The case for (gay) marriage

by Sachin

“It is slightly paradoxical that the more heterosexual couples reject the idea of marriage, the more homosexuals have become wedded to it.”1

It is said that politics must reflect the will of the people. Edmund Burke wouldn’t have agreed with the sentiment (for what it’s worth, I rarely do), but with regard to discussions about marriage, we cannot be too dogmatic. There is a strong argument for encouraging marriage—though our freedom to choose ought to prevent the state from privileging those who walk down the aisle, via tax breaks and the like—that flies in the face of statistics showing marriage to be in decline; however, efforts to introduce civil marriages for gay couples rightly reflect popular opinion.

In spite of the (momentous) political consensus surrounding the issue, I would welcome any rational criticisms, if only to further sensible debate. Instead, the opposition has been hijacked by religious hate-speakers—and not from the faith typically associated with hate speech. Perhaps that is a reflection on the lack of rational criticisms of gay marriage. Unfortunately, we live in a Christian country; fortunately, we do not live in a Catholic country: that state of affairs might afford even greater prominence to Catholic leaders, who have filled the airwaves with such bilious rhetoric and thinly-disguised homophobia, it is a wonder the outcry has not been more vociferous.

Nonetheless, I am a firm believer of freedom of speech, in the Nick Cohen tradition, so we must work with what we have, and dismantle the misguided arguments made against gay marriage.

“The hard core of marriage consists in men and women having children.”

As the title of this blog implies, historical inertia is no reason to continue with a particular tradition. In light of this, it is sensible to propose a modified hard core of marriage, which might include something like this:

Marriage is the best framework in which to raise children.

I haven’t wandered over to this idea by chance. Educational outcomes; positive role models; aspirations for the future: all these are improved by having two loving parents in a stable relationship, preferably one where some vows have been made between the constituent partners. Notice there is no qualification on whether it is best to have a mother and a father, or two fathers, or two mothers (research into which of these is best is neither here nor there).

In this context, gay marriage looks not just permissible, but advisable and maybe even normative. There is a crisis in childcare and adoption: a 2 per cent increase in the number of looked-after children between 2010 and 2011, and a 5 per cent decrease in adoption during the same period, are the two most significant figures2. There is a growing number of would-be adoptees, and the law recognises the ability of gay couples to be adopters—so why not complete the circle by allowing such couples the chance to become a “married couple”, and bring with that all the responsibilities marriage entails?

If we all agreed to the outdated hard core of marriage, we would exclude sterile people and women over forty-five from marriage. Michael Portillo’s rebuttal1, that there is a fundamental difference between the two scenarios (old people, had they met earlier in life, would have been biologically able to have children; sterile people should not be disadvantaged by the genetic lottery) is flawed. Marriage is concerned with the here and now—hence why we permit divorce; furthermore, one’s gender is also predicated on a genetic lottery. You fall in love with a person qua their characteristics and personality, not qua their gender. And, in any case, the lack of natural fertility in same-sex couples is not an immutable fact. We don’t know that, twenty years hence, there won’t be a scientific breakthrough that allows two women to have a child who is genetically similar to both of them. So why exclude people from marriage on the grounds that they cannot conceive naturally?

“Marriage predates the state, so the state shouldn’t meddle with our conceptions of it.”

Well, come to think of it, marriage also predates organised religion, a concept that is built on shakier grounds than states, nations and governments. In fact:

“Evolutionary psychologists theorise that marriage was originally based on a straightforward negotiation: sex and babies in exchange for food and protection. Historians, on the other hand, propose that marriage was a social construct designed to create familial or tribal alliances that would increase the economic viability of the group. Either way, marriage was a commercial transaction that was not based on love or romance.”3

So all notions of marriage as sacrament or ego-shedding, while poetic, don’t stand up to more rigorous tests. Given this, it seems unlikely that religion has much of a right to meddle with marriage. Having given over some of our freedoms to the state so it can protect our rights, it is far more realistic to expect the state to uphold the conditions of its sovereignty (functioning well; looking after its people) by meddling with marriage for our betterment.

1 Buerk, M. (2012), “Gay marriage“, in Moral Maze, 14 March, BBC Radio 4.

2 Curtis, P. (2011), “Reality check: why are so few children being adopted?“, in The Guardian, 29 September.

3 Godson, S. (2012), “Should I accept a dull sex life?“, in The Times, 17 March.