The Australian, 7 April 2012
Who could possibly oppose gay marriage?
These days only cranky men of the cloth come out in hives at the mention of it. Everyone else, liberal to conservative, thinks it is a fabulous idea.
In Britain, Tory prime minister David Cameron has become an active agitator for gay marriage. In Australia, despite Julia Gillard’s opposition to it, the Labor Party embraced gay marriage in a “conscience vote”.
Across the Western world, backing gay marriage has become a way of advertising your moral decency and modernness. As one British columnist put it, only those in the grip of the “sickening plague of bigotry” could oppose it.
Well, at the risk of putting myself on the side of evil in this culture war, I must say I’m concerned about the drive for gay marriage.
Not for religious reasons (I’m an atheist) and certainly not from an anti-gay standpoint, but for classically liberal reasons - because I think the gay-marriage bandwagon is bad for heterosexual married couples, and for homosexual couples too.
It’s bad for those who are already married because it is part of an inexorable drive to throw open the institutions of marriage and the family to state snooping and bureaucratic remodelling.
There are many reasons why political actors, including conservative ones, have become cheerleaders for gay marriage. It’s partly about distancing themselves from what are now seen as stuffy traditions and demonstrating that they are modern. And it’s partly about cultivating a new constituency: being pro-gay marriage wins you a sympathetic ear from the influential opinion-forming classes.
But politicians are also drawn to gay marriage because they recognise, sub-consciously, that it gives them a route into that long-time no-go zone of the family.
It is difficult to overstate the enormity of the changes being brought about on the back of gay marriage. For centuries, going back to Roman times, the family, which was largely founded on the institution of marriage, was seen as its own sovereign entity, free from the meddling of the sovereign who ruled society itself.
From the ferocious patriarchy of the Roman family to the idealised idea of the nuclear family in the 20th century, the institution of marriage and the units it gave rise to were considered deeply private.
They shielded people from the scrutiny of the state; they were “havens in a heartless world”, as Christopher Lasch put it. Where we’re all subject to moral regulations in the public sphere, through marriage, a public expression of commitment that gives rise to a private unit, people could fashion an institution in which they themselves created morality and forged relationships, free from state exertions.
Such was the power of sovereignty within the family that the rulers of society often borrowed from it in order to justify their authority. Kings and prime ministers referred to themselves as “Father of the Nation” in a nod to the ideal of family sovereignty that enjoyed such authority down the centuries.
Of course, politicians often felt an urge to interfere in family and married life, being instinctively suspicious of institutions that provided some cover from state prying. But they were never successful.
The drive for gay marriage could change that.
The attraction of gay marriage for politicians is that it fits neatly with their turn from macro issues to micro ones, from finding solutions to big social problems to getting stuck into what the British Labour Party calls “the politics of behaviour”.
Today, politicians who aren’t very good at traditional politics have given up trying to transform society in favour of reshaping the relationships, lifestyles and attitudes of those who inhabit it. Their gay-marriage agitation is a central part of that.
The usefulness of gay marriage as a tool for attitude re-modification can be seen in the way it is being used to redefine relationships and families in bureaucratic terms. So David Cameron’s consultation on gay marriage proposes erasing words like “husband” and “wife” in official documentation and replacing them with “partner” or “spouse”.
This has already happened in Canada, where gay marriage became legal in 2005. There, the words husband and wife, even mother and father, have been airbrushed from official life, superseded by soulless terms like “Parent 1” and “Parent 2”.
Such top-down rewriting of terminology is always about more than linguistic trickery. Rather it speaks to officialdom’s desire to overhaul meaning and reality itself. That such centuries-old identities as husband, wife, mother and father, which have profound meaning for millions, can be swiftly swept aside demonstrates the extent to which gay marriage is facilitating official interference into our lived experiences.
This is social engineering, the renaming of relationships to suit the prejudices of our rulers. It also acts as an invitation to yet more state interference. The reduction of historic identities like husband or mother to bureaucratic categories like partner and parent presupposes that bureaucrats have the right to define our relationships, and by extension to govern them.
After all, if you are no longer a mother, with all the moral meaning and historic protection such a title affords, but rather are “Parent 1”, then what is to stop the bureaucrats who bestowed that new title upon you from deciding that you aren’t doing a great job and that maybe Parent 2 or 3 or 4 should take over?
Allowing the state to redefine ancient, organic relationships is a short step from allowing it to police them.
The political thirst for gay marriage is underpinned by officialdom’s instinct to get a foot in the door of the family. It devalues marriage as it is currently constituted - in real life, not just in law - and, in an historically unprecedented step, it makes the sovereign of society into the sovereign of marriage and the family too.
The gay-marriage bandwagon isn’t only bad for married couples. It’s bad for gay couples too. For while it’s presented as a positive drive for equality, it’s actually motored by a very defensive clamour for state recognition of gay relationships.
A gay relationship is fundamentally one of romantic love, far more so than traditional marriage is (although that can have romance in it too, of course). But ours is an era which feels uncomfortable with romantic love, viewing it as naive, even as the site of abuse and harm. This means many homosexuals feel increasingly uncertain about their unions based on romance, on pure partnership, and feel compelled to wrap them in the legitimating comfort blanket of that respectable institution, marriage.
This ties in with another gay-activist tactic today: the search for evidence of homosexuality in the animal kingdom. Gay-rights spokespeople constantly claim, on the basis of dodgy science, that every creature from penguins to donkeys engages in homosexual behaviour, and therefore it must be natural.
This, too, represents a frenetic search for external legitimation of gay love. Gay activists defensively seek to naturalise their relationships through the use of pseudo-science and to normalise them through state recognition, through the demand for marriage. Both of these activities reveal a profound lack of confidence in the modern gay movement, which once simply declared: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”
There would be nothing positive about institutionalising gay marriage on the basis of a new defensiveness amongst gay people about their lives and loves. That would leave unaddressed the moral question of why romantic unions, of which gay ones are amongst the purest, seem lacking in confidence today.
Underlying the gay-marriage debate is a relativistic reluctance to distinguish between different kinds of relationships. Gay love is fundamentally a relationship between two people. Traditional marriage is not. It is a union between a man and a woman which very often, through its creation and nurturing of a new generation, binds that man and woman to a great many others, to a community. It is an institution, not a partnership.
Collapsing together every human relationship under a mushy and meaningless redefinition of “marriage” benefits no one. Except the political elites, who are so desperate to advertise their modernising zeal that they will ride roughshod over people’s identities if they think it will help them.
Read more of my articles for The Australian and other publications here.