With the UK Government’s marriage consultation underway and the USA’s snowballing momentum on gay-marriage laws it seemed fitting that I should contemplate my own position on gay-marriage. Not to mention that I have seen, listened to and taken part in a number of debates on gay-marriage but never made my opinion explicit, therefore this may be as much as a journey for me as I hope it will be for you.
Rather than responding to the conventional arguments against gay-marriage that you would usually read in the media, I am concerned with the anti-assimilationist perspective that derives from some strands of LGBT liberation and Queer theory (although I do often position myself within these perspectives for the most part). For a very clear and well articulated argument from this position I recommend reading Kieran Burn’s blog post written at the end of 2011.
It was not very long ago that I would have argued against gay marriage for many of the reasons Kieran so eloquently described, although it is both my studies at University and my long term international relationship which has evolved my perspective.
Is marriage an oppressive institution?
What surprised me about the gay-marriage debate was the amount of focus paid to religious claims of the “long history” of the “sanctity” of marriage. This was because for a while now I have been aware of how marriage itself has predated any religious claims. By tracking the concept of marriage as far back as ancient Rome it is clear to see that marriage for the most part has been more of an economic agreement rather than a romantic affair. In fact, it was only after the 10th century when Christian ceremonies could take place inside a church and then the 13th century when a priest took charge of the proceedings. In addition, the 16th century brought with it the Protestant reformation which then rejected the church’s involvement, arguing that it was strictly a government issue. So the idea of marrying for love is a fairly recent phenomenon.
The point I am trying to make here, is that marriage as an institution predates any religious stranglehold and certainly predates modern capitalism; therefore it would be unwise to reduce such a complex history to a neat blueprint which was recently designed by capitalists to necessarily oppress certain groups.
I do recognise, however, that throughout history women have consistently faired a lot worse in marriage than men. But to automatically associate marriage as an oppressive institution would not only ignore the historical structural and cultural changes but also undermine the individual agency that people have, presuming that they are unwittingly duped into an oppressive regime. Research has demonstrated that the nuclear family, despite being a popular paradigm, was never truly as prevalent as sociologists once made out. I believe that marriage has been infused with a larger system of patriarchy, rather than a route cause of it.
Marriage then should not be seen as a ubiquitous container of oppression, but rather as a social construction which is classified and perceived by a specific moment in time. It has consistently evolved and will continue to do so, therefore I argue that by allowing many LGBT individuals to get married would not assimilate them into a hetronormative culture. Instead, it would reappropriate the meaning attached to marriage and once again evolve the institution into a new age.
Who wants to get married anyway?
Following on from the argument that I have thus far made about religion’s recent claims to marriage, it no doubt plays a large role on people’s everyday realities and perceptions of what marriage is to them. Therefore allowing gay-marriage would allow a substantial amount of religious LGBT individuals the right to practice their relationship in line with their faith.
In addition, marriage is a globally recognised phenomenon which allows couples the right to apply for citizenship in the country their spouse is located. This is all too familiar in my case since my boyfriend lives in the United States, a country where federal laws would not allow my migration to America based upon marriage.
What this amounts to, is that to argue gay marriage is just a case of semantics is to ignore the real implications that the term has on actual people’s lives. To be recognised as ‘married’ carries a global significance. Marriage is a civil right – not an expectation – therefore we need not worry that the entire LGBT community will be swallowed up by the hetronormative beast. Many LGBT couples, like straight couples, will decide not to get married.
What I hope this argument does, is bring to light the complexity that the marriage debate has. That it has no claim to religious “sanctity,” nor to any modern capitalist endeavour and does not necessarily bring with it any innate oppressive features. I truly believe that the efforts made for equal marriage will bring a new level of global recognition to LGBT relationships, will help to reinvent the concept of marriage, as well as drastically improving the lives of so many individuals who wish to marry, not just civil partner.