Wednesday 9 April 2014

Gay Marriage 2: Personal Thoughts

Gay marriage became legal in England and Wales on 29 March this year.

I am a straight white male, which as John Scalzi has wisely observed, is the lowest possible difficulty setting in the game of Real Life. This doesn't directly affect me, does it? But I'm very glad gay couples can now have legal recognition of their love and commitment, and receive all the legal benefits which I do from my own marriage.

Two wedding rings
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Not everyone is so happy about this change.

I emphasised the word legal because this is a law passed by the British Parliament which allows particular individuals to enter into a formal, binding commitment together. The more excitable opponents of gay marriage would do well to remember that.

If a religious group thinks gay marriage is wrong and not a "real" marriage, it can continue to do so. Similarly, the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church do not recognise divorce, and believe the remarriage of a divorced person is not valid. That is their right, but it has no effect on the law of the land.

The Victorian ideal of marriage

Wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1840.
Source: Wikipedia

Many opponents of gay marriage complain that "redefining marriage" will, in some unspecified way, bring about negative consequences for society. Here are some other definitions of marriage which the UK has discarded:

  • A religious ceremony which must be carried out by the Church of England, not any civil authority or other religious denomination. Negated in 1836 by the Marriage Act, which introduced civil weddings.
  • A contract which lasts for life and cannot be legally dissolved. Negated in 1857 by the Matrimonial Causes Act.  (Divorces had taken place earlier, but each one required an individual Act of Parliament.)
  • A contract in which the woman surrenders all rights to her own property. Negated in 1882 by the Married Women's Property Act.
The UK made radical changes more than 100 years ago, in the Victorian era. Every time, there were dire warnings. The Bishop of Exeter sternly denounced civil weddings in 1836:

Not solemnized by the church of England, may be celebrated without entering into a consecrated building, may be contracted by anybody, and will be equally valid, whether it takes place in the house of God, or in the house of a registering clerk, one of the lowest functionaries of the state. The parties may take one another for better and for worse, without calling God to witness their plighted troth. No blessing sought; no solemn vows of mutual fidelity; no religious solemnity whatever …

In fact, marriage survived perfectly well. Men and women continued to fall in love, promise to live together and support each other, and receive legal protection for that promise. Now men and men, or women and women, can do the same thing. I see that as a cause for celebration, not alarm.


The protection of the law


Scales of justice
Source: Wikimedia commons


Legal protection may not be romantic, but it is important. My wife and I can jointly own property. If I am unlucky enough to be severely injured in an accident, my wife can visit me in the hospital. She can make decisions about my medical care. If I die, she will inherit all of my assets without any inheritance tax, and receive a share of my pension. These are our clear and unquestioned legal rights.

Now gay couples can claim the same rights. How is that meant to bring about the downfall of society?

What is marriage for?


From the perspective of married people, it is (or at least should be) about love, but what is the state's interest? From a cold-blooded utilitarian point of view, why does the law give any special status to marriage?

It is not simply because of the children. The rights of a married couple apply whether they have children together or not, and whether they are capable of conceiving children or not. There are plenty of married couples with no children, stepfamilies of different configurations, and couples with adopted children.

A demand that a heterosexual couple prove their mutual fertility before they were married would be rightly seen as barbaric. A man and woman can get married at the age of eighty and have exactly the same legal rights and responsibilities as at the age of twenty. So gay couples being unable to conceive children together is not an obstacle. (They have been able to adopt children since 2002.)

The conclusion must be that stable, loving partnerships are good for society in and of themselves.

Is a partnership of equal value when the two people involved are of the same sex? In legalising gay marriage, our society has decided the answer is yes. We all have the ability to love and contribute to a community, no matter where we fall on the Kinsey scale of sexual preference.

Newly married men kissing
One of the first same-sex weddings in the UK.
Source: BBC News

Protecting our civilization

I think in many cases, opposition to gay marriage comes from a belief that gayness should be discouraged. It comes from the same place as the infamous Section 28, which formerly banned the "promotion of homosexuality" in British schools. If only society could be sufficiently harsh to gay people, more of them would remain in the closet. In this school of thought, heterosexuality must be defended against the very suggestion that being gay is acceptable.

Opponents of gay marriage are becoming reluctant to say this openly, for fear of being seen as hateful bigots. I suppose that is a kind of progress, but this belief still exists, and I think it is responsible for vehement opposition to gay marriage.

This is not only cruel, it is ridiculous. Look around you, at the couples walking down the street. Look at dating websites. Look at at films, books, magazines, television, advertising. Straightness is alive and well, and it totally dominates our media.

Hunger Games: Catching Fire poster
A very successful film with no visible gay characters. Source: IMDB

Do you think I am exaggerating? Have a look at the highest-grossing films for 2013 in the USA.
  • In first place we have The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, grossing $424 million in the USA, whose main character is in a heterosexual love triangle. 
  • To the best of my knowledge, the top-grossing film with any significant gay characters is Dallas Buyers Club in 95th place, with $27 million. Even then, the main character is very much a straight man. 
  • The highest-placed film with a gay central character appears to be Blue Is The Warmest Colour, in 177th place with $2 million.
  • [EDIT]: The 2013 results for the UK are arguably "straighter", because Dallas Buyers Club wasn't released here until 2014. Unless you count Filth in 73rd place (which I personally don't, but I won't say any more for fear of spoilers), I don't know of any films with gay major characters until you reach Blue Is The Warmest Colour at number 152. Blue took just over US$1 million at the UK box office, compared to Despicable Me 2 in first place with $72 million.
I hasten to add these are all perfectly good films, but the heterosexual ones were a lot more profitable. Heterosexuality does not need to be protected by denying legal rights to anyone.

In particular, my own marriage does not need this kind of protection. My love for my wife is not in any way diminished because gay couples can now get married. I am personally insulted by any suggestion that it could be. It makes me very angry.

So as it turns out, the debate on gay marriage has a small direct effect on me. It causes ignorant people to insult me and my marriage. Well, let them do so. These individuals who purport to be defending heterosexual marriage do not represent me.

Best wishes to all the gay couples getting married, now and in the future.

Rainbow flag
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Previous post on this topic: The Church of Obfuscation

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