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.

38 thoughts on “Let’s Be Civil: Gay Marriage Isn’t The End of the Rainbow”

  1. Dear Konrad,

    I can under­stand your frus­tra­tion, buddy. Yes, it must be dif­fi­cult to have all these churches speak­ing out their opin­ions. How dare they have opin­ions about anything!

    Sarcasm aside, you sound like one of those rabid gay sec­u­lar­ists who can’t get over their ‘Me, me, me’ sen­ti­ments long enough to actu­ally think. It’s gays like you that are really harm­ing the move­ment. Wanna cause a nice long back­lash to gay rights? If so, just keep on doing what you’re doing.

    And while we’re at it, let’s see some evid­ence to back up those wild claims of yours.

  2. Except that sexu­al­ity is not the innate attrib­ute that “race” is (although bio­lo­gic­ally we can all inter­breed — even for us gays breed­ing pro­geny is the latest fash­ion access­ory). So attempts to reduce gay rela­tion­ships as equal to racial rela­tion­ships falls flat. One thing (ok, one of many things) that the gay mar­riage pro­ponents ignore is those trouble­some bisexu­als — if some of us are genet­ic­ally straight, and some of us genet­ic­ally homo, then yes, we deserve the same rights. But how can one be genet­ic­ally bi? Or even if one is genet­ic­ally bisexual, do we then have to force them into pick­ing one gender in order to get mar­ried? Seems a bit unfair. But then, the gay and les­bian com­munit­ies have never been all that great with those both­er­some bisexuals.

    And ulti­mately, where is the equal­ity in treat­ing couples as a more worthy social unit that a single per­son? In my coun­try (Australia), mar­ried couples get tax bene­fits, greater wel­fare, cheaper insur­ance, cheaper hotel rooms, bet­ter dis­count deals on travel (don’t get me star­ted on single sup­ple­ments, we’ll be here all day).

    People should not be dis­crim­in­ated against due to their rela­tion­ships, I agree. But also, people should not be dis­crim­in­ated against because of their lack of rela­tion­ships. As Mark’s thread on Respectability Is the New Closet touches upon, this “need” for accept­ance as being solely defined as equal­ity with het­ero­sexu­als is mind­less and limited.

    Oh, the grand old days of post-Stonewall gay lib­er­a­tion when we were actu­ally about equal­ity, not respectability.

  3. The UK dis­crim­in­ates against gay people by the high level decision: if your an oppos­ite sex couple and you want legal recog­ni­tion then you can get mar­ried, if your a same sex couple then you can get a civil partnership.

    If you can’t see the dis­crim­in­a­tion then replace the terms ‘oppos­ite sex’ with ‘irish couple’ or ‘asian couple’ and hope­fully you can see it.

    It does mat­ter as this divi­sion will be present in peoples minds and atti­tudes towards gay people. This will foster in peoples atti­tudes and beha­viours towards gay people. This can be exper­i­enced in very subtle ways to the more obvious.

    I feel it is com­pletely irrev­elant that ‘mar­riage’ is con­sidered out­dated or irrel­ev­ant today. Let’s pro­gress down that road when we can all do it together, and gays and straights can request a more mod­ern legal recog­ni­tion of rela­tion­ships at some point in the future

    That is dis­crim­in­a­tion in it’s most clear form. This

  4. Andrea S. showed him­self to be a real hypo­crite when he was found to have a bare­back­ing ad on the net! But who noticed!

  5. Mark is right on in assert­ing that the mar­riage move­ment is dis­tinctly a byproduct of the attempt by semicloseted ‘assim­il­a­tion­ists’ who want gays tucked incon­spicu­ously amongst the respect­able sub­urban her­er­o­sexu­als.
    The trend star­ted with the pub­lic­a­tion by right wing Andrew Sullivan’s “end of gay lib­er­a­tion” & Bruce Bauwers,’ “A Place at the Table” attempts to closet us amongst straight people. What more like Straight people could we be than to assume the for­mid­able legit­im­acy of a “Godly’ mar­riage, or the appear­ance of such?

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