Debate over whether to legalise gay marriage in Australia has been simmering gently for a number of years. Recently, the issue has begun to bubble. It is not at boiling point, and likely never will be – whatever the more zealous crusaders on both sides may think, the symbolic issue of marriage per se, as opposed to equal rights for same-sex partners, is not visceral enough to ignite any real fury among the majority of either liberals or conservatives.
It is not the issue of refugees, mandatory detention and the now-defunct Malaysian solution, where the physical and mental health of already vulnerable people is at stake and which subsequently generates some of the more incendiary and urgent policy demands from progressive activists. Some might interrupt here to claim that barring gay people from getting married does threaten their mental health, but such claims would be a false and spurious comparison. Certainly, homosexual individuals have suffered greatly, both mentally and physically, through years and decades of social ostracism, legal discrimination and outright criminalisation, gay bashings and personal slander. But in a society where popular attitudes have become more tolerant and gay people enjoy the same legal rights of personal and sexual freedom as their straight counterparts, along with recognition of de facto relationships, the symbolic issue of allowing marriage to encompass homosexual partnerships does not involve a burning, immediate threat to individual safety or well-being.
Nor is gay marriage a particularly stand-out or powerful issue for the current motley crew of right-wing protesters, activists and agitators. It forms part of their agenda, yes, but does not hold the flagship status of something like Ju-Liar’s toxic Carbon Tax. Not even Tony Abbott, I suspect, would be hammering for a new election based solely on plans to introduce gay marriage. For the current, patchwork Australian right, gay marriage occupies a sideshow role, despite recent voice-raising exercises like the “Don’t meddle with marriage” rally at Parliament House. Lurking on the sidelines, useful for solidifying the support of some die hard social and religious conservatives, but not a real unifying force. Although the culture wars generally run hotter in America and there is arguably a more vicious strain of conservative homophobia among many in the American Tea Party, even there it has not formed a knockout, stand alone issue simply because of how fragmented, diverse and incoherent the demands of that confused movement are. At least here in Australia, Gillard’s ill-considered election promise and Labor’s badly managed but determined efforts to address climate change have given the populist right something to get behind – besides Tony Abbott’s speedo clad, for-sale behind.
Not a burning, hot-button explosion waiting to happen, same-sex marriage is more like a war of attrition. Public attitudes towards both gay people generally and their marital rights specifically have been gradually shifting over the last twenty or thirty years. Recent polls seem to indicate around 60% support, with even a slim majority of Christians in favour of allowing gays to wed. These figures are important because marriage is, by definition, an institution that represents social recognition and acceptance of a relationship. That is all it signifies, beyond the material and financial entitlements that are, by-and-large, already available to gay couples in de facto relationships or civil unions. In our age of rampant populism and lowest-common-denominator-politics, there is a powerful and eloquent argument for the idea that not all laws can be decided by a mere straw poll. The majority is not always right and sometimes, human rights or higher ethics should be protected even if it means resisting the madding crowd’s urges. In the case of gay marriage, however – a deeply symbolic institution of social endorsement – it would seem perfectly reasonable and, indeed, desirable (even for advocates) to have the support of a public majority.
But it would appear that such a majority already exists. Moreover, the arguments for equal partnership rights and equal marriage are no longer inextricably linked. Many people now claim they are comfortable with the idea of civil unions for gay couples, but not with the idea of marriage. Which means those who do support same-sex marriage are doing so because they believe in its symbolic importance, not just because they favour equal rights for gay couples in areas like tax, hospital visitations, inheritance and so on.
The majority of opposition to gay marriage in Australia can now be split into three rough, interrelated categories. One is based entirely on semantic arguments regarding the traditional definition of marriage. Another relies on the idea that marriage is primarily designed for the rearing of children and that, since children ideally require both a mother and father, it should be reserved for heterosexual couples. A third is the position taken by pragmatic centrists and newspapers like The Australian, whose proponents seem to have no problem with same-sex marriage themselves but feel it “is basically a fringe issue that preoccupies the Greens and GetUp! but barely rates a mention in the mainstream, especially among Labor’s traditional base in working-class suburbs.” None of these arguments should prevent support for gay marriage among rational, fair-minded people.
Semantic arguments are easiest to dismiss. They are laughably ill-formed and those who make them must either have no idea how to properly articulate their reasons for opposing gay marriage, or be deliberately concealing their actual motivations because they are unacceptably homophobic. This is not exaggerated rhetoric. These are the only two options because arguments like those expressed in the letters pages of The Australian by Barry Walters and Ian Mastin are not arguments at all. So to for Barnaby Joyce and his four-wheeled bicycle metaphor. Obviously, we must assume that underlying these statements is some element of substantive opposition. But even taken at its most generous, which suggests that homosexual relationships are not less valuable but simply of a different kind to heterosexual ones, this argument amounts to little more than segregation’s old “separate but equal” dictum. As we’ve already discussed, marriage is an entirely symbolic proposition. The whole point of the “marriage equality” movement is to alter the term’s meaning to reflect evolving social values. If people disagree with that, fine. But they must engage with the debate itself, not superficial wordplay, to have any hope of being heard.
