If you are anticipating (or dreading) a piece full of vitriol and quotes from various sacred texts condemning homosexuality, then you will be disappointed with what follows. The case I want to make against gay marriage here is not based upon any particular faith perspective nor, I hope, on unfounded prejudice. A strong and I believe persuasive argument can, I think, be made on the basis of reason, equity and democratic principles alone.
At first glance, the argument in favour of gay marriage looks persuasive and engaging. Roughly put, the case runs along the lines of the traditional argument over anti-discrimination and injustice. Like the rights of women, racial minorities and the disabled before, gay marriage is about promoting equality and opposing discrimination. But here we hit the first flaw in the argument. There is a fundamental difference between the rights of the groups just listed and the gay community. For all those in the first group, their status is imposed not chosen; the situation with sexuality is altogether more complex. There is not space here to go into a proper discussion of gay genes, and whether or not someone is ‘born gay’. Suffice to say, there are no finite conclusions and the accepted position is to view sexuality as a sliding scale rather than a black or white distinction, and that there are a number of factors that determine one’s position on that scale. A significant proportion of it is down to environment and even choice, rather than purely accident of birth. In short, people are born male, mixed race or with disabilities in a way that they are not born straight or gay. Why does this matter? Simply because it means the debate from the start is slightly different to the ones about full equality for other groups who have been discriminated against so wrongly.
Yet by itself that is hardly a clinching argument against gay marriage. Surely discrimination even against a lifestyle choice is to be opposed? Here we enter interesting territory, and the ‘separate but equal ‘argument. The key point is that we already have ample laws that protect the rights and interests of homosexuals. There is legislative equality in areas of employment, property rights, inheritance law and, more controversially, child adoption. A civil partnership, for example, confers equal legal rights to both partners, as marriage does to a husband and wife. Will homosexual couples be better protected legally by gay marriage? Equally, since heterosexual couples cannot enter civil partnerships, arguably it is discrimination against them to allow homosexuals alone a choice between marriage or civil partnership. In a modern liberal democracy, why not maintain different but equal categories for partnerships of intimacy? And, unlike the pre-civil rights USA, separate but equal in this case would actually be truth rather than fiction.
Yet what is it about the ancient institution of marriage that makes it so special, and best reserved for the two genders? After all, surely it has evolved and altered its nature radically over time. No longer can husbands beat their wives with impunity or even vice versa. Women no longer have to hand over all their financial resources to their husband upon marriage. Yet, crucially, although marriage, even its permanence, has evolved considerably in the last hundred years, gay marriage will do something crucial: it will fundamentally re-define it. For centuries, civilisations have recognised the importance and value to society of having an enduring and exclusive union between one man and one woman. Its uniqueness is that it embodies and reflects the distinctiveness of men and women; therefore, removing that complementarity from the definition of marriage is to remove any widely recognised social institution where gender difference is acknowledged. The distinctiveness of marriage will be lost forever. If gay, and thus ungendered, marriage becomes legal, make no mistake, we cannot treat it as a social experiment to ’see how it works out’. The change will be permanent, the consequences everlasting. We need to be absolutely certain that this is a move for the benefit of society as a whole, and the clear will of a significant majority of the population. This leads on neatly to another point: the absence of a democratic mandate.
Marriage is an institution ‘owned’ (if that is the right word) by us all, not by politicians. Yet a pledge to introduce gay marriage was not in the manifestoes of any of the main political parties in 2010. The public consultation was largely a sham, beginning with a ‘how’ rather than ‘whether’ question, which was only changed half way through the consultation. The online response was anonymous and open to people anywhere in the world as often as they liked. The final ‘result’ of 53%-46% in favour was only achieved by ignoring half a million names who very clearly said ‘no’. By contrast, a YouGov poll in March 2012 found 47% opposing and 43% supporting gay marriage. Even allowing for the fact that opinion polls and online consultations are not precise barometers of public opinion, I think everyone can agree there is currently no overwhelming support for this re-definition of marriage. It is arguably more about the current PM’s desperate attempt to modernise his own party’s image, and prove that it is not led by public school educated toffs out of touch with ordinary voters. The surge by UKIP (who incidentally oppose gay marriage while supporting civil partnerships) at the local elections recently, while undoubtedly part of a wider protest vote, is suggestive that Cameron’s tactic has backfired. Yet, in the end, does it really matter, can the consequences of re-defining marriage really be all that problematic? What is wrong with the ‘live and let live approach’?
Here we encounter the matter of unintended consequences. Firstly, how will those who continue to believe in traditional marriage be protected? Presumably, state funded schools will be required to teach both marriage options as part of the National Curriculum. What about teachers for whom that conflicts with their moral or religious beliefs? Will they be able to refuse to teach it or will they be forced out of a job? What about parental choice in the matter? Currently, and quite rightly, parents have the ability to have their children withdrawn from sex education and RE lessons. Will this extend to teaching about marriage and the family? Will the freedom to advocate traditional marriage be construed as a homophobic hate crime? What about council registrars who have a conscientious objections to same-sex marriage – will their rights be protected? Probably not, given that in a recent case the European Court confirmed that a public authority can force employees to act against their beliefs and sack those who resist. The case involved an Islington registrar who wished not to perform same-sex civil partnerships. The pro-gay lobby often speaks the language of liberalism, freedom and respect. The reality is that scant tolerance is shown to those who agree to disagree with them. The dangers of an intolerant liberalism loom large. There is also the danger of sleepwalking into even more radical re-definitions of marriage. If same-sex, why not multiple unions? Sounds absurd and Daily Mail alarmist? In the Netherlands, three-way partnerships have already been given legal recognition through a ‘co-habitation’ agreement. In Mexico City, two-year fixed-term marriages have been introduced. No need for divorce, just don’t renew the marriage, a bit like a magazine or club membership description really. Yes, once the Rubicon has been crossed, don’t expect same-sex to be the final destination in the overhaul of marriage. It might well become an institution devoid of any expectations of permanence or exclusivity. Finally on this point, same-sex marriage advocates argue it will strengthen not weaken the institution. Experience in other countries suggests otherwise. In Spain, overall marriage rates fell by 20% in the six years following the introduction of same-sex marriage, and a significant fall was also reported in Holland.
There is not space in this short piece to discuss the undoubted benefits to society of our existing definition of marriage, scarred and fragile as it is, or to mention the second order issues of the proposed legislation, such as what it says about adultery and non-consummation which will enshrine inequality between opposite and same-sex marriage. In summary, though, same-sex marriage is unnecessary, unwanted by the majority and will doubtless lead to unintended consequences. Be careful of what you wish for. As they frequently say in Dragons Den, ‘I’m out!’
This article was originally published in Portsmouth Point magazine, in July 2013
Read Jo Kirby's article supporting gay marriage here.