Wedded to a Single Option and Forsaking All Others: A Critique of the Current Drive for Same Sex Marriage


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… “just because an institution or a practice is rooted in tradition does not make it right.”

This statement appears in the position paper of MarriagEquality, the campaign to extend civil marriage to same sex couples. It is a statement with which I wholeheartedly concur; tradition and practice are not an infallible or a desirable means of according rights. However, it articulates a fundamental contradiction at the heart of that campaign and the position it has taken. The statement is made as a counter argument to those opposing same sex marriage, who use it to justify why marriage should continue to be an institution preserved for opposite sex couples. Taking the logic of MarriagEquality’s own statement, simply because certain rights are based in the tradition and practice of the institution of marriage does not make that institution right. Nevertheless, despite having made the above statement MarriagEquality are happy to endorse the institution of marriage.

The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Herein lies a conundrum, for MarriagEquality is a campaign fronted by self-professed feminists who are now leading the charge towards an institution that has been the target of feminist ire and opprobrium for centuries. So why strengthen patriarchy’s most potent institution for ensuring women’s conformity and cementing social privilege and inequality? In the absence of any feminist or progressive critique emanating from the campaign it is hard to find an answer.

The uninterrogated pursuit of marriage to the exclusion of any other regularisation of family forms and partnerships has left the campaign open to allegations of ‘mé feinism’ as overheard recently in one discussion. Inevitably, it has led to a surge in the adoption of at best naïve and at worst reactionary politics and conservative values in the rush to support gay marriage. Perhaps, it is timely to remember the words of Audre Lorde, ‘the masters tools will never dismantle the masters house.’

There is no better example of this than the resurrection of one of the most contemptible of patriarchal disparagements used to demean women who do not conform by none other than Dublin Pride. “Always the Bridesmaid Never the Bride” is the 2008 theme for this year’s events in Dublin. MarriagEquality may disclaim any direct involvement in the theme’s adoption but they are uniquely responsible within LGB activism for endorsing marriage as the only form of legitimacy. No doubt, at some point the choice of theme will be justified as a post-modernist jibe invoking the tools of sexism to send-up the institution of marriage. To be even minimally convincing, the plea of post- modern irony would require a modicum of radical critique forged from an informed awareness of inequality.

However, this is Dublin Pride, whose idea of providing equality of access entails stranding wheelchair users on the edge of a steep, muddy embankment isolated from their friends and forced to reach their assigned ‘space’ through the terrain designated as the drag queens dressing area. When MarriagEquality eschews any critique of marriage preferring to present the institution as the panacea to all our rights deficits, then one can hardly expect Pride to do otherwise.

The Poor Are Always With Us

Marriage is being robustly promoted as the only explicit and exclusive means to full equality when it is actually an institution of privilege. Campaigners for gay marriage are silent on the fact that marriage as an institution rooted in tradition and practice bestows privileges to those within it. Those who are married are privileged over those who are not. The state through its agents and policies economically ensure, politically legislate for and socially enshrine that privilege. In order to be privileged there must be those over whom one has privilege. In the case of marriage, it is for instance, those for whom marriage is not a financially viable state – the poor. Couples in receipt of social welfare benefits are financially disadvantaged by marriage and so endeavour to maintain economic survival wherever possible by claiming as individuals. Otherwise, they are designated as cohabitants, their benefits means-tested and diminished accordingly. That is currently the situation in the straight world.

By promoting marriage as the singular means of achieving equality for same sex couples the campaign not only intends to extend the rights and privileges of marriage to lesbian and gays but to extend the disadvantages of a welfare system to same sex couples which punishes cohabitation for those reliant on welfare benefits. The adverse consequences should the campaign’s demand be fulfilled are not unknown to its proponents. Much of this information is contained in the ICCL report Equality for ALL Families ( 2006) which is drawn upon extensively in MarriagEquality’s own position paper. However, the alternative options and the complimentary requirements laid out in the ICCL report which would ensure or at the very least recognise the inequalities caused by privileging marriage over all other family forms are judiciously avoided in the MarriagEquality document. As it currently stands, it is a social and political initiative which would have difficulties complying with some basic poverty-proofing criteria.

You Are Not Out Till You’re Out!

Apart from the unwieldiness of the slogan, You Are Not Out Till You Are Out To Your TD which as a message lacks a certain ‘punch’, it has limited relevance to, or recognition of the risks its fulfilment would require for those whose lives are experienced in the absence of supportive networks. For instance, there are those who live in isolated rural areas, within hostile families and in communities where difference equates to a soft target. As has been said elsewhere, it is a slogan which implies that the blame lies with lesbians and gays. Without doubt, there are those campaigning for same sex marriage who made personal choices in the past not to come out no matter how urgent the need to confront homophobia and have had their own good reasons for doing so, unfortunately that sensibility has not translated to this element of the campaign. Ironically, for a campaign that is urging us all to be visible, there is no information or identification on its website as to who exactly comprises the campaign’s management board. Even the Iona Institute provides names and bios of its board under the ‘who we are’ section of its website.

