Author’s note: warning for length. There is a lot to say about this matter, and I have only said half of it. This is as short as I could make it.
Today is a big day. The vote on equal marriage will be taken in the Commons. I am shouting and hoping and waving my hat in the air.
Those against it have been wheeling out the big guns, in the last few weeks. The arguments in opposition become more and more labyrinthine and tortuous, as if trying to cloak in intellectual respectability the suspicion that gay people are somehow other, somehow less than. They, say the dissidents, have civil partnership; surely that is enough? The clear implication is that full marriage is the gold standard, and must be kept for The Straights, who are better and proper and thus rewarded.
History, society and religion are cited, in support of the antis. All of these pillars are shaky ones, propping up arguments which are contradictory, threadbare and often riven with category errors.
Here are the big three:
1. Marriage is designed for the procreation and protection of children. The Gays cannot have children, so they cannot have marriage.
There are so many holes in this I do not know where to start. If this argument were to hold, the barren, the old and the bolshily child-free would be banned from marriage. Partnerships only for you, childless idiots.
It is also ahistorical. Over many different cultures and many different historical periods, marriage has been used in a bewildering variety of ways. The emphasis has varied from the political to the economic to the tribal.
Toddling infantas were betrothed to beardless princes, to seal mighty alliances or avert wars. The great families of Britain married each other to maintain their green acres and their social position. In the nineteenth century, with their fortunes depleted by intemperate card games and unwise investments, the aristos all rushed off to America and got the daughters of robber barons to keep up their tottering stately homes. Edith Wharton wrote The Buccaneers on the back of this trend; Blenheim Palace would not be standing today if it were not for bags of American cash.
The very existence of the dowry illuminates the economic aspects of marriage. Whether a lady came with a barouche and ten thousand a year, or two oxen and an ass, her economic value was carefully weighed.
As for the much-vaunted little ones, historically marriage was often not so much seen as an institution for the protection of children, but for the hard-nosed production of them, whether it was to carry on the family name, to till the fields and mind the crops, or to look after the parents in their old age.
In other words, it has always been a cultural construct, swaying with the prevailing winds of the zeitgeist. To present it as some universal fixed mark is disingenuous and empirically incorrect. You only have to read Jane Austen to see that.
2. Marriage is the union of a man and a woman. IT SAYS SO IN THE BIBLE.
The amount of people who have suddenly become biblical literalists is one of the most astonishing aspects of this whole argument. Is one to assume that they are going to recommend following the Bible’s instructions to stone adulterers to death, to kill anyone found working on the Sabbath, and to ban coats made of two different cloths? (If you are going to go the whole hog, you may also not breed together two different kinds of cattle, nor plant your fields with two different seeds. STOP IT NOW, you heathen cow-breeders.)
Religions redefine themselves the whole time. Our state religion was actually predicated on the redefinition of marriage, when Henry VIII broke with Rome because of an unstoppable yearning for Anne Boleyn. Divorced people, once cast into outer darkness by the Church of England, may have their second or even third marriages blessed in religious ceremonies. Slavery is now universally regarded as a Bad Thing. Yet it figures prominently in the Bible, with a set of detailed rules, such as this, from Exodus:
‘When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl's owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife.’
Don’t even get me started on Leviticus.
3. Changing the nature of marriage will weaken this vital institution.
There is a rider to this, which is that it is not up to the government to rewrite the rules of marriage. Once again, I refer you to Henry VIII.
I genuinely do not understand this argument. The implication seems to be that the very moment the pesky gays are allowed to say I Do, the good straights will look again at their own unions and find them wanting. Their cherished ceremony will somehow seem shoddy and sullied, because homosexuals have been allowed into the club. This is not a very happy reflection on the state of marriage. It suggests that it is such a fragile flower that it is only worth something if it is confined to heterosexuals.
In reality, here is what will happen to heterosexual people. NOTHING. Their lives will go on exactly as before. If they have gay friends and family, they will have the keen pleasure of going to more joyful weddings. If they believe in equity, they will have the delight of knowing that their fellow humans are not being discriminated against. If they are in the curious position of having no non-heterosexual friends or relatives, their daily life will be completely unaffected. The paper their marriages are written on will not suddenly be torn up. Their commitment to each other and to the institution in which they believe will have no less validity.
That is all the negative stuff. Here is the positive. The sum total of human happiness will be added to, if the law is changed. No longer will a group of people be told that they are somehow lesser or other. It’s easy to get lost in the thickets of sexual preference. Take a step back, and you realise that people are people. They love, mourn, celebrate, hope, just the same.
The horrible idea of the ‘gay lifestyle’, so often cited by the antis, is a smokescreen which masks the universal heart. It’s not all show tunes and comfortable shoes and Heaven on a Saturday night, or whatever it is which the critics believe that they favour.
I talk about this a lot, when it comes to cultural divisions or national ones or gender ones, when it comes to putting different groups into tight little boxes. It is that there is much, much more that unites humanity than divides it. If you cut us, do we not bleed?
I really believe that most people, all over the world, want most of the same important things: to love well and be loved in return, to feel that their lives are of some usefulness, to do no harm, perhaps to add something to the increments of human happiness. Call me an old hippy if you like, but I think this is true.
To carve off a slice of the human family and say you are other, you may not have the thing we have, is, in my opinion, idiotic and wrong. It also has no utility: it does not make anyone more happy, it simply makes some people less happy. It does not live up to my William Morris rule: it is neither beautiful nor useful.
Some people ask me why I get so exercised about this. I was asked the other day. I replied, hotly, without even thinking: It is because I hate unfairness and I hate cruelty. Cruelty is a strong word. It came out of my mouth, unprompted. Perhaps it is too strong. But I would say, with my calmer head on, that to deny marriage to someone on the basis of sexuality is unfair and unkind, and I can see no good in that.
Love is love, is what I always come back to. What will change, if this new legislation is passed? There will be more fairness. There will be more celebrations of love and commitment. There will be more happy people. How can anyone be against that?
And now, obviously, I am going to go and put some flowers in my hair.
The dreamy face of my lovely mare:
Mr Stanley with his big sticks:
Here is someone making the argument with much more pith and grace than I:
By David Shankbone, under Wikimedia Commons.
And when I want to go straight to the heart of the matter, and it is all about the heart, I think these smiles say more than my words ever could:
By Bev Sykes, under Wikimedia Commons.
Unknown photographer, Wikimedia Commons.
Those last two tell different stories. The first is of a couple who have been waiting for over 30 years to marry. They live in Sacramento. At the moment, the right for same-sex couples to marry in California is up before the Supreme Court.
The second is of a couple in Canada, where equal marriage is legal. As far as I know, Canadian society has not fallen apart. I imagine they still have politeness, and hockey, and The Mounties. (You see there are absolutely NO cultural stereotypes on this blog, oh no.)
One more thing, and then I really will stop. When I first started writing about this, I called it gay marriage. I now call it equal marriage, not because I am some crazed politically-correct zealot, but because language matters, and that is what I believe it is.
The debate is starting now in the House. I cry, from the wilds of Scotland – come on, Honourable Members, do the right thing and vote Yes.
PS. So sorry, there really is one more thing. Since I stopped being tribal, I judge all politicians on individual issues rather than broad ideology or party. On this issue, I salute the Prime Minister. I suspect his stalwart support of equal marriage may be strategically astute in the long term, but it is causing him huge tactical headaches at the moment. It would have been easier for him if he had quietly dropped it, and avoided the howling fury of a lot of his party. I think he gets great credit for sticking to his guns.