage! Admittedly, the big ceremony, the waving about of incense and the stern lectures help to impress their responsibilities on the participants, and upon the families of the couple. Useful in many cases, but hardly essential.

        Perhaps they fear losing their onetime near-monopoly even further?


        • Ray (novelactivist) December 8, 2013 at 10:30 am #

          Well, they never did own marriage. The early Christians actually considered marriage to be a regrettable thing. Paul said it was better not to marry and some early Theologians argued that celibacy was the superior state. During early Christianity marriage was perfunctory, wasn’t performed in a church and was not a sacrament. The Church authorities generally accepted local custom. The idea of a ceremony and the exchange of a ring was taken from the Roman ritual.

          Furthermore, the Church clearly and unambiguously accepted child marriage until the early 20th century. Catholic canon law clearly stated that the minimum age of marriage for girls was 12 and the Church happily married children to older men. The grandmother of Henry VIII and mother of Henry VII, Margaret Beaufort, was married in Church to Edmund Tudor when she was 12 and she gave birth before she turned 13. The daughter of the Borgia Pope, Lucrezia, first married when she was 13. There are other notable examples.

          The Christian obsession with marriage is a modern phenomenon that actually has no scriptural support. It is a form of heresy.


          • Eric Glare December 8, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

            I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian cult with no name that took the Bible literally and believed people were married in their god’s eye when they first had sex. In the Old Testament child virgins from neighbouring tribes were married when they were raped whilst their family were massacred. There are no marriage ceremonies detailed in the Bible but Jesus is said to have gone to a wedding reception. In the cult marriage ceremonies were conducted according to the law of the country they were in and its customs and had no religious involvement.

            I think religions having been trying to own marriage partly to shore up their core membership strategy but also to hide the diversity of belief of customs that are practised around marriage giving a veneer of agreement and unity. Using ‘the Church’ is another strategy for dominance from behind the dogma.


      • Ray (novelactivist) December 8, 2013 at 10:18 am #

        But the religious side is absolutely critical to this issue. The main opposition to law reform comes from religious conservatives (not just Christian). Furthermore, those politicians who vote against change (both Labor and Liberal) do so for religious reasons (under the excuse of conscience).

        You are right that there is a debate within the LGBTI community about marriage in general and I’m firmly on the side of free form arrangements. I am one of the people the Christians fear because I think the state should recognise polyamorous arrangements.

        I am currently writing a scifi novel which revisits some Utopian themes. I envisage a future planetary colony which forms free flowing erotic circles which may be poly, bi, straight or gay. The only requirement of the ‘state’ is that people who wish to have children sign a legally binding parenting agreement that protects the interests of children. A poly group might sign such an agreement. Personally I think we should move toward this type of arrangement. If you either father or mother a child you are legally bound to provide support (financial, educational, emotional, etc) until the child reaches majority. Sadly we still have a problem with fathers reneging on support when a relationship fails.


      • Eric Glare December 8, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

        But everyone on the side of gay marriage wants to avoid talking about religion even though morality is being used against us and they cry that their religious freedom is at stake. The truth is we have never ever really been given our religious freedom and our opponents are intent in continuing to steal our freedom of religious belief. Where is our claim of the moral good of our loves and relationships as part of our religious beliefs? Why are some religions preventing other religions from marrying GLBTI people?

        Much worse than having the State in your bedroom is not being able to get someone else’s religion out of your house.

        Why no talk about religious beliefs in GLBTI marriage? Perhaps sensitivity. Or are they scared of the face off between religion/religious belief and biological attributes like sex, gender and sexuality? Attributes that most of our society are clueless about. I think human rights should be stratified with biological rights given precedence over that of ethnicity and culture, including religion. It’s very logical and sensible but we have yet to hear anything like it in the quest for marriage equality.


        • hudsongodfrey December 9, 2013 at 1:57 am #


          As I’ve mentioned below, I suspect religion in the context you’ve mentioned codes as a proxy for homophobia. And I don’t say that to spite religious people. I just think that the source of their discomfort needs to be recognised so that it can be dealt with.


