Why, weirdly, I am against Gay Marriage

For some time I have been trying to find a succinct way to express the reasons why I am against gay marriage. I have found it quite difficult to present my views in a focused manner, no doubt because there would seem to be no particular reason for me to be opposed to gay marriage. Certainly I do not think that homosexuality is in any way wrong or bad and I also think that the state should accord homosexual couples the same rights as heterosexual couples. But therein lies the rub. Simply put I think the state should get out of the business of regulating ‘marriage’ per se and restrict its legislative remit to ‘civil partnerships.’ There are two motivations for this. The first is the way in which I perceive the emancipatory developments that attend the sexual revolution, feminism and the secularization of society. This latter informs the way in which I think society ought to respect religion and religious freedom, particularly when we disagree with it, whilst, at the same time, not being wholly subservient to its claims. In this post I try to articulate my view.

In the late 80s and early 90s a new taxonomy emerged to describe our ‘significant others.’ It was no longer politically correct to talk about husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends. Rather one spoke of people’s ‘life partners’ and, soon after, simply ‘partners.’ The aim was, I suppose, to render the gender of ‘significant others’ opaque. It was an attempt to demonstrate that one was not homophobic by adopting a gender-neutral linguistic format when talking about primary, presumably sexual, relationships. The adoption of gender-neutral forms of speech was a feature of linguistic change at that time and it is interesting to note how gender and sexuality are intertwined with each other.

However perhaps what is most interesting is how the generic word ‘partner’ obscures not only the gendered aspect of our primary, presumably sexual, relationships but also other details including whether or not a couple are, in fact, married. It is worth reminding ourselves that in the progressive politics of the late 80s and early 90s this is significant as there was still the potential for the stigmatization of divorce, single parenthood and to being an unwed long-term, presumably sexual, possibly cohabiting, possibly childbearing, relationship. Indeed I am aware of some parents of individuals in my peer group who are still resistant to the notion of sex before marriage or at least of sex under ‘their roof’ even if it is perfectly obvious that that sex is occurring elsewhere.[1]

We might conclude then that the introduction of the term partner was also an attempt to avoid the use of the term ‘married’ or, rather, the implication that a couple were unmarried though the use of the terms boyfriend/ girlfriend rather than husband/ wife.[2] The term ‘marriage’ was not simply avoided because of its heterosexist implication but because of the inherent moral judgment that attached to the presumably sexual relationships of unmarried couples. The morality of marriage is not simply the morality of heterosexuality but of an a particular socially (legally and religiously) sanctioned form of sexual relationship. The advent of the word ‘partner’ is, then, not simply about a cultural transition from a very homophobic to a less homophobic society but about moving from a society that feels entitled to judge morally certain personal relationships to one that no longer feels the need to do so. 

It has often been pointed out that marriage is, first and foremost, an economic institution and one might say the same about civil partnerships. In a society that does not feel the need to sanction the sexual relationship of its citizens the civil partnership is about nothing more than the legal and economic rights accorded to its members. Civil partnerships are not necessarily about sex, love, hetero-/ homo- sexuality or indeed monogamy. The preference for marriage over the civil partnership is, as many arguments reveal, about the sanctioning of monogamous sexual love for hetero- and homo- sexuals. I see no reason why our primary relationships need to involve any of these things and so why the economic and legal benefits that accrues to civil partners are predicated upon them. The state should not premise its legal institutions on the emotional and sexual lives of its citizens and in so doing normatively prescribe our emotional and sexual lives. 

Furthermore the state should not, as it currently does, prescribe the ceremonial arrangements of civil partnerships any more than is necessary for its legal fulfillment. The restrictions on what aspects of our various collective culture(s) can be mentioned in the ceremonies (if any) that we choose to place around the enactment of a legal institution - the civil partnership - should be up to those involved. Obviously the term marriage itself is one aspect of our collective culture and people should be free to use it as they see fit. We really should not need the state to give us permission to do so and, certainly, it should not deny us permission to do so. It would be better if the state restricted itself to the more neutral term.

Given such arrangements, and the moral perspective that is embedded within them, we - and particularly those who have argued for gay marriage - might consider whether we do in fact wish to use the term ‘marriage’ and, for those to whom it is available, whether they want to get married in a church that would deny other couples the same opportunity on the basis of their gender. Marriage is a legal and economic institution but it is also a religious and cultural one. I have argued civil partnership should take over the legal and economic function of marriage. In arguments for gay marriage there is no realistic prospect of legislating that religious organizations must marry homosexual couples if it is against their moral beliefs. Indeed, if one thinks moral and religious freedom important, it would be wrong to do so; we cannot collectively force the (various) religious institutions of marriage to include homosexual couples. However as individuals we are free to do as we please and, in solidarity with homosexual couples, heterosexual couples – religious or not - might want to demonstrate their (moral) disagreement with the position of various religions on the matter of gay marriage by refusing to hold their nuptials (and civil partnerships) in churches or other religious contexts. They might also wish to refuse the term marriage. 

Of course those churches that wish to conduct gay marriages would be free to do so and, in the context of the approach outlined above, religions could move towards accepting gay marriage at their own pace (cf women clergy). In the mean time those amongst us who do accept marriage civil partnerships as a cultural institution that can be embodied by hetero or homo sexual couples can simply get on with our lives. Removed from the prescriptive realm of law the word marriage could then evolve culturally. In my view it should become restricted to religion and religious ceremonies as the cultural institution of marriage implies a particular form of presumably sexual relationship that the civil partnership should not necessarily be predicated upon. The civil partnership implies a similar form but is more open to change than the term marriage and can be preferred on these grounds. The arrangements I am arguing for might, practically, be unlikely to occur in the immediate future yet jettisoning the legal sanctioning of marriage, as opposed to civil partnership, would be another step in our cultural evolution that I have identified as being closely linked to feminism and the sexual revolution. What comes next would be up to ourselves. 

[1] Although I should perhaps note that I live in Northern Ireland.

[2] This being the case there is a perhaps another reason why the term partner began to be used. An increasing divorce rate meant that polite society needed to find a way to name the relationships of older individuals who, following a divorce, formed new relationships. Applying the terms boyfriend/ girlfriend would, I imagine, have seemed entirely inappropriate and somewhat judgmental when directed at an older couple in the company of married couples of the same age.