Sunday, 5 May 2013

Why the same sex marriage bill must pass

This was written for the politics website Shifting Grounds on 5th February 2013 and can be found here.

Today Members of Parliament will vote on the matter of whether same sex couples should be able to marry. With the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, not only will legal equality be reached only 46 years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, but another step will be taken to ensure that all people – gay or straight – can flourish in the most ordinary of ways. Gay marriage is not simply about the couples that want to be married, but it is about a shift in the life chances and dreams of all lesbians, gays and bisexuals. It is about ensuring that when people contemplate their future they know that marriage is an option, and that in one way at least, society no longer undermines the confidence of gay men and women.

Marriage is an institution we all come across, a marker of social life that may have lost its force somewhat, but that is still interwoven into the social world we grow up in. Nobody is an island, and no person can escape the messages and meaning that a society emits in its structure. Everyone lives in a world where marriage is everywhere. Usually one’s parents are married, friends get married, weddings are attended and popular culture swarms with news and fictional stories all about weddings, church bells and matrimony. When one section of society is barred from such a recurrent feature of social life – or their committed relationships are described and understood differently – society can manifest itself as a series of reminders that a minority’s loving relationships are somehow different and worth less.

Opponents of gay marriage put forward claims that marriage is a religious matter, or that marriage is solely for procreation or that God believes that marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. But such conceptions of marriage are mirages. If these people were serious about their interpretations of marriage then they would be protesting against the marriages of atheists and also of people who cannot or do not want children. Furthermore, they would have to somehow prove that their interpretation of marriage is true; whilst the religious groups who believe marriage can occur between two members of the same sex are wrong.  The last point is a salient one. With all the talk of religious freedom and the supposed threat posed by same sex couples to it, it is forgotten that there are religious groups who wish they were able to marry gay members. To prevent a religious group like the Quakers from realising their own interpretation of marriage curtails religious freedom.  It can be said that not allowing gays to get married damages religious freedom.

Some opponents of gay marriage believe that gays do not really want marriage but in fact the government is forcing a heterosexual template onto a group who would much rather live free from the demands and conformity of marriage. This is simply narrow-minded. Who are they to deny people who wish to settle down and call their partner ‘husband’ or ‘wife’?  Obviously it is the case that marriage is not for everyone, but it should be open to everyone.

The principle that individuals should be allowed to live how they want, as long as they do no harm to others, is a powerful one and has been effectively used to dismiss insidious and illiberal legislation. However, it is often used alongside the assumption that the action in question is undesirable. Someone who doesn’t like the idea of gays marrying, or at least thinks it is odd, may accept they are not really harming others, so gay marriage should be tolerated. Instead of asking society to merely tolerate homosexuality, this piece of legislation will advance the powerful argument that, in Alex Ross’s words, “abiding love cannot be a sin”. If people believe that marriage is a good, or that it can at least be a good for those who want it, then consistency entails that it is opened up to everyone. Gays should have as much right as anyone else to get married. The teenager, struggling to come to terms with the knowledge that they are gay, should know that society does not treat their nature as an immoral deviation.

For a very long time there will still be social, cultural and psychological barriers that make many gay lives and relationships more difficult. It is true that one piece of legislation is certainly not going to sweep away all the assumptions and prejudices of a society in which heterosexuality has historically been the norm and the moral standard. However, this bill is a step towards a future in which everyone can live how they wish, including the opportunity to publicly state their commitment to their partner in the same manner as the rest of society.

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