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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