In response to the debate that I have been having with commenter “Greg”, beginning here and then moving here, I thought that I would do a quick thought exercise to explain why I do not necessarily support the reforms to the Marriage Act that are being advocated by Greg, Labor left, the Greens and various other such groups.
1. The “equality” paradigm
The way that the gay marriage lobby is trying to frame the debate is “marriage equality”. The use of “equality” to push their agenda is an obvious choice given where they are coming from — fighting for “equality” for groups including homosexuals is something that people on the left are used to doing, so framing the discussion this way allows gay marriage to easily form a part of their broader agenda.
I am not entirely convinced by the “equality” idea, however. “Equality” implies that there is some form of inequality currently being perpetuated through the marriage legislation. In terms of actual rights afforded, the current marriage laws to not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference as the gay marriage lobby claims. Anyone can currently get married — homosexual or not.
The real issue is not that homosexuals are being prevented from marrying, it is that the definition of “marriage” refers only to couples comprised of one man and one woman, and so does not encompass homosexual couples. Introducing same-sex marriage into the Marriage Act would not be ending discrimination, it would be redefining the idea of marriage and introducing a meaning that “marriage” has never before had.
This is where the conservative argument comes from — they place a huge amount of value in marriage as it is and they do not want to redefine it.
2. Placing a value on marriage
Bearing this in mind, the point that the gay marriage lobby will raise (as Greg did) is that it is discriminatory for society to place more value on heterosexual couples than on homosexual couples and that, in being denied the right to be a “married couple”, homosexual couples are being told that their relationship is not worth as much.
This argument relies on the premise that a relationship is inherently of higher value if it is registered as a “marriage” with the state than if this is not the case. This is where I take issue.
3. The alleged primacy of state marriage
I do not see how being married by the state makes a relationship more valuable. There are many couples who are not formally married but have lived together happily for decades and are “married” for all intents and purposes, as there are many couples in “sham” state marriages for some kind of benefit. I see the former as far more valuable than the latter.
I gave Greg the example of a Jewish couple that I know who decided not to be married by the state because they believe that God and not the government is the appropriate authority under which Jewish couples should marry, and I tend to agree with them on that.*
Greg was repeatedly mentioning the importance of marriage in society and seemed to believe that I was dismissing this by not placing value in state marriage. This is where we fundamentally differ on the issue — he is unable to distinguish “society” from the state, whereas I do not recognise the state as an entity with any legitimate place in marriage. When he saw that I did not want the Commonwealth to grant licenses to conduct marriages, he assumed that I meant that the States would grant these licenses instead and did not seem to grasp that I was arguing for these licenses to never be granted.
4. Gay marriage, marriage equality and marriage freedom
To summarise: the debate is about redefining marriage under the law, the argument for doing so rests on the idea that state approval gives a relationship higher value, however it is not legitimate for the state to be accepting or not accepting peoples’ relationships as valid. If you accept these premises, you should be able to understand why I am not particularly supportive of the idea of codifying same-sex marriage — doing so would only further entrench the idea that the state should be the entity that decides whether or not my relationships are valid and I fundamentally oppose that idea (clearly, it should be Facebook).
As usual in such debates, the two sides are talking past each other — one is fighting a rights issue and the other is fighting to defend an institution that is extremely important and meaningful to them. The unusual fact about this one is that there is a solution that would allow both sides to have what they want. Why would anyone want to fight for one that would only continue to be divisive?
And more importantly, WHY DOES IT MATTER WHAT THE GOVERNMENT THINKS ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP???
*UPDATE: just a thought, but maybe the current value placed on state marriage is a remnant of the time when the state was thought to be the embodiment of a Sovereign that was appointed by God. Our current system does come from when the Henry VIII made himself the head of the Church of England so that he could have the power to marry and divorce instead of the Pope.
In a way, it’s a subtle means of not allowing Church to truly separate from State.