“Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”
This is the question being asked of Australians in a plebiscite currently occurring (September 2017). As one person on Facebook astutely pointed out, it’s meant to be a private poll, not an opportunity to convince others of your opinion or to make judgements of anyone who votes a particular way. But nevertheless, emotions and feelings are high on both sides and the issue is being brought up regularly. For many (on both sides), the answer appears to be obvious and anyone who disagrees is automatically a terrible person in their eyes. People are entitled to take this attitude but it seems to reflect a rather fascist way of looking at things, not especially compatible with democracy (at least not when the majority disagrees with them).
Certainly discussion is an important and valuable tool for exchanging knowledge and ideas, but only if it’s constructive and two-way. Unfortunately, as with so many political questions, this is rarely the case. People talk past each-other, arguing on completely different levels, making different implicit assumptions and frequently misunderstanding each-other as well as the question itself. Before one becomes adamant or passionate about a point of view, it is wise to be informed. I will try to break down the question as best I can.
Firstly, religion cannot be used as a basis for making decisions politically or otherwise. Religious beliefs may affect the values, attitudes and opinions of some people but ultimately we have to judge those outward qualities on their own grounds. If you think homosexuality is bad, you can’t “prove” it by pointing to the bible. You need to justify why it’s bad based on facts and logic.
Secondly, the question has nothing to do with “love”, “equality” or “rights”, no matter how often these words may be brought up or in how passionate a context. Using such terms is an effective way to present the issue as being one-sided and hardly worthy of a second thought. Who can possibly be against “gay rights”? Only bigots. Anyone who votes “no” must be a bigot and worthy of derision or social ostracism. I’ll go more into these terms later.
Many view marriage as a traditional bond between a man and a woman and feel that any change to that fact introduces risk or some kind of slippery slope where other structures can easily be modified or torn down. This is a valid point of view. Indeed, it’s very foolish to take a structure which has existed for a long time and casually change its meaning, without first carefully considering the possible effects, including those which might not be obvious or take immediate effect. Laws develop over time and behaviours adjust surrounding them.
For example, the welfare state in the US was greatly expanded starting in the 1960s with one of its main purposes being to help single mothers. An unintended side-effect has been to incentivise single motherhood, the rates of which have sky-rocketed. Among blacks especially (representing a poorer minority, more sharply affected), the trend has been extreme – children born out of wedlock went from about 22% in 1960 to 72% in 2010. The point here is merely that negative unforeseen side-effects were caused by a new policy. Changes in laws can have drastic effects not planned in the first place. We can’t assume that a change in marriage laws is good or bad, it needs to be analysed.
Much of the problem with this whole debate originates in the concept of conducting affairs via the government. It means that people get in each-others faces over things because everyone has a stake in it – it’s one size fits all (marriage in this case). If you change it, you offend those who value its traditional meaning and if you don’t, many will feel you’re promoting intolerance and inequality – there’s no way to appease both sides. On the other hand, when free markets are allowed to operate, various different things can co-exist and people can go about their business. “¿Porque no los dos?”
I’m strongly against bullying and discrimination in general. But it’s important to recognise that marriage was never a “right” in the first place. It’s a specific type of bond endorsed by the government – a union between a man and woman, capable of independently producing children (and in that way fundamentally different from a homosexual union). In fact, it usually consists of limitations, rather than enhanced opportunities. For example, progressive tax rates mean that paying tax as a combined individual is substantially more expensive than as two separate people. Also, since everyone will grow up to be a man or woman, everyone can legally get married. The definition is not against gays or lesbians, nor does it attempt to judge or suppress people. Who is anyone to change this long existing definition of marriage?
Some may point out that this hasn’t always been the “definition”. For example, the Australian 1961 Marriage Act, did not originally specify marriage as between a man and a woman and only in 2004 was this amended. But this was simply a matter of clarification. The definition of marriage before then was based on common law and had been consistently practised as only applying to heterosexual couples. If a law doesn’t explain what a “shirt” is, that simply means that the definition is felt to be clear. In the case of “marriage”, it has been similarly clear throughout history.
“Marriage equality” is a confusing concept. Should cousins be allowed to marry? Three or more adults? Children? Of course, the question being presently considered only applies to same-sex couples but by making an argument on the basis of “equality”, these various alternate forms of marriage come to mind. Which of them should be valid? How far shall the grand virtue of equality take us? Should women be able to use male toilets at will in the name of equality? Can men get maternity leave? Do they not have the “right” to such a thing? If a company designs a toy geared towards girls, is it discrimination if they don’t also produce an equivalent which is intended for boys? Shall all things be made equally accessible to all people regardless of the original intention or purpose of the thing?
But surely LGBT people can fall in love and/or raise families, right? I agree. However, I don’t think that that by itself justifies changing an existing structure. I would not presume to generalise about who makes better parents on average between straight or gay couples, indeed there may be no difference. But we mustn’t assume that they are equally effective a priori even if its politically correct to do so. In any case, this brings me to two options which I’m in favour of:
1) Simply create a separate “gay/lesbian marriage” as an official recognition of the existence of homosexual love/partnerships/families in modern society. It needn’t replace nor overlap with traditional marriage but offer many of the same basic functions. Over time, the laws and behaviours surrounding it can evolve without causing the dismantling of the existing traditions which many value.
2) Better yet, the government should get out of the marriage business entirely. Let any consenting adults sign contracts and have ceremonies and celebrations (religious or otherwise) however they like. Don’t try to incentivise certain kinds of unions, but let people be free to do what they want. Nobody has to be forced to recognise other people’s ceremonies.
So what’s my answer? Should the law be changed? Well, I don’t think the definition of marriage should be changed – it is what it is. But either a new law can be introduced or we can hand the whole process of marriage over to a nation of free individuals who decide their own fates without having to stamp their vision of the world or what marriage truly means on others.