Marriage Equality: An Inevitable Moral and Human Rights Trajectory

By JD Plume | 10 May 12

Today, in an interview with the ABC, US President Barack Obama declared his support for marriage equality – the legality of same-sex marriages.  The move, coming six months before he stands for re-election, is the latest in a series of political steps in that direction.

Six months ago, late in 2011, witnessed a beginning of sorts for the political will.  British Prime Minister David Cameron voiced his support for marriage equality from a conservative point of view: it would aid stable relationships and in so doing aid society in general.  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed her 1995 speech in Beijing on women’s rights with the equivalent declaration in December: “Gay rights are Human Rights”.  And two important votes were taken in Australia: one by the Queensland parliament for legal recognition of same-sex civil unions, and another by the Labor party in support of the recognition of same-sex marriage in law, after allowing its members a conscience vote.  The main rationale for the conscience vote approach was the “strongly held views on both sides”.

As the results came in, in both arenas, it was worth making an effort to hear from those politicians who voted against the proposals.  The views were strongly held, no doubt. But each reason thrown up for resisting marriage equality was a poor substitute for coherence – none were strongly founded.  Each shared the same flaws: improvised, near-sighted invocations betraying a lack of awareness of history, biology, religious diversity, and the importance of substantive justice in a complex society.  When each reason offered is thought through, its convincingness disappears.

Invoking ‘history’ and boyhood fetish

“It has always been that way since the dawn of humanity”.

This statement nicely encapsulates one defence.  Ignoring the presumptuousness of the maxim, all one need do is re-apply it to see its pretense: humans have been the property of other humans since the dawn of humanity; since the dawn of humanity, women have been less than men.  The invocation of ‘history’ is no more convincing for homophobia than it would be in support of slavery or the lesser status of women in law.

However, it does make clear that the change being fought over is inevitably generational.  At the moment we are close to the mid-point between two importantly distinct generations.  The past and coming months spell the beginning of the end for an equivalence of “strongly held views”.

The members of one generation are those who spent their childhoods and adolescence, and even a large portion of their adult lives, in blissful ignorance of the fact of same-sex attraction and its social suppression, and who are therefore likely to see homosexuality as “new”, and as a matter of recent “choice”.  This generation suffers from a historically-induced fiction; one that sits at the bottom of any argument from “history” or “tradition”.

The accent on choice gives rise to the question: why would some choose it?  The younger generation does not ask the “why?” question, because it makes no sense to ask it.  They realise that in a very central way same-sex attraction just is, they realise it does no objective harm, and they react to it like they react to all direct or indirect forcing of people to be what they are not.  They see it as tyranny.

Invoking “nature” and ape-ing biology

“Nature” is another common and equally obtuse invocation.  Women can love women, men can love men. They can form sustaining, emotional bonds.  They can engage in romantic and sexual acts.  However, another term sometimes used may make sense of the “nature” references: “biology”. Particularly, “biology” as bearing children.

Biology is, most minimally, good or better genetically-fashioned designs for staying alive and reproducing.  This simple “rationale” underlies the process that brought about the variety of living things that exist and have existed.  Part of that variety is the foresight, empathy and communicative ability of humans.  This allows us to live in ways that, effectively, rebel against the callous “rationale” that produced us.  It would be sadly ironic to ignore our unique abilities for the sake of arbitrarily aping “biology”.

The past and coming months spell the beginning of the end for an equivalence of “strongly held views”.

Clearly, those who invoke the term “biology” as if it offers some simplistic moral message on topics of choice are only arguing – very convincingly – that they have never bothered to read or think about the relationship between biology and morality very much.  Biological facts or commonalities are not simplistic guides to human social organisation.  We can choose the society we want in view of our evolved abilities, not the mindless, unforgiving process that gave rise to them.

The argument, in one form, is based on a fusion – a confusion – of marriage and reproduction.  Marriage is centrally an affective relationship, solemnised in law, which may or may not result in offspring.  We have to look back a few centuries to the predominance of an agrarian way of life to find otherwise.  Marriage and childbearing are no longer, as they then were, economic necessities.

How can one accept the “nature” or “biology” arguments so readily? The key is the desire to live, again, in the “garden” of childhood, and to deny anything foreign to it, to be oblivious to actual threats and to perpetuate injustice all in the name of preserving that comfort zone.

Invoking “faith” and imposing religion

Having listened to those in a range of traditions for years, a surprisingly common confusion is hard to miss.  This is the idea that a “secular” society is a threat to religion, rather than being the very thing that allows freedom of religion.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that some confuse their freedom with a second-rate situation – one in which the religious freedom of others would be removed.  This is nothing less than to prefer one’s own comfort (conflated with divine will) to the freedoms of one’s fellow citizens.  Importantly, the religious diversity that exists around us includes a diversity of religious views about same-sex marriage.

Indeed, in view of Australia’s uplifting history of religious freedom and diversity, it is inappropriate to invoke “faith” as the sole grounds for a pubic decision.  It is the unexplained imposition of a particular religion.  It may be that one is inspired by their faith, and that is fine and legitimate in public life if and when it is given rational meaning and argued for coherently.  Anything less is an arbitrary exercise of office, and one that lacks impartiality and transparency.  It should never be acceptable, and the relevant officials should not be allowed to escape their embarrassment by a “respectful” public that are complicit in engendering their pious delusions.  It is not pious. It is public infidelity.

Invoking “more important issues” and divorcing justice

Finally, there’s the response of those who think politicians should not spend their time worried with the pettiness of substantive injustice, not even enough to give an honest response to the issue.  This is the moral high-ground over an abyss of some more important issue.  Forgetting what may be inferred about the sympathies – or lack of sympathy – of those who can bring themselves to dismiss the issue this easily, their alleged goal would be much better achieved by supporting the right of all consenting adults to marry.  That would end the issue immediately, leaving legislative drafters to put pen to paper, and politicians to focus on “important” things.

As long as the obstruction continues, only more time will be wasted delaying the inevitable codification in law of our emerging and irreversible consciousness as to a deep-rooted fact which is important to recognise.  For individuals who are not content to be treated as “lesser”, and for the moral advancement of society as a whole – transcending a childhood of one kind or another – marriage equality is an important and urgent aspiration.