The issue of children is a more complex one. It is often the fall-back position for people whose initial semantic arguments have been rebuffed. The general idea is that children turn out best when raised with influence from both genders in the form of both a mother and father. One contributor to The Advertiser cited unnamed studies to support this claim. As I responded a few days later, however, any such results probably say more about the social stigma attached to alternative family arrangements than they do about the objective ability of gay parents to raise a well adjusted child. Some also try to link the alleged problems of gay parenting with higher rates of social or emotional difficulties faced by children of single parents, claiming this shows that parental influence from both genders is ideally required. But this too is a false comparison. Surely the biggest cause of difficulty for single-parent children is the inevitable trauma, whether great or small, associated with the death or abandonment of one parent, whatever their gender?
This issue is complex because it cuts to the heart of long held and deeply embedded social ideas about the importance of gender in shaping our identity. I don’t want to argue with this too simplistically. As with many things, I sit somewhere in the middle when it comes to nature versus nurture, believing it is usually some combination of both that makes us who we are. But I don’t believe there’s any reason to think gender is fundamentally central or more important to our identity than other factors like appearance, belief-systems, life-outlook or skill-sets, for example. I was raised by a psychiatrist and a social worker – what have I missed out on by not having the parental influence of a car mechanic, an electrician, a pilot or a heart surgeon? Probably quite a lot, just as I’ve gained much from the upbringing I did have. Gender is important, but not so fundamentally important that children raised by two men or two women can’t find the influence they need from uncles and aunts, family friends or the wider community. I’ve managed to pick up a little about how cars work over the years, if not the inner complexities of the internal combustion engine. And that’s okay. We’re all just who we are.
Of course, this is exactly the kind of argument to get many of those who oppose gay marriage offside. Talk about redefining the meaning and importance of not just marriage, but gender itself, will surely get them all lathered up about the latte-sipping, elitist commentariat. However, there’s another, simpler way to attack the argument that marriage is purely about raising children.
As I pointed out a few weeks ago, there is no good reason why marriage should be defined as an institution whose sole function is the rearing of children. And as blogger Sam Rodgers has suggested, the term “marriage equality” is preferable to “equal love” because, really, it’s not about love at all. Marriage, in its most pragmatic terms, is about two consenting individuals agreeing to support each other for life, resulting in a range of social benefits by reducing the burden of care on families, communities and the state. While there is a convincing argument for allowing gay couples to adopt or access IVF (as I’ve outlined), it’s not a prerequisite for extending the symbolically important term marriage to their partnerships. Indeed, once gay marriage is legalised this may increasingly shift public sentiments on the issue of children by further legitimising homosexual relationships.
Some on the right would make this point in their favour – proof, they would say, that gay marriage advocates want to forcefully reshape society. But that’s not the point at all. Society would be reshaped naturally, gradually, as it always has been on issues from race and women’s rights to homosexuality and gender-roles. To say that gay marriage would legitimise gay parenting is only to say that more people would be open to the perfectly reasonable arguments I’ve put forward (along with many others) because irrational prejudice would have less influence on their views. And in a society where all different forms of identity, sexuality, parenting and the like are tolerated, celebrated and legitimised, any personal or emotional difficulties faced by previously stigmatised individuals and their children would inevitably decline.
So we’re left, finally, with the argument that gay marriage is a fringe issue, not worth getting worked up about and not something that should divert our attention from more important issues of state, like the economy. Always the economy.
As you can probably work out, once the other two categories of opposition have been addressed this line of argument becomes essentially mute. Aside from the fact that opponents of gay marriage can just as easily be accused of distracting from the “real”issues by refusing to support a simple equality measure, surely our parliament can walk and chew gum at the same time? Dismissing gay marriage as a ridiculous fringe issue, whether it’s Bob Katter or The Australian, is simply a way of avoiding the actual debate. Something politicians and other public figures seem increasingly eager to do on a whole range of issues. Perhaps only a minority of people feel very strongly about legalising gay marriage, but if its true that somewhere around 60% have no problem with the idea (i.e. they give passive, though not active, support) then it seems like those opposed are the ones holding things back and creating much ado about nothing. And placating a vocal minority of people who oppose same-sex marriage based on semantic arguments, religious beliefs or plain bigotry is no way to decide policy.