About time we all cared more about marriage
24 August 2012
One of the most heartening aspects of the otherwise divisive debate on same-sex marriage has been the recognition on all sides of politics that marriage matters. That is a real turnaround.
For years, the rhetoric of progressive politics has been that family structure does not matter and that the law should equally recognise and value all kinds of family, not just the ''traditional'' family consisting of a married couple with children. Many have been dismissive of marriage as an institution. Indeed there has been a strong view in feminist thought that marriage is an oppressive, patriarchal institution from which women need to be liberated.
That is why it is so surprising that it is on the left of politics, in particular, that there is such strong support for same-sex marriage. It represents a massive reversal of attitudes towards marriage in ''progressive'' circles. It also represents something of a reversal for the same-sex-attracted community, many of whom have argued that gay and lesbian relationships ought to be defined by their difference from marriage. As one Scottish law professor put it: ''Marriage is for heterosexuals. May the rest of us be spared from it.''
While some same-sex male relationships are both lifelong and monogamous, that has not been the norm for gay male sexuality. Feminists in lesbian relationships also have celebrated their freedom from the norms and expectations of heterosexual marriage.
For the past 20 years or so, left-of-centre governments in particular have acted on the premise that marriage does not matter. Family law reform in that period has been characterised by the removal of all differences between marriage and de facto relationships. It is now very difficult to point to any state, territory or federal law where getting legally married makes a difference compared with a same-sex or opposite-sex couple who have lived together in a de facto relationship for two years or more, or who have registered their relationship. As a consequence, the right to marry carries little significance in law other than imposing a need to get a formal divorce before marrying someone else.
In Australia, the same-sex marriage debate is therefore really not about equality in law; that already exists. Now same-sex and heterosexual de facto unions have been elevated to the point where they equal marriage or, looking at it a different way, marriage has been reduced in significance to the point where it is equal to a de facto relationship.
Modern marriage in Australian law is therefore a far cry from the historic legal meaning of marriage, which is ''the union of a man and a woman for life to the exclusion of all others''. No longer is marriage for life - it is effectively terminable at will by one party without the consent of the other. Marriage is a mere shadow of what it used to be, legally and culturally, so the new progressive recognition of marriage as an important and cherished institution is a welcome development.
However, changing the definition of marriage would come at a cost. A consequence of extending marriage to same-sex relationships is that there will be almost nothing left of the legal definition of marriage as a union of a man and a woman for life to the exclusion of all others. Robbed of its distinctiveness, and detached from its cultural and religious roots, marriage as an institution is unlikely to retain its cultural importance and vitality. We simply won't know what marriage is any more.
The debate about same-sex marriage is really not about discrimination, but about definition. There is already equality between same-sex and heterosexual couples - and rightly so.
The question really is whether we value marriage enough to preserve its cultural meaning and distinctiveness. A question arises for gay and lesbian couples also: can they find a confident identity in having different kinds of relationships from heterosexual marriage? On one view, the marriage equality movement is a form of cultural cringe.
And if there really is a new political consensus that marriage is important, then we need to find ways to promote it, and support it as by far the most stable, safe and nurturing form of relationship in which to raise children. That is something that Australian governments, of all political persuasions, have signally failed to do.
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