          • Eric Glare December 9, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

            “…source of their discomfort needs to be recognised so that it can be dealt with”

            How would you deal with their religion, the source of the their homophobia, which many have belong to through generations of their family? Proxy is the wrong word when homophobia is just one of a number of common anti-social attributes arising from religion in our society – I would include genderism, sexism, difficulty accepting other’s diverse beliefs and ethnicity, and protecting their own without recourse to the law, (eg prayer as the only response to sexual abuse).

            I think we need to be clear on what is sensible and practical given that most religions have yet to cope with equality for women. An approach that asks people to deny their religion is asking them to defy their gods as well as the institution that has given structure and culture to their lives. This is why I think challenging religious freedom is important because it leaves morality out of it and says that people can believe what they like, even astrology, provided they do not interfere with others freedom of choice.

            Perhaps this is why religion has been avoided by equality activists – they know most people would jump straight to a direct challenge to religion that would very quickly lead to a complete cultural war where we would have no chance because we had set stakes too high – their religion and culture in exchange for our right to marry. It’s not going to happen like that.


            • hudsongodfrey December 9, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

              As I mentioned Eric, read me below as well, but in relation to religion then on an atheistic view I would share the notion that religion may be a conduit for homophobia, but doesn’t really explain its existence. Unless you believe that anything they’ve taken from their scripture or attributed to supernatural causes is credible, then I think we have to say that homophobia is an undesirable but wholly man made foible. So what we’d really be talking about are cultural traditions given to emphasising those negatives and preserving exclusivity within our cultural institutions for their in-groups.

              If you just wanted to argue it on a religious or even an ethical standpoint you’d either ask “If god didn’t want gays to fall in love and marry, why’d he make them gay”, or you’d argue for fairness from the principle of reciprocity as most advocates already do. Logically there is no real way equality doesn’t trump tradition in your value system such that marriage reform represents a moral necessity, unless you’re basically experiencing some rather illogical reservations…. homophobia. It takes slippery apologetics to allow that kind of hypocrisy to prevail.

              That is basically where this argument sits at the moment. With progressives or moderates numbering slightly more than fundamentalists at the opposite end of the spectrum who are never going to listen to you. But Rudd made a telling point during the election about how attitudes to slavery have been overturned in such a way that modern Christian and Secular thinkers have been known to argue over who was more responsible for making those moral/ethical breakthroughs. Either way exposing the hypocrisy in the opposition’s position seems to be the way to go.


              • Eric Glare December 9, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

                As a fundamentalist antitheist atheist certainly I see homophobia and Christianity as immoral and that marriage equality is a ‘moral necessity’ for me. But that does not mean I should tear down other people’s religion and their gods so that I can get married – after all such interference is my complaint of them. They must tear down their own religion so that they can own its ruins as theirs or not.

                Slavery is only useful for presenting the long-term big picture of change (most of it painted long post-slavery) and we have yet to get there with sex and gender. So I think it is impossible that everyone will be ideologically united before the law is changed – social change just doesn’t happen like that. Attending a family gay wedding will do much more to change hearts than the change in marriage law. This is not slippery apologetics.

                I believe in counteracting hypocrisy if it effects other people but there is a limit in calling hypocrisy when the religion’s precepts are that there is no inconsistency. It is pointless asking fundamentalist Christians why did their god make people gay as they are programmed to reply that it is wilful behaviour we have chosen to lust for (or some mumbo jumbo like that). Calling out people on their hypocrisy of freedom of religion or religious belief is a much simpler strategy changing just one thing at a time.


                • hudsongodfrey December 9, 2013 at 9:23 pm #

                  Yes I agree, and I also agree that there are right and wrong ways to persuade people of a very different perspective than my own. especially when we’re each able to be labelled as such. But surely where a double standard like this one exists there’s enough common ground to allow us to point the way to a tolerant accommodation. The kind that usually precedes real ownership of the social change that will follow perhaps as much as a generation or two behind.

