So, the Marriage Bill is returning to the House of Commons. Once again, it’s generating rather an extreme backlash, possibly because there’s no hope in this world. But people give a lot of reasons for opposing gay marriage, and I’d like to address some of them here. Partly because it’s an issue I feel quite strongly about, but also because, as a self-identified Philosophy Wanker, I get frustrated whenever people make really bad arguments. And these are bad arguments. This is hardly the abortion debate, where no matter where you stand and what you believe you really have to accept that both sides occasionally make very good points. But I haven’t heard a single argument in the long-running gay marriage debate that’s made me seriously question my thoughts on the matter, and to be honest I doubt I ever will.
Now, before you say to your monitor that this is because I’m narrow-minded and arrogant here’s a short list of some of the issues where I’ve seriously reconsidered my deep-seated opinions over the years: abortion, euthanasia, several feminist issues, utilitarianism, the concept of rape culture, free will, various trans issues, sweatshop labour, the music of Joanna Newsom, capitalism, and polyamory.
One last thing before I start: I recognise that many reasonable people oppose gay marriage, just for non-reasonable reasons. And I think it’s fine if your religion opposes gay marriage – I’m not arguing for your religion to spontaneously change, or for your opinions to spontaneously change, for that matter. However, I do think that your religious convictions in this case are irrelevant to the debate, and shouldn’t impact the rights of people of all genders to get married to whichever capable, consenting adult they choose, as I’ll explain below.
Here are some articles that I’ll be working from:
I’ve seen a lot of arguments against gay marriage, and I think that the views expressed in these articles are fairly representative of how many people feel. I’m not interested in picking out the minority of vicious, strongly-homophobic voices, or claiming that they represent everyone who opposes gay marriage, because that doesn’t help the debate. So similarly, I’d appreciate it if you could do me the favour of not claiming that I just want to destroy marriage and have it so everyone is legally obligated to marry their dog or a child or something.
So, some points:
1. Governments clearly do have the right to redefine marriage, and they have often done so in the past. If you don’t acknowledge the UK government’s right to redefine marriage then to be consistent you should rigidly oppose any attempt by the police or the courts to convict someone of marital rape.
2. Marriage has been redefined in the UK, and many other countries, countless times over the years. We no longer treat wives as a kind of chattel. We no longer allow people like Edgar Allan Poe to marry their 13 year-old cousin. We now enforce laws dealing with domestic violence. And the list goes on. These were huge social changes, often brought about by governments, and I’d bet that nearly all opponents of gay marriage accept these changes just fine.
3. If you don’t classify the above changes as redefinitions of marriage, then you have a weird understanding of the term ‘redefine’. Marriage used to be an institution where a 12 year-old girl could legally get married off for political or economic reasons, only to then be unable to exercise her own autonomy or refuse her husband sex or protect herself from domestic abuse. It’s now an institution largely focused on love and companionship between two equals. That’s a pretty big change, and if introducing same-gender couples into the mix constitutes a ‘redefinition’ then I can’t see how these changes don’t also.
4. If you point to the ancient practice of monogamous, heterosexual marriage as evidence of the value of the loving union of one man and one woman then you seriously need to learn more about the practice of marriage throughout history. Yes, the ancient Greeks practiced heterosexual marriage, but they also viewed women as inherently inferior, and they most certainly treated them as chattel to be used and traded. In fact, throughout much of recorded history across the world, women were treated as little more than particularly valuable Yu-Gi-Oh cards, albeit ones that knew how to sew. And in fact the Greeks viewed sexual relationships in a very different way from us. Sex was seen as a thing done by a dominant man to a submissive partner, whether that be a woman, an adolescent boy, or, to flout social convention, sometimes another adult man. There’s none of this ‘sex as an expression of love between one man and one woman under god within the confines of a loving marriage’.
5. Marriage as a union of one man and one woman is only a universal human institution if you ignore all the cultures that practiced and still do practice polyamorous marriage. Marriage as a union of one man and one woman is only an ancient tradition enshrined in the Bible if you ignore all the bits of the Old Testament where men, good men, had more than one wife.
