Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A big day. Or, in which I get serious about equal marriage.

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.

 

Today’s pictures:

5 Feb 1

5 Feb 2

5 Feb 3

5 Feb 5

5 Feb 6

5 Feb 7

The dreamy face of my lovely mare:

5 Feb 10

Mr Stanley with his big sticks:

5 Feb 15

5 Feb 16

The hill:

5 Feb 20

 

Here is someone making the argument with much more pith and grace than I:

New York City from Wikimedia Commons David Shankbone

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:

couple_Sacramento waiting 31 years to marry Wikimedia Bev Sykes

By Bev Sykes, under Wikimedia Commons.

Wedding Canada 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.

19 comments:

  1. Keep shouting. It amazes me that people think the bible says marriage is for one man and one woman when it clearly also discusses polygamy.

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  2. I love this post. I can't wait until we don't need to call it gay marriage or equal marriage and can just call it marriage as that is the heart of it.

    Love this. Love it, love it.

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  3. Here! Here! Equal marriage for all!!!!!

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  4. Yes! Absolutely agree. Marriage here in Massachusetts is still surviving, straight and gay alike.

    Love the name change to Equal Marriage, too. Language definitely does matter.

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  5. Thank you very very much for this glorious post, Tania. Yes! Yes! Yes!

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  6. I'm with you, Tania.

    P.S. Every woman comes to marriage with one ass, and often leaves the altar with two.

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  7. Marvelous post, thank you.

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  8. Beautifully written and absolutely absolutely right.

    And for all the arguments I have for it, I am so disappointed that I have to. All it really comes down to, in the end (and as you say), is that love is love is love. Why can some people not see that?

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  9. Very excellently said. Thank you.

    Thank you also for the picture of Stanley with his stick.

    And finally, a belated happy birthday to you x

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  10. We wanted our wedding vows to change from "between a man and a woman" to "between two people" and were told it wouldn't be legal. Rather miffed. So totally with you on this one. People love, there is no divide. Fingers, toes and eyes crossed for the outcome on this. And hoping rather fiercely that sense will prevail in Australia as well.

    Good to see Stanley enjoying his sticks and even better to hear (yesterday) that he is able to be left with someone else and not feel devastated.

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  11. I just wish I had written that. Thank you!

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  12. One of your best. Thank you. (Also, it looks like you win!) I like "equal marriage," and I think I may start using it.

    One of my oldest friends got married to her girlfriend in WA state in November and while I did not attend the wedding, the photos alone ought to have been enough to demolish any stupid ideas about non-heterosexual marriages being "less than." You never saw two people more in love.

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    Replies
    1. In my excitement I wrote "looks like you win" but I really (am ashamed to say) have no grasp of how laws are made in the UK, and further research reveals that there is yet further to go, but you do win the first step!-- but I am compelled to note this idiotic quote from MP David Burrowes: "We do respect the equal value of men and women, but surely that doesn't avoid us looking and celebrating difference, and marriage is a great way of celebrating the difference between a man and a woman." Ladies and gentlemen, a man who has utterly missed the point of the phrase "celebrating our differences."

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  13. Love, love, love this! Thank you for writing it so beautifully. Will be taking 'equal marriage' and running with it! Sorry for the exclamation marks, bit excited by all my yes-ing as I was reading! xx

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  14. Won the first step - here we are trying to decriminalize homosexuality so how far more to go.....

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  15. I was also going to say: YAAAAAYYY! You've won by an apparent landslide -- until I read Ellie's comment.

    As for the rest, I think (hell, KNOW) I've gotten incredibly lazy in my older age. I simply repeat what several of my happily married friends have said: If you don't believe in same sex marriage then don't marry someone of the same sex. Period.

    Seriously, I think everything behind being against this is religion-driven. (Take the latest spoutings from the States about America being a CHRISTIAN country. So much for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution!)
    As someone who has a very personal & eclectic belief system, I don't want anybody telling me how to live my life according to (their interpretation of) the Bible -- or the Koran...or anything else "religiously-based".

    Ahhh. And I wasn't going to go on....

    PS Marcheline: May I use your one ass/ two asses comment? I LOVE it.

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  16. P.S. LOVE what happened with the purple in that first photo of Stanley. Very Fauvist!

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  17. brilliant post. just brilliant. and love the 1 ass/2 ass comment too!

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  18. Just LOVELY LOVELY LOVELY comments. The dear Dear Readers. You put such smiles on my face. Thank you.

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