Why is marriage equality even a debate?
This isn’t meant to be inflammatory. Some good friends may disagree with me, as it seems a polarising topic, but I am having a hard time understanding why. Personally I can’t believe it is even a debate.
While there are economic arguments in favour of marriage equality, I am not going to rely on them because I don’t think this is an economic argument. It is one of freedom and equality. It seems self-evident to me that same-sex couples should be entitled to the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples. While the government can’t prevent intolerance and bigotry at the individual level, it can legislate to prevent or reduce it at an institutional level.
But obviously not everyone agrees with me. I do respect the right and FREEDOM of everyone to hold their own opinion without having to justify it (in the same way that I respect everyone’s freedom to marry), but that doesn’t mean I have to accept them without comment. Today I am going to consider the arguments I have heard against marriage equality.
The rights of the child.
The most common argument I have heard is that a child needs a mother and a father. This statement resonates with me at a primal level due to the wonderful childhood I experienced, nurtured by my incredible mother and father, but that doesn’t make it a cogent or convincing argument. It can be, at best, described as highly disingenuous, as marriage equality is a separate issue. If that is the only concern with same-sex marriage, then don’t let gay couples or single people adopt or have access to IVF (which would still be wrong, but at least your reasons would reflect your argument), but does that mean divorcees should have their children taken away from them as well? It would seem that the laws for adoption and IVF eligibility have already considered the argument that a child needs both a mother and father- and not found it convincing.
Even though I believe I have already demonstrated how farcical this argument is, I’m going to dig further, as it is widely used. It also says something about the thinking behind opposition to marriage equality. The concept that a heterosexual marriage in itself guarantees children a mother and a father ignores this country’s massive divorce rates (with the Department of Social Services predicting around 1 in 3 current Australian marriages to end in divorce). But even worse, it implies that any heterosexual parents are better than gay parents. This is sexist, in that it assumes all men and women will conform to gender stereotypes. What century are we living in again? I agree children will thrive most when they are exposed to a combination of strong, active parents and gentle nurturing ones, but there is no reason either of these roles need be assigned along traditional lines. My own experiences are not proof that every child needs a male and female parent.
Aside from being dated and sexist, the argument that marriage equality is not in the best interest of children is also insulting. We should be concerned about the welfare of children reared in homes of violence, neglect, substance abuse or crime. There is no threshold test of these factors before a couple can marry. Is their sexuality really more worrying?
The moral and religious objection
Most high-profile opponents of marriage equality have been careful not to fall back on any moral assertion that homosexuality is inherently wrong or against God’s will- and so they should. Australia is a secular nation with the separation of church and state enshrined in our constitution (Chapter 5 states, “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion or for imposing religious observance,”) so any dogmatic statements relying on religious or personal ideology would have no place in the debate. Given the lack of other credible arguments, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that personal ideological reasons are still a strong driving force of marriage equality’s opponents. They just can’t admit it because they know such arguments are insufficient in a rational debate.
I understand some people will be strongly against marriage equality due to their personal beliefs- and I have some sympathy here as we don’t have complete control over everything we believe- but as stated above, you cannot rely on religious doctrine in a political debate. We already allow secular marriages performed by celebrants instead of priests. Australian law has recognised the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, so any objection to marriage equality based on a personal distaste for such relationships has already been dismissed. Religious objections can only be held valid for religious ceremonies. If you are gay and want to be married in a catholic ceremony, for example, then I would consider any religious objections to hold more weight.
To paraphrase comedian, Jim Jefferies, if you are morally against gay marriage, don’t marry a gay person- problem solved.
The sanctity of the institution of marriage
Others might tell you it devalues an important social institution. Hopefully these aren’t the same people who watch Married at First Sight or The Bachelor. Between reality TV and the exploits of high profile marriages such as the Edelstens, I think the concept of the sanctity of marriage has bigger problems than two committed people of the same sex marrying. It is arguable that being out of synch with modern society is more damaging to the credibility of marriage than it would be to accept same-sex marriages.
Semantic arguments about the definition of marriage.
The most recent argument I heard from prominent members of the church (such as Julian Porteous’ opinion piece in The Mercury, June 2) is that same sex marriage is an oxymoron because the legal definition of marriage is a union between man and woman. This is getting pretty desperate. The current Marriage Act in Australia was only written in 1961 and has already been amended. I hope the archbishop is not suggesting that the eligibility criteria for marriage has not changed in the last millennium. It was only mid-last century that ceremonies could be performed by civil celebrants. Laws and legal definitions evolve with society. To say that we cannot recognise that our definition is incorrect and in need of updating is very arbitrary.
The only justification for such intransigence on our definition is the almost laughable line that procreation is a key tenet of marriage. Never mind that a same sex couple can raise children through IVF or adoption, if this kneejerk assertion was in any way true, couples should have to take a fertility test before they married. Obviously they don’t and never will so perhaps it is time opponents of marriage equality stopped kidding themselves that this is a valid argument.
Hiding behind other issues.
I also don’t accept any sort of argument that the government has more important things to worry about at the moment. This basically seems like an admission that there are no good reasons against marriage equality so the government, frightened to take a stance on a controversial issue, will try to stall the debate by hiding behind issues like national security or the economy. Yes these issues are important, but that is why the government has a cabinet and lots of highly paid (and hopefully intelligent) advisors. They can actually develop multiple pieces of legislation at the same time. National security and the economy will always be important, so if they stuck to this argument, they wouldn’t do anything else.
What does that leave?
Nothing. I don’t think there is any argument against marriage equality that withstands much scrutiny. I don’t know how long it will take, but I like to think Australia will slowly find its way to recognising this (perhaps not while Tony Abbott is PM though). While I can’t find a good logical argument against it, I still respect the major religions’ right to make their own determination on whether it is appropriate for religious wedding ceremonies because the separation of church and state cuts both ways. Just as I don’t think religious leaders should tell the government how to legislate, neither should the government be telling religious leaders how to perform religious ceremonies (within common sense parameters- I know reductio use of this argument could be used to take this line of reasoning to some pretty absurd levels, but that is not a free pass to flaunt the law). I would hope that legislation empowering civil celebrants to wed same sex couples would not be used to compel priests to do the same until their constituency is ready for it.
But ultimately I don’t think any compulsion will be necessary as the churches will eventually follow society and society is ready for change. It would just be nice if Australia wasn’t already behind the curve on this one.