6. If your religion doesn’t permit gay marriage then maybe your religion shouldn’t marry two gay people together. That may sound glib but It’s not. There are many things that are legal and socially accepted in this country that many religions don’t allow or recognise – divorce, for instance. We don’t make our laws based on christian teaching or purely religious conviction, and our laws have to apply to people who aren’t christian, and who don’t share such convictions.
7. I’ve never understood how changing the nature of marriage to include people of the same gender alters the marriage of heterosexual people. Yes, they will have the same rights as you, and yes, it will be called the same thing as your marriage. But I don’t see how that changes something substantive about your marriage other than forcing your adopted social institution to be associated with gay people. I have literally yet to see a single real argument to support this viewpoint.
8. For many people, like Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, their reasons for opposing gay marriage boil down to ‘”I have just never felt that this is what we should be focusing on”. If your entire basis for a political opinion is your gut feeling, then maybe don’t shout quite so loud about it.
9. People often say that marriage is partly about having children. In response, others quite rightly raise the issue of couples who don’t want children, or couples where one or both partners are unable to have children. This is generally countered with a vague, hand-waving comment about how people of the opposite sex are of the ‘types’ compatible for procreation, even if individuals are sometimes unable to have children. I don’t buy this response. First off, as far as I’m aware we never use this kind of thinking in relation to individual members of society anywhere else – it’s an ad hoc argument that doesn’t relate to how we actually think about society and social institutions. If I lose the mental capacity to make my own decisions, should I be allowed to make my decisions anyway, as I’m of a type (that is, an adult human) that is generally able to make its own decisions. This kind of thinking is arbitrary, and can only be applied arbitrarily. And that’s all assuming we can actually pick out inherently separate ‘types’ of people in the first place. And we’re not. We’re not talking about abstract tokens and types, and any division of humans into inherent ‘types’ is going to be arbitrary and inconsistent. And treating people as if they all fit neatly into distinct types like a square block going into a square-shaped hole is at best misguided, and at worst actively harmful. Learn to Third Wave Feminism.
10. In addition, I’d argue that marriage has historically been partly concerned not with having children, but with having sons. And not because of some inherent good that comes from having children, but because sons are the means of carrying on your line, and often the means of perpetuating your strength. Even up until the Victorian era, it can be argued that children were seen as the property of the father, and means of perpetuating his lineage. Furthermore, even when the focus is on having children in general there’s a lot of talk throughout history about the bearing of many children as a kind of offensive and defensive tactic against the spread and empowering of rival tribes or social groups, rather than an expression of love.
11. You can’t say that you don’t have a problem with gay people while simultaneously arguing that this redefinition of marriage will lead to the promotion of homosexuality and the gay lifestyle to children, as if that’s somehow a bad thing. Either gay people are fine, or they’re icky and gross. Pick a side.
12. If you don’t know how to tell your children about the existence of gay people and gay relationships then maybe the problem is with you rather than the capacity of your children’s minds to accept the possibility that a man might love a man, or that a woman might love a woman. You don’t have to like it, you just have to be able to tell your children that it’s there. I don’t like the fact that inequality and sexism and racism exist, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to try to shield my children from the fact that they exist. Also, it’s surprising how strong the overlap seems to be between people who claim they couldn’t possibly find the words to teach their children about homosexuality and people who strongly oppose schools from teaching children about homosexuality. A general rule of thumb: if your argument boils down to ‘we must halt the spread of knowledge to others’ then you’re probably on the wrong side of the argument.
12. We DONT’ need more people saying that we shouldn’t teach children about being gay. There are already too many children who are hurt and afraid and alone because of their sexuality without others adding even more stigma to the pot.
13. Gay couples adopting a child is another issue entirely, so stop using it as a reason to oppose gay marriage.
14. And if you don’t think gay people should be allowed to adopt children because ‘children need a loving mother and father’ then to be consistent you should argue that single people shouldn’t be allowed to adopt children (yes I know it’s an old argument). Also, should single people be able to raise their own children if they separate with their partner for some reason? I’m not sure there’s a good way to marry (yes, MARRY, A MARRIAGE PUN) those two ideas together consistently.