                  Nor am I proposing that fundamentals would be our chosen audience. I think there are enough moderately religious people out there and people with cultural loyalties who aren’t so deeply indoctrinated with literal dogma as to completely resist reasonable arguments. And it is they who’ll possibly best appreciate the quid pro quo in the social contract separating church and state. So that far from calling people out for the express purpose of subjugating them to our “superior opinions” there is a simple appeal to reciprocity here that I think any human being ought to be able to appreciate, and it is this: would you like it if I told you who you could or couldn’t marry? If not, then don’t do it to gay people.

                  Yes, I’ve argued more than that here, but I think the point is well made that when the imperative handed to most people to either be kind or unkind to others then actively denying something it costs you nothing to grant requires at the very least some expenditure of effort and goes against our better nature. In short I don’t think most people are going to hold out for too much longer 🙂


  2. doug quixote December 8, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    As you rightly point out there are two major issues here.

    I propose a redefinition :

    Marriage : a contract between two people uniting their property interests and stating their solemn intent to have children and to raise, maintain and educate those children until they become independent. The parties also solemnly promise to stand by each other through thick and thin, to the exclusion of all others.

    The State lends its support to those admirable goals; why should it not!

    Should the State limit its endorsement and support to heterosexual couples only? On what grounds, now that a homosexual couple can bear and raise children, and from what research is available, equally as well as a heterosexual couple?


  3. Malcolm December 8, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

    Good post which covers the issues from both sides. What constitutes heteronormativity could be the subject of some discussion. Some of those who condemn marriage are living in coupledom that looks very much the same as heterosexual coupledom.
    As for the interest of churches having an interest in what happens in the bedroom, couples have been negotiating their relationships for centuries. In Australia, we have had no-fault divorce since 1976 so there is absolutely no impediment to couples negotiating their relationship as they wish. That particular horse bolted decades ago and the churches are making a last attempt at some kind of influence.


  4. John Samuel December 8, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    Good post, and a solid argument I think.


  5. hudsongodfrey December 9, 2013 at 1:53 am #

    Okay I’ve been away and just caught up with this piece today. Glad you enjoyed the Leonard Cohen concert, though how could you not, right?

    On the issues here about Gay Marriage I think it does break down into two elements of the institution and the more pragmatic arguments for legal rights. They’re not completely separate in my mind though, because the word I would use is “kinship” both in the legal sense and in the sense that in marriage we honour a rite which confers it. So while there’s what seems like a side debate about the business of what institutions honour and whether we need institutions to honour it, there are also real pragmatic questions as to why we respect other people’s choices of partner and how that informs priorities they set and which we ought also to acknowledge.

    As we’re increasing to come to realise that we’re no longer willing to make the kind of value judgements that would disrespect gay and lesbian couples’ rights to take the partner of their choice it would be committing a version of something like the natural fallacy to assume that the default state is one of implied acceptance when we live in a society that has evolved explicit acceptance rituals to celebrate unions for some that others are unfairly excluded from. It would be different if gays by something they did instead of something they were somehow deserved to be excluded from entering into marriage, but for the many who want to marry their chosen kinship is honoured by marriage, and conversely marriage is clearly useful as both social and legal confirmation of that.

    Similarly I think that the anti-heteronormative arguments that are ostensibly put up by some gay people are possibly more of a poor heuristic than anything else. If you embrace you queer sexuality and that fact that it sets you apart, then rejecting everything with heterosexual pretences oversimplifies situations it might actually be to your benefit to be able to participate in without sacrificing your identity.

    The other thing I’d say to the queer community is that equivalence between values that others choose to acknowledge when you may not shouldn’t really diminish you any more than I should expect to be contradicted in saying something like “if you don’t like same sex marriage then you may still feel free not to marry someone of the same sex”. Having the ability to do something and experiencing the desire to do it will still be quite separate things in the same way that other people having the desire to do certain things and you having the ability to interfere for no good reason should also be.

    The fallacy would be in thinking that it serves to further a distinctive sense of queer identity to assume that any social institution that has been co-opted by straight people must be imbued with some heteronormative animus rather than embracing the thought that our social institutions are meant to stretch to accommodate a queer ethos, and that this in no way impinges either of our identities. Marriage is already a flexible enough institution to embrace a myriad cultural of expressions around the globe. A lot of people obviously feel there’s room for a couple more, and instead of asking why, they ask why not?

