Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Why it matters that we support gay marriage

Anne Russell is a personal friend of mine. She has recently published an opinion piece where she has admitted being confused and maddened by how stridently LBGT people argue for equal recognition of gay marriage, an institution she believes everybody would be better off without. I found her case to be deeply unconvincing, and here is my piece in response.

Anne Russell has recently argued that gay people, and others who don’t fall in the mainstream of heterosexual monogamy, shouldn’t feel compelled to campaign for gay marriage, and that we are all better off without the institution, gay, straight or otherwise. There are serious problems with the case she makes: a number of simple matters of fact on which she is mistaken which undermines many of the points she is trying to make, and, more importantly, it is very unclear how the various things she says are supposed to come together. It is unclear in the extreme why anything about the sexual orientation of Russell or her intended audience is supposed to matter if the point is that marriage in its own right is undesirable. That whole issue is simply a monstrous red herring, one with very serious consequences discussed later in the piece.
First-off, there are a number of claims Russell makes with great confidence but that nobody should believe. She claims that most New Zealanders have come to acknowledge that life-long monogamy is neither practical nor desirable. For Russell’s point to go through, she needs the latter, more striking claim. And there is simply no evidence for that. While the marriage rate is steadily decreasing (and about a third of marriages end before the 25th anniversary, more than half of those before 13 years), that doesn’t mean people are giving up on long-term monogamy. It is estimated that around two in five people in long-term partnerships are so de facto, without legally formalising their relationship. Pointedly, about a third of all marriages being entered into today have at least one of the couple be a divorcee. If anybody would be clear on why long-term monogamy might be a bad idea, it would be these people, yet there is one divorcee willing to give the institution another go for every two wide-eyed newcomers to the altar (all of these figures are from Statistics NZ). This is not a decisive case against Russell’s point, but it is far stronger than the case she can make for it. We must conclude that her claim that marriage is now largely seen as undesirable is pure obiter dictum on her part, and she doesn’t have the standing to make it.
She goes on to say that marriage is soiled by its history as a capitalist institution which began in order to trade women as property, and should be abandoned accordingly. This is false in every detail. Marriage and its analogues (long-term monogamous relationships which are the foundations of households) exist throughout all of human history, whereas capitalism began at the earliest in late 18th century Britain. Nor does marriage depend on private property. Russell needn’t have looked far for an example, since traditional Māori society held property in common but had, for the most part, marriages like described above. Marriage doesn’t treat spouses as property in any strict sense, and never has: marriage partners have never been bought on the open market, nor does one resell them, nor are they a fungible commodity – that is, one spouse cannot be replaced by another the way you would pints of milk. (There have been societies where you buy concubines, but in I don't know of nor have succeeded in finding any where this trade in domestic sex slaves was done to the exclusion of marriage between people of the same social status, which is what is at issue).
What happens instead is that a marriage changes a person from belonging to one household to belonging to another (or, in more recent times where people don’t live with their family till they marry, officially recognises such a move). This has often historically lead to some fiercely restrictive circumstances for women given that men were the lords of the household and had considerable power in that role, often to the great harm of the women. But that relationship isn’t an ownership relationship. Russell has made the mistake of thinking that all such transactions are property transactions, and has accordingly missed the most deep-seated and important aspects of the culture she is critiquing. Reasons of space stop me from giving similar attention to other claims Russell makes, but the errors discussed here critically undermines her case as a whole. In conclusion, there might be serious reasons to question the institution, but not the ones she gives.
The purpose of Russell’s piece seems to me muddled in the extreme, something exacerbated by her later acknowledgement that if she were to vote on the issue she would do so in support of gay marriage. If the point was to have us reconsider the institution, she has failed – her case is misinformed and ill-conceived, and she doesn’t seem to herself understand marriage or its place in wider society. And we need to carefully consider the role marriage plays to do justice to the issue. Russell points out that many of the benefits attached to marriage –commitment, children, family ties – are not its exclusive province. But that goes both ways: when she complains that marriage also engenders jealousy, dissatisfaction, and prompts infidelity, we shouldn't confusedly identify them with marriage either. In both cases what Russell is talking about is simply the consequence of long-term intimate relations people have – whatever their sexuality, whatever the institutions in the background. 
What is at stake is LBGT people's ability to at all participate in our way of life (one, thankfully, which New Zealand secures through its legislation on same-sex civil unions and de facto relationships). That is why Russell's endorsement of the pernicious nonsense that gay people shouldn't try to be too much like straight couples is misguided and can only be harmful. LBGT people also have commitments, family ties, and the prosaic concerns of hearth and home. The fight for gay marriage is a fight in order to not close to these people the avenues our culture allows for the maintenance of their home affairs – if you're LBGT, not allowing gay marriage is to undermine your ability to look after you and yours. For that reason Russell's comments show a remarkable lack of sensitivity for other people's struggles, and can only make mischief. Accordingly, she should instead be content to live and let live.