Oct 21, 2009
"Forever young and never forgotten. A man, a friend, a brother, a son, a husband and a hero."
So said Ronan Keating of his friend Stephen Gately, who sadly passed away last week.
Doesn't sound like anything special, unless you know that Stephen was gay, and that Ronan was talking about him having been somebody's "husband" - Andrew Cowles's, in fact - in a church in Ireland.
It's uncomfortable in a way, trying to draw attention to the wider political point here; ghoulish almost, definitely opportunistic. Surely we should be campaigning for gay rights every day, and not just at the time of a tragic death? Guilty as charged: most days, gay rights are sufficiently below my political horizon to barely rate a thought, and I can't pretend that that's OK.
Nevertheless, here we are, so let's talk about marriage for a minute, rather than use some double-Dutch mea culpa to ignore the issue for yet another day.
First off, definitions: the human right in question is not the right to get married itself. Marriage as we have come to understand it – the dress, the rings, the arguments about name changes, the cranky in-laws and the cheap fizzy wine - can cease to be tomorrow, and the systemic problems will remain exactly the same, because the rights denied to those prevented from entering into marriage are the rights that are conferred on married couples.
These are truly prodigious, and mostly economic. Shared property rights, access to deceased spouse’s funds and tax exemptions in case of widowhood, visitation and financial support rights in case of a marriage involving children breaking up, next of kin decision making rights in case of incapacitation, preferential treatment by the immigration authorities, and many more. Frankly, it’s as if the state is bribing people to get married, on which more anon.
It is a self evident violation of the principle of universal human rights to forbid anyone from entering into the voluntary arrangement that will allow them access to these privileges. Kind of like saying “you can take driving lessons, and pay for the test, and pay road tax, but we won’t give you a driving license, because you have size 7 feet”. But people – and I’m not just talking about Jan Moir here – still do object to gay people being accorded equal rights to heterosexuals, and even when the Human Rights act forces rubs their noses in it, they squirm and pretend that it’s not happening if you call it Civil Unions instead.
The usual explanation for this (advanced by Liberals - the “reasons” that gay rights opponents give are too ridiculous to analise seriously) is basically the Eww Factor. Religious and Conservative people are freaked out by Gayness, the theory goes, because they are sexually repressed and easily frightened by change. They can’t sleep at night thinking about all that delicious sodomy and cunnilingus happily going on behind England’s green and pleasant net curtains, so they contort themselves into paroxysms of illogic and hide behind such things as “tradition” and St. Paul (who was a bugger, no pun intended).
I have always found this theory unconvincing, because it’s based on the definition of marriage that religious and conservative people like: partnership, love, family, commitment, apple pie, blah blah blah. On the face of it, yes, it seems illogical to deny people who love each other these things just because there’s one too many willies (or one too few) in the equation, and the right wing / religious bigots are just stupid and inconsistent.
Well… I don’t buy it.
Let’s have a look for a minute about what marriage actually is, with special reference to “between one man and one woman” bit.
Imagine a world in which there is a systemic and society-wide imbalance of power between two groups, and in which there is a given number of tasks that need to be preformed either at individuals’ expense, or at the expense of the state.
Now neatly subdivide all of your available population into groups of two, each pair to include one member of the more privileged and powerful group, and one member of the oppressed group. These people can be peers in all other ways – class background, education etc. – but this one basic power imbalance has to be present in every case.
Then limit the amount of money you give to the performance of certain vital but unglamorous tasks, and limit the overall number of tasks that are supported by the state. People will be put into a position where they absolutely must absorb some of the workload individually.
Which member of the two-person pairings is more likely to be handed the performance of these extra tasks: the privileged, powerful one, or the oppressed, disempowered one?
That’s what marriage is all about, and that is why the state is so damned eager to bribe you to do it: because politically, it is easier to harp on about the joys of motherhood and the sanctity of marriage than to raise taxes for the provision of, say, universal free child care (or even universal parental leave – watch employers kick up a fuss when it’s the half of the workforce they actually pay decent wages to that is liable to be absent for six months at a time). Or a subsidized laundry service.
And that’s why gay marriage I such anathema – because absent the power imbalance inherent in a two sex pairing, it’s economically meaningless. And I’m not saying that Sir Elton getting hitched will mean that overnight women are not picking up socks from the bathroom floor anymore; it’s not going to be anything like that straightforward or linear, but the door has been opened.
But that is the fear from the religious and conservative elements opposed to gay marriage. It is not a coincidence that these are the same elements that are the most misogynistic in their outlook, most committed to the subjugation of women to their – hah! – “natural” roles as providers of free domestic labour, and also by the way tend towards the economically “liberal” (for which read: they don’t want to pay taxes and they don’t care who that deprives of basic services).
There will come a point of critical mass where women will look at gay couples and be able to make a credible argument that it doesn’t have to be the way it’s always been for them, because it patently isn’t for same sex couples. Or there will come a time when women who don’t self identify as feminists look at feminist couples and think to themselves that things can obviously be different for them, because they already are for other women.
And to put the final polish on that argument, I present to my rapt audience the new charming companion of Gay Marriage Panic: Feminist Marriage Panic. New York feminist Jessica Valenti recently got married, and such august engines of misogynist oppression as Playboy magazine are getting hot under the collar about it. I can’t link to it I’m afraid – paid subscription only – but here’s a link to the NY Times, with its own brand of snide coverage (I think their thesis is along the lines of she was a feminist only as long as nobody wanted to marry her, but soon changed her mind when and offer was on the table, or something). Gloria Steinem also caught a lot of flack for getting married, with accusations of hypocrisy and insinuations of really just wanting that ring after all.
Anything that violates the basic template of marriage – man on top, woman unpaid domestic support system – is seen as threatening, both economically and socially. And that kind of brings me back to Stephen Gately I guess, and to why even though I think that marriage inequality is a travesty, it's a travesty that is a reflection of, and a part of something bigger. And while I’m totally in favour of any couple being able to celebrate their love publically, what I’m really looking forward to is the day when we just do away with marriage as “two people incarcerated in a private drudgery hell” altogether.