15. Gay marriage is a real issue for gay people. The fact that they have civil partnerships isn’t enough, and civil partnerships aren’t equal to marriage in any social sense. When we quickly conjure up a little ghetto to keep some people separate but equal from the rest of the population (read: from us norms) then those people are not equal. They get the same legal rights, but they’re treated and seen differently. This change might not have huge legal ramifications for gay people, but it still constitutes a massive change, and a massive improvement overall. It’s not all about legal rights, it’s about the way society as a whole treats you, and the introduction of gay marriage would be a huge declaration to the world, and to people throughout the UK, that things are changing on that front.
16. If you are gay and don’t want to get married please don’t argue that you can’t see why other gay people would want to get married as if that’s some kind of reason gay marriage shouldn’t be introduced. I don’t want to vote for the Conservatives, and I very much doubt I ever will, but if I was systematically disallowed from doing so I’d be pretty pissed.
17. This is going to be controversial (what am I like, eh?) but the slippery slope argument that goes ‘what next, polygamy?’ should merit the response ‘perhaps, so what?’ followed by the response ‘Oh, and you should probably say polyamory because of POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD.’ Again, what is the problem if more than two people decide they want to get married? Why does it negatively effect you, or society as a whole, and what right is it of yours to police other people’s happiness? These are questions we should seriously ask, and potentially answer, as a society. It’s not some smoke bomb we can throw into the debate to draw people’s attention from the issues we’re actually discussing. And it definitely shouldn’t be a topic we make scared, indignant noises about as if someone’s trying to feed us a spoonful of cinnamon.
18. The surprisingly common ‘this will lead to society going to the dogs’ argument needs to be stopped in all its forms. First of all, every generation ever has grown up and believed that things were better in the halcyon days of its youth. I’ve read US newspaper articles from the early twentieth century decrying the rise of dancing among the youth as a sign of society falling apart. Socrates was executed for corrupting the youth of Athens, for god’s sake. But the facts are that there is no connection between increasingly accepting attitudes to homosexuality and societal breakdown. Our attitudes towards homosexuality have gotten better and better over the twentieth century, and we’ve currently got the lowest crime rates ever. Similarly, we’re currently facing the lowest teen pregnancy rate since 1969, and similar things are true in the US, where teen pregnancy is down 42% since 1990.*
19. And what’s lacking in all these debates is evidence. There’s a lot of talk about gay marriage undermining the foundation of society but no one ever seems to bring cold hard evidence to the table when saying that. Where are the studies showing that gay parents make their children gay (also, why would the be a bad thing?)? Where are the studies showing that society’s going to the dogs? And if you show me a tiny, non-controlled, non-peer reviewed study funded by a society called ‘Centre for Marriage Protection’ or ‘Mothers Against Those Sorts’ I swear, man, I will freak out. Obviously, it’s hugely difficult to do these kinds of studies, and it’s even harder to actually draw meaningful results from them, because that kind of social research is a lot more fraught with issues than many other kinds of scientific research. But if you’re making grand, sweeping statements about societal impacts at least try to bring something other than your broad rhetoric and nostalgia for a lost youth to the table.
20. Some people argue that the introduction of gay marriage will irrevocably alter societal gender roles, thus contributing to the breakdown of traditional views of masculine and feminine. My answer to this is: GOOD, A THOUSAND TIMES GOOD. Traditional gender roles do nothing to help society, or individuals, and in fact do a whole hell of a lot to harm many, many people. We could do with a little shakeup now and then. Of course, that’s a whole different debate.
So there, that’s twenty thoughts for you. If you have any opinions, dissenting or otherwise, please feel free to share them in the comments section. Please also let me know if you think i’ve got my facts or my logic wrong in places – I’ll be genuinely glad for the opportunity to correct myself. But please be aware that in order to avoid a hundred thousand bots having conversations with one another about discount shoes and hardcore pornography the comments will need to be moderated before they appear on the site. I won’t delete your comment if you disagree with me, but I will delete it if you act all nasty, because while you have the right to be awful, you don’t have the inalienable right to vomit your awfulness all over my website.
* http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/04/01/most-americans-think-teen-pregnancy-is-getting-worse-most-americans-are-wrong/ (links are included in the article)