    It also seems curious that when it is argued that asking opponents of same sex marriage to honour a union between two people they’ve traditionally excluded in their religious and social practices puts pressure on them that makes them uncomfortable then we might as well stop ignoring the fact that the elephant in the room is their homophobia.

    If we’re honest there’s part of some of us that simply feels the tacit bigotry in excluding people from anything based upon their sexual orientation needs to be rebuked. We express our solidarity on that basis without in any way meaning to bring about the kind of circumstance wherein same sex couples might, as straight couples may have in felt the past, to be pressured by families and peers to marry when they prefer not to. But we can’t say it won’t happen. There’s always some small price to pay for change, otherwise we’d stop needing to evolve.


  6. paul walter December 10, 2013 at 1:25 am #

    Interesting.. a couple of original insights here.
    Want to turn them over in my mind for a bit before buzzing into the kitchen like a big blowfly, with comments that won’t respond adequately to the mix of sociological. ethnological and cultural elements up for consideration here.
    To me, at least one key word is “heteronormative”, though.
    The term is actually a locus for nature/ biology versus nurture/cultural in the “constructing” of a person by life.
    It is perfectly normal of course for gay people to be attracted to other gay people and as long as biological determinism as to “wiring” likely applies, we are at least rid of the notion that gays are perverse rather than normal people who are gay and want relationships except with the same sex rather than the opposite.
    Marriage of the traditional sort is problematic, made redundant by contraception if nothing else and I wondered if there wasn’t a hint in the threadstarter that following hetero bourgeiois sentimentalism as a basis for marriage in post industrial times isnt likely to be itself a straightjacket for gays, as with heteros, as to this institution and its now possibly obsolete, atavistic and unworkable aspirations.
    Is marriage more a legal thing to do with child custody, wills, property, wealth and responsibility allocation? If the system provides this now, so calling formalised gay relationships “marriage”is probably correct, but there is a sense that the gays have resorted to the “marriage” thing not only out of sentimentality but because defacto relationships may not afford the same protections to both partners as “marriage”, in courts.
    I think it will be same as ever; some people, gay or straight, will have the wherewithall and strength of character to commit to a relationship, others won’t have the make up to do this.


    • hudsongodfrey December 10, 2013 at 10:48 am #

      If you think of marriage in terms of those atavistic “heteronormative” negatives then surely allowing same sex marriage might be the therapy that the sagging institution needs. I know that some people prefer to let this particular social institution lapse altogether, but I don’t know that we celebrate the cure when the disease dies with the patient.

      Nor as I think you acknowledge does contraception cut out the need for legally recognised kinship any more than extinguishing marriage would really dent bourgeois sentimentalism.

      So while I think we need to be realistic about the numbers of straight couples who’ve rejected formalising their relationships as such, we also need to be realistic about how insulting to gays and arrogant of us it is to exclude them. The patient in that sense isn’t just marriage it’s also our collective conscience rebelling against its use to repress gays and lesbians. And the cure not so much a revival of the old as a reinvigoration of relevance through inclusion of the diversity that is the true reality of our society.


      • paul walter December 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

        Too much like hard work, some would say and there is the marker for a retreat from an open society to a defensive, judgemental one.
        People rush to judgement because patience and thinking through take time and effort, in the lazy society.
        I’ve a gay couple up the street, good people and my goal has been to understand my own reactions toward them, not out of hostility but curiosity- I do not want to be the Les Patterson of the street and see them isolated and defensive in turn, because Ive honestly beleived they are an assett for the neighbourhood and my own culturally inscribed attitudes I’ve fail to unentangle are the only barrier to the making of new friends.
        Yet the other day, a beaut smile and a laugh at the Rosellas in the tree in their yard, made this reexamination seem worth the effort, perhaps there is grace after all.


  7. doug quixote December 14, 2013 at 8:37 am #

    On Same Sex Marriage

    Although the High Court struck down the ACT Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Act, there are important advances made.

