“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 – it’s hard to escape.
For many, the answer appears to be obvious. Mediocre thinkers like myself can only dream of being so knowledgeable as to reach conclusions so effortlessly. But in addition, a lot of the same people choose to go the extra step of labeling anyone who disagrees with them as a “bigot”, among other less-civilised terms. This is ironic since their behaviour is a textbook example of bigotry based on most definitions: “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions” (Merriam-Webster). 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). Is their no value in discussion? In attempting to persuade another or allowing someone else to persuade you?
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 “homophobes”. Anyone who votes “no” must be against “equality” and hence worthy of lecturing, insults and 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 more expensive than as two separate people (this may not apply in Australia, although there are other financial effects). 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.
Now hang on, interracial marriage was illegal in certain places and times throughout history. Surely it was right to change marriage back then so why not again now? Shouldn’t we continue to move forward? Well I don’t think the concept of marriage itself ever originally limited the races of the people involved. There have been extra layers of racist laws in the past and yes, it was good for those limitations to be removed. Also, race doesn’t have clear lines. There’s a continuum of people between any two races which you name. But the sexes are discrete and functionally different. In addition, their roles in society are different, for better or worse.
“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? Perhaps it should be two consenting adults. Well, that sounds reasonable but you have to be clear about that at the outset. And if it can be changed once, who’s to say it won’t change again? There are a lot of laws prohibiting smoking in many places. These didn’t come all at once, they came bit by bit. Had some people known exactly where it was all leading, they might’ve had a different opinion.
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?
Suppose there were laws for houses but no laws for apartments. Shouldn’t people who own apartments have the same “rights” as those who own houses? Well, yes there should probably be some similar laws. But houses and apartments are not the same, nor is one “better” than the other. There may be small houses which are almost like apartments or spacious apartments which feel like houses. But a few key facts would keep them as different entities. Should the exact same laws apply to both or should a similar set of laws apply to each with the potential to evolve differently? Even if I can’t name a specific problem that transferring all the laws from housing to apartments would cause, that doesn’t change the fact that it is unwise and probably better to make some adjustments.
Similarly, there are laws for straight couples but not quite the same ones for gay couples. Should we transfer them across? Some straight couples can’t have children or might be terrible parents. A gay couple might adopt kids or use a scientific method to produce children and end up being great parents. There is overlap between the two groups. But nevertheless, they are functionally different. Hetero couples are far more likely to have kids. Is domestic abuse going to have the same patterns in a homo couple? In a lesbian couple, both “mothers” can be pregnant at the same time, while in a gay couple, neither “fathers” can ever be pregnant. Two gay men may earn a fair amount more than a straight or lesbian couple in many cases. It’s not clear to me that applying laws and practices which have developed over decades to new groups of people is wise or will have no unexpected side-effects.
Another analogy is toilets. We have separate male and female toilets. But female toilets don’t discriminate against men, they’re just not designed for them. The current system allows the toilets to tailor to their users – male ones have urinals, female ones have tampon disposal units. Those features are pretty redundant to the opposite sex. It’s beneficial to most of the population to keep them separate. And one isn’t better or worse than the other. If only male toilets existed, women might be quite annoyed and ask for access. We could then either open up the toilets to women or create separate toilets just for women. I think the latter is the better option.
Some seem to see marriage as being just about love. Well, in that case, I don’t doubt the love that can exist between two men or two women. But I’m sceptical about whether that’s all that marriage entails, in laws and in behaviours. I don’t think laws should be changed on the basis of making people happy or to give them “acceptance”. I don’t look up to married couples nor do I look down on gay couples. Should we make a law that all black people must be referred to as “professor” in order to give them a boost in social standing? Think of all the happiness that would create for black people!
There are two options which I’m generally in favour of:
1) 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 disrupting the practices relating to straight couples.
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 or reward or recognise certain kinds of unions, but let people be free to do what they want. Nobody has to be forced to attend or acknowledge or support other people’s ceremonies but everyone has to abide by the law. Private lawyers could offer packages based on the common needs of various kinds of partners so that they can quickly and efficiently get all the “rights” from each-other which they desire.
So either a new set of laws should be introduced or we hand the whole process of marriage over to a nation of free individuals. We decide their own fates without having to stamp our personal vision of the world or what marriage truly means on others.