Defend Marriage

Years ago, I was asked to speak to an English group about the Scottish victory in repealing Section 28. The Labour government in the UK Parliament wanted rid of that monument to Tory homophobia, and they’d been frustrated once already by the House of Lords.

I spoke about the campaign funded by Brian Souter, hosted by the Daily Record, and fuelled by Archbishop Thomas Winning: and how it had been defeated by a simple majority of MSPs and a host of people suddenly turned activist by the billboards Souter paid for all over Scotland, to tell our families and neighbours and co-workers what hateful disgusting people we were. Brian Souter spent a million and he lost.

One of the things I remember from that meeting was a voice at the back from this stoutly-leftwing group of trade unionists and activists, saying angrily that Labour are the enemy. This was 2004, and I was not that keen on Labour myself at the time, but with regard to Section 28, that was foolish talk: we wanted Section 28 repealed in England and Wales, so did Labour, let’s take our allies where we can get them. There are some groups so vile they do not deserve to share a platform with civilised people, but none of the Parliamentary parties of the UK deserve to be categorised in that way.

Lifting the ban on marriage for same-sex couples is one of those obvious next steps on the road to equality. The right to marry is a basic human right protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Lifting the ban will end discrimination against trans people and their spouses – no more forced divorces: it will work towards ending international discrimination against same-sex couples (civil partnership and other non-marriage unions are not recognised internationally in the same way as marriage is): and it’s only fair. It’s equality.

The main “defense of marriage” argument involves redefining marriage.

Marriage is the legal recognition of a bond between two people, making them each other’s closest next of kin. It is a pledge to love, honour, and cherish each other until death. Marriage is a legal bond that requires court action to dissolve. Marriage is a human right necessary for the orderly pursuit of happiness.

Unless you are one of a small but vocal crowd of people who are determined to believe that marriage can only apply to a mixed-sex couple.

Sometimes they claim this outright as a religious belief. But the problem with that is that no one is arguing that they as religious people shouldn’t have the right to refuse to provide a religious wedding to couples who are banned from marriage in that religion. (Anyone who wants to argue that This Could Happen is required to find first an example of a rabbi refusing to wed a Jew/Gentile couple in the synagogue, and being sued for their refusal. Go on. We’ll continue without you. You will be some time.)

Sometimes they argue that marriage just is, just IS, for mixed-sex couples ONLY ONLY ONLY, and that’s what marriage means. When they have finished their temper-tantrumming one can point out that in a dozen countries around the world already, the ban on same-sex couples marrying has been lifted, so in fact marriage already means either mixed-sex or same-sex couples: the word has already changed meaning. The notion that same-sex couples should continue to be banned from marriage for the convenience of lexicographers would strike even lexicographers as a barmy idea.

Smarter anti-marriage campaigners will then move on to an argument that is quite complicated. They will claim first of all that it’s people who want to lift the ban on same-sex couples marrying who are “redefining” marriage, because what marriage really means and everyone just knows this, is an institution that’s all about having children, because of the complementary and interdependent way in which a man and a woman are just different and so marriage celebrates that difference and the State approves marriage for that reason and no other and it makes no difference if the mixed-sex couple can’t or don’t or won’t have children, they can still get married because they are complementary and this is the important thing.

And that, apparently, is what marriage has always meant. Anyone who thought that marriage was about people making a lifelong pledge to love, honour, and cherish each other is apparently trying to overcomplicate a very simple concept. See above.

But there’s a final and fairly small group of people who are also mildly opposed to lifting the ban on same-sex couples marrying. These are the lesbian and gay people for whom “separate but equal” satisfies; civil partnership is for same-sex couples, marriage for mixed-sex couples, there’s no reason to mix things up.

As a feminist, I’m aware that the concept “marriage” comes with a lot of baggage. I support entirely couples – mixed-sex and same-sex – who prefer to register a civil partnership. But I do not support people who find what suits them and want to make that the rule for everyone.

