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Let’s Be Civil: Gay Marriage Isn’t The End of the Rainbow

by Mark Simpson (A shorter version originally appeared on Guardian CIF November 2, 2008)

“It’s better to marry than burn with passion,” declared St Paul. But now marriage itself seems to have become a burning issue – or at least, gay marriage.

The re-banning of gay marriage in California earlier this month with the passage of Proposition 8 has been presented by gay marriage advocates as a vicious body-blow for gay rights. Angry gay people and their allies have protested across the US, some reportedly even rioting. The timely release of the Gus Van Sant movie Milk, about the murder in 1977 of Harvey Milk, the US’s first out elected official, has fuelled the sense of gay outrage and defiance. Surely only a hateful bigot like the one that gunned down Harvey would be opposed to gay marriage?

Gay marriage is the touchstone of gay equality, apparently. Settling for anything less is a form of Jim Crow style gay segregation and second-class citizenship.

But not all gays agree. This one for instance sees gay marriage not so much as a touchstone as a fetish. A largely symbolic and emotional issue that in the US threatens to undermine real, non-symbolic same-sex couple protection: civil unions bestow in effect the same legal status as marriage in several US states – including California. As a result of the religious right’s mobilisation against gay marriage, civil unions have been rolled back in several US states.

Perhaps the lesson of Proposition 8 is not that most straight people think gay people should sit at the back of the bus, but that if you take on religion and tradition on its hallowed turf – and that is what marriage effectively is – you’re highly likely to lose.  Even in liberal California.

Maybe I shouldn’t carp, living as I do in the UK, where civil partnerships with equal legal status to marriage have been nationally recognised since 2004. But part of the reason that civil partnerships were successfully introduced here was because they are civil partnerships not “marriages” (the UK is a much more secular country than the US, and somewhat more gay-friendly too – but even here gay marriage would almost certainly not have passed).

At this point I’d like to hide behind the, erm, formidable figure of Sir Elton John, who also expressed doubts recently about the fixation of US gay campaigners on the word ‘marriage’, and declared he was happy to be in a civil partnership with the Canadian David Furnish and did not want to get married. Needless to say, Mr John wasn’t exactly thanked for speaking his mind by gay marriage advocates.

But amidst all the gay gnashing of teeth about the inequality of Proposition 8 it’s worth asking: when did marriage have anything to do with equality? Respectability, certainly. Normality, possibly. Stability, hopefully. Very hopefully. But equality?

First of all, there’s something gay people and their friends need to admit to the world: gay and straight long-term relationships are generally not the same. How many heterosexual marriages are open, for example? In my experience, many if not most long term male-male relationships are very open indeed. Similarly, sex is not quite so likely to be turned into reproduction when your genitals are the same shape. Yes, some gay couples may want to have children, by adoption or other means, and that’s fine and dandy of course, but children are not a consequence of gay conjugation. Which has always been part of the appeal for some.

More fundamentally who is the “man” and who is the “wife” in a gay marriage? Unlike cross-sex couples, same-sex partnerships are partnerships between nominal equals without any biologically, divinely or even culturally determined reproductive/domestic roles. Who is to be “given away”? Or as Elton John, put it: “I don’t wanna be anyone’s wife”.

It’s increasingly unclear even to heterosexuals who is the “man” and who is the “wife”, who should cleave to the other’s will and who should bring home the bacon. That’s why so many today introduce their husband or wife as “my partner”. The famous exception to this of course was Guy Ritchie and his missus, Madonna – and look what happened to them. Pre-nuptial agreements, very popular with celebs (though not, apparently, with Guy and Madonna), represent the very realistic step of divorcing before you get married – like plastic surgery, this is a hard-faced celeb habit that’s going mainstream.

If Christians and traditionalists want to preserve the “sanctity” of marriage as something between a man and a woman, with all the mumbo jumbo that entails, let them. They only hasten the collapse of marriage. Instead of demanding gay marriage, in effect trying to modernise an increasingly moribund institution, maybe lesbian and gay people should push for civil partnerships to be opened to everyone, as they are in France – where they have proved very popular.

I suspect civil partnerships, new, secular, literally down-to-earth contracts between two equals, relatively free of the baggage of tradition, ritual and unrealistic expectations, would also prove very popular with cross-sex couples in the Anglo world at a time when the institution of marriage is the most unpopular it’s ever been among people who aren’t actually gay. Yes, cross-sex couples can have civil marriage ceremonies, but they’re still marriages, not partnerships. If made open to everyone, civil partnerships might eventually not just be an alternative to marriage. Marriage might end up being something left to Mormons.

Perhaps my scepticism about gay marriage and marriage in general is down to the fact that I’m terminally single. Perhaps it’s all just sour grapes. Or maybe I prefer to burn with passion than marry. After all, St Paul’s violently ascetic world-view which regarded marriage as a poor runner-up to chastity, also ensured that the Christian Church would burn sodomites like kindling for centuries.

Either way, I think it needs to be mentioned amidst all this shouting about gay domesticity that, important as it is to see lesbian and gay couples recognised and given legal protection, probably most gay men (though probably not most lesbians) are single and probably will be single for most of their lives. With or without civil partnerships/unions.

Or even the magical, symbolic power of gay marriage.

Postscript: The Voice of Gay America responds – loudly.

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