    The Court decided unanimously that when the Constitution says that the federal parliament has power to legislate with respect to “marriage”, it means that the term is clearly wide enough to encompass same-sex unions as marriage.

    The Court dismissed the rather flat-earth idea that marriage must mean what it meant in 1900, namely “marriage, as understood in Christendom, may for this purpose be defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others”.

    The Court observed that after divorce was accepted into law, marriage had already by 1900 become “entered into for life” rather than “for life”.

    The Constitution’s provisions are to be read as “a mechanism under which laws are to be made, and not a mere Act which declares what the law is to be” ! further :

    ‘”marriage law is not a matter of precise demarcation”. It is, instead, “a recognized topic of juristic classification”. ‘

    And :

    “Power to make laws as to any class of rights involves a power to alter those rights, to define those rights, to limit those rights, to extend those rights, and to extend the class of those who may enjoy those rights.”

    And definitively :

    “The social institution of marriage differs from country to country. It is not now possible (if it ever was) to confine attention to jurisdictions whose law of marriage provides only for unions between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life. Marriage law is and must be recognised now to be more complex. Some jurisdictions outside Australia permit polygamy. Some jurisdictions outside Australia, in a variety of constitutional settings, now permit marriage between same sex couples.

    These facts cannot be ignored or hidden. It is not now possible (if it ever was) to decide what the juristic concept of marriage includes by confining attention to the marriage law of only those countries which provide for forms of marriage which accord with a preconceived notion of what marriage “should” be. More particularly, the nineteenth century use of terms of approval, like “marriages throughout Christendom” or marriages according to the law of “Christian states”, or terms of disapproval, like “marriages among infidel nations”, served only to obscure circularity of reasoning.”

    The Commonwealth v ACT [2013] HCA 55

    The upshot is that when the federal parliament finally gets around to legislate to allow same-sex marriage there will be no challenge to such an Act with any prospect of success.

    Roll on the day.


    • garpal gumnut December 18, 2013 at 12:47 am #

      It is my firm belief that many such as doug, are in favour of gay marriage because it is agin conservative values, rather than in favour of marriage equality. This disingenuous stance has been recognised by astute queers and is in large part why they are agin gay marriage. It is quite possible that social engineers such as doug, by using the high court in a tory fashion will ultimately provoke subtle and harmful discrimination against gays by the majority. Marriage is marriage, and legal union is just that. Conflating the latter in to the former is fraught, and appealing to those such as doug, who enjoy checkers rather than chess. Legal union is proper and just between any two people irrespective of gender or sexual preference. Old tory warriors of the left and right, are better left out of the argument, and should desist.



      • Eric Glare December 18, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

        “…by using the high court in a tory fashion will ultimately provoke subtle and harmful discrimination against gays by the majority”

        Just more of the same – how would we notice anything different?

        Marriage is legal marriage; “legal union” are just two words you put together that have no legal recognition in Australia -rather like ‘tory’ which belongs to the UK not an argument here. We do have de facto relationships that kick in at 2 years co-habitation irrespective of sex or gender but the event cannot be legally celebrated, isn’t culturally celebrated and therefore should not be conflated with marriage or some other set of words not usually used.

        This isn’t so much social engineering as it is an end to discrimination and an end to failed engineering of our biological attraction for other humans. These latter are so personal and have and do affect my survival way more than the social. Hence marriage equality is more about equality than it is about marriage. It is the privilege of the undiscrimated to see marriage equality as social engineering or a rebuff to conservative values.


      • doug quixote December 18, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

        Bullshit Gumnut.

        Even if your bullshit statement were to be accepted as true, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and they will take any support they can get.

        By the way, conflating is just what you are doing with your disingenuous post.

        And I much prefer chess to checkers, thank you.



  1. Proudly presenting the 68th Down Under Feminists Carnival! | Ideologically Impure - January 5, 2014

    […] at No Place for Sheep asks what marriage equality is actually good for – and how the fight for marriage equality gets conflated with the wider argument about the […]


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