Ben Bradshaw was the first Minister to register a civil partnership.
Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP
He said about the Conservatives moving to lift the ban on same-sex couples getting married:

“This is pure politics on their part. This isn’t a priority for the gay community, which already won equal rights with civil partnerships. We’ve never needed the word ‘marriage’, and all it’s done now is get a bunch of bishops hot under the collar. We’ve been pragmatic, not making the mistake they have in the US, where the gay lobby has banged on about marriage.”

I agree that the Tories are doing this as a matter of “pure politics” – just as Ben Bradshaw is opposing it as a matter of “pure politics”. There are a small screaming minority who are hugely against the idea that same-sex couples should have the freedom to marry, but for most people in the UK it’s not a big deal: it’s just the liberal thing to do.

Liberal and fascist politics are at either end of a political spectrum. The basic concept of fascism is that individuals and families exist to serve the State. The idea expressed by the anti-marriage campaigners that the State approves marriage because married couples produce children is profoundly fascist. In Spain when the ban on same-sex couples marrying was lifted, in 2005, it was headlined – rightly – as part of the long road from Franco to freedom. This is not such an acute point of politics in the UK as it is in Spain, where the Catholic Church lost much political support among the grassroots by its support for Franco, but people who say David Cameron is doing this because it’s an easy way to show how liberal and nice the Tories are, are right: this isn’t politically costly for the Tories.

But it’s still the right thing to do.

Ben Bradshaw’s claim that

“This isn’t a priority for the gay community”

is false: repeatedly whenever LGBT people have been asked if they want marriage equality, as repeatedly they have said yes, lift the ban. The “equal rights with civil partnerships” are almost equal: there are small distinctions between marriage and civil partnership which can loom very large in some people’s lives.

Arguing that the word ‘marriage’ has got “a bunch of bishops hot under the collar” is true, but irrelevant. The bishops can get as angry as they like about same-sex couples getting married in Unitarian churches, or in liberal synagogues, or in Quaker Meetings, or in registry offices; but the bishops have no right to impose their religious beliefs on anyone who does not share them. The bishops are demanding restrictions on religious freedom. They can’t be allowed to have what they want.

Blaming “the gay lobby” in the US for the howling opposition of the Christian Right is pure nastiness. That the Christian Right has picked up “gay marriage” is the issue to fight on next to abortion is their problem with homophobia: it is not the fault of American LGBT activists, and I hope Ben Bradshaw realises by now that he shouldn’t have said anything so appalling.

Defend marriage. Redefine it from a basic human right to a privilege. Delete love. Replace with long and complex theories.

Yes, that’ll work.


Filed under LGBT Equality, Politics

2 responses to “Defend Marriage

  1. Personally, I think that marriage and civil partnership would be more sensibly merged than kept distinct, and should be purely matters for the state. Every couple, regardless of its sexual makeup, should be married by a secular registrar. If religious institutions want to perform their own ceremonies, that is up to them, but they should have no legal status. It works well in other countries (I have been to several in France).

    • Civil partnership now exists as a legally distinct relationship from marriage. It would be possible to uncreate it – to declare that people were no longer allowed to enter civil partnerships: and it would be possible (other countries have allowed this) to let people convert their civil partnership into marriage. But it would be awkward to declare that all civil partnerships from now on are marriage.

      The other difficulty with what you suggest is that people do, at present, have a right to get lawfully married in a religious ceremony. While this doesn’t mean a great deal to me, it obviously does to some people, and in general I’m not in favour of taking away people’s rights when they cause no harm to others and infringe on no other rights.

      And finally, it wouldn’t stop the homophobic Christians from complaining. They’re offended by other people treating LGBT people as human beings and requiring the same behaviour even from the bigots. Give in on one thing, they’ll want more.

      But most importantly, their complaint that some religions allow same-sex couples to marry in their faith and this ought to be stopped is something that should be opposed stringently by all who support freedom of religion. Which I do.

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