Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Marriage - Something old, Something new.

I’m currently reading “Love Wins”. Not the much hyped Rob Bell book about the non-existence of hell but a book by Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell with the same title, about the court battle to establish marriage equality in the U.S. It’s a fascinating story so far with clear prose back grounding the plaintiffs and lawyers pivotal to the case. The differences evident in the book between the U.S. situation and Australia’s has led me to undertake some historical speculation. We are currently at an impasse in the progress towards marriage law reform in this country. Could we have taken a different path?

In 2011 Julia Gillard as Prime Minister of a minority government, opposed same-sex marriage. As parliamentary leader of the Labor party she negotiated that a conscience vote on the issue of marriage reform was Labor’s policy rather than a binding vote in support. At the time this was seen by some as protecting Labor backing amongst religious conservatives. Catholics are a significant Labor constituency with historically socially conservative views. Those views are changing however with opposition to homosexuality now largely living in more Liberal voting evangelical churches. This was one reason why the politics of Gillard’s decision led to many scratched heads. Was it really necessary?

Even more confusing was that Prime Minister Gillard herself was an open atheist in a defacto relationship with no (public at least) intention of marrying. Why was she personally aligned with the “marriage defenders” on this issue? Gillard didn’t just broker a deal on the conference floor she spoke openly about not wanting to change the marriage act to include same-sex relationships. For atheists who take a strong pro-secular position the chance to remove John Howards judeo-christian inspired stipulations about gender seemed like a no-brainer. If it wasn’t politic to do so, this could be understood, but to go on the record as not wanting to change such a blatant elevation of religious concerns? As an atheist? Bizarre.

Gillard however gave us her preferred solution. Straight couples and same-sex couples alike should embrace civil unions. Leave marriage to the churched. I imagine that Gillard might have also felt that she represented the ultimate victory in regard to marriage – a person holding the highest office in the land without needing a ring on their finger to prove their substance, a woman in public office who didn’t need to express pining for her day in white taffeta. From this perspective making marriage relevant again by broadening it to same-sex couples looks like a gross step backwards.

I’ve been wondering, what would it have taken for Gillard to have been right? For our circumstance then to have been the Lefts cultural victory in this matter, sans any change to the Marriage Act would have needed Australians to embrace a perspective that wasn’t popular even then.  Marriage equality has gained momentum since that time and is now the only solution for the cause of same-sex relationship recognition in the popular imagination.  It would have taken a very different Australia to have ended this conversation with Gillard’s solution in 2011.

Crucially, we would have needed there to be a stark split between those who marry and people in the LGBTI communities and their allies. If those groups were separate then the rhetoric of “leave marriage to them” would make sense in the LGBTI community. “Them”, the marrying-kind, as distinct from those in same sex couples or their allies, would be a sensible category. For some people this is their reality. The adult children of people who never married, whose parents have no expectation their kids will marry can feel marriage belongs to “them”. Such people may see marriage as irrelevant to their life – not only are they unlikely to get married, but they are unlikely to even get invited to a wedding. Occasionally someone in their circle of friends or family surprisingly falls in love with one of the marrying kind and a wedding invitation appears in the mail.  Attending the wedding is like attending a bar mitzvah when one is not Jewish. The food is great, the music as well, but nothing makes perfect sense. You just roll with it as a curious exotic adventure.

Likewise the other side of the divide, the marrying kind, would need to be profoundly separate from members of the LGBTI community and their allies for Gillard’s position to be comprehensible for them. Again this is some defenders of traditional marriage’s reality, betrayed when they use slogans like “choose your own word, leave marriage alone.” For these people same-sex couples are not a part of the tradition and history of marriage. They are like goyim at a bar mitzvah who liking the look of the thing decide to have their own. The belief is that same-sex couples have no historical claim to this ritual.

Although some people live lives as described above with few connections to their opposite, my own society is not like this at all. I have one sibling who is married, one engaged, one who probably never will get formally married, and my self who married only after having my children. In our extended family there are atheists, Catholics, Anglicans, Evangelicals and a bunch who are open to a range of religious positions. Friends and family include same-sex couples. Marriage is our word, our cultural heritage, although none of us are treating it exactly like our parents and some of us are either rejecting or radically reinventing it.  It seems perfectly plain to me that same-sex couples who want to get married, and whose families and friends want to celebrate their weddings, do so because this is a part of their traditions and cultural heritage. It is what their parents did and what their siblings have done. It is their word too.

There is something gloriously socialist about the construct of the civil union. Or perhaps a better description of its tone would be the perfect rationalism of the French republic with its proposed ten hour days and ten day weeks. By sweeping away the traditions of the past and replacing it with something that lacks such baggage we can provide a purely functional answer to state relationship recognition. Marriage can continue in churches, including gay affirming churches too, or synagogues or mosques or wherever really but as a separate institution, left on the law books as an anachronism. Or in true French revolutionary style we can even expunge marriage from the law books altogether and make it a private arrangement.

Bluntly this isn’t how the world works. The French Republican Calendar was abolished after twelve years. Esperanto, developed in 1887, to replace European languages with a logical grammar, hasn’t caught on. Legacy systems pervade our culture: you might argue because of a failing of vision and ambition. However partly at least we want those legacy systems to remain as a connection to the past and our shared heritage. Far more than Gillard realized and far more than those who want same-sex couples to leave marriage alone we all have a shared heritage that includes marriage. What we are trying to do is to share it better.