And They All Lived Happily Ever After

There is an unfortunate Mills & Boon-like overture to the same sex marriage drive. It is a world where partnerships do not break down nor do they become a battleground. Gay marriage proponents are particularly coy on this aspect of long- term relationships. As activists for partnership rights we need to deal openly and effectively with rights in the event of partnerships breaking down. As well as filling the airwaves with love besotted same sex couples it would bring a necessary and pragmatic edge to the campaign to give an equal focus to the devastation wrought when long term partnerships are dissolved without benefit of any recognition of rights and contributions made by the individuals who entered into them. Partnership rights in the event of relationship breakdown, in terms of equal treatment and fair distribution of assets is as pressing a need as any to have one’s love affirmed in a civil ceremony.

Ou Est Diversity?

Since the reformation of GLEN, there has been a disconcertingly sanitised public representation of lesbian and gay people. Increasingly, we are uniformly presented like the participants in the old OXO television ads- commercials peopled by clean, white, able-bodied, middle class, Joes and Joans. There has been little effort made to present the diversity within the LGB populace. The inevitable consequence of ‘normalising’ LGB people to make them more palatable to a heteronormative society is to invisibilise the ‘other’. In doing so, it colludes with society’s message that ‘otherness’ is deviant and lends itself to the view that those too butch or too camp, too disabled or too ‘ethnic’ are just too ‘other’ for public consumption. Marital equality with heterosexuals is being sought at the expense of the positivity of difference. The drive for ‘normality’ through marriage as currently promoted relies on politics of assimilation that will have long-lasting impacts for the struggle for respect for difference.

Is There A Game Plan And If There Is – Is It A Secret?

The recent leaking of the Heads of Civil Unions Bill, gave much food for thought for all activists and observers of the struggle for gay equality. Given how resistant were the signals coming from Fianna Fáil to anything but the most basic of recognitions, the content of the Heads of Bill and the extent of protections to be considered surprised many. Inevitably, campaigners for same sex marriage sounded like they had been caught off guard by the content. In responses to media questions and interviews there was a heavy reliance on the theme of love is love whether heterosexual or gay and substantive arguments were sadly lacking. In this respect, an important opportunity was lost in giving a reserved welcome to what was on offer and utilising the strength of what was included in the Heads of Bill to logically argue for what was absent, most notably the recognition of children within same sex families and the right to adoption.

However, the campaign’s strategic weakness of narrowly focusing on marriage as the alpha and omega leaves no room for trading up. It raises the question that if a fuller or even full raft of partnership rights were available under Civil Unions to allow the government some wriggle room with more conservative elements within its ranks, would MarriagEquality refuse such an offer? Is the call for marriage, a tactic, a means to an end or the only end that the campaign is prepared to consider? Is what something is called more important than the substance of what it provides? These are important questions that need to be addressed and engaged with publicly within the LGB community.

Parents and Progeny

At last the subject of children in lesbian and gay families has had consistent public airing in recent months. Although not the first initiative or organisation to do so, (eg: ICCL, Equality Authority, Sapphic Ireland’s submission to the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution) MarriagEquality is the first funded LGB entity to take this up as a central theme bringing much-needed further attention to a vital issue of equality. However, the issue is being argued almost exclusively from the position of ‘our’ rights as lesbians and gays to have children. In doing so, it is in danger of falling into the narrow parameters established by the Right who argue that children are best brought up by two opposite sex couples no matter what the calibre of that relationship.

The case for recognising the rights of lesbian and gay families needs to be fought in tandem with the position that children’s rights are supreme over all other competing rights. This is not just about us, it is about those with no independent voice. We do not make better parents than anyone else, as equally we certainly do not make worse simply because of our sexual orientation, but it’s not about us alone, its about children and their rights. Such a stance would not only be refreshing but heaven forbid radical in a State where the level of children’s vulnerability is frightening at the best of times.

Choice for All

Marriage is and should be an option for same sex couples and I and others have argued that publicly for quite a number of years now. However, if equality is to be truly championed then marriage must be promoted as one of a range of options and not as a three line whip. Whether consciously or not, the campaign has so far had an overwhelming air of exclusivity, a lack of public consultation with LGB people or discussion of other viable and equally legitimate options. The desire for marriage does not need to undermine the potential for other options nor should it be an obstacle to those options which would benefit and protect an entire range of other couples who require certain rights now in order to avert further inequalities and misery or those who do not and have never wanted marriage. The problem is, to date the campaign has been conducted with a worrying lack of respect for the importance of choice or the diversity of people’s lives and arrangements. In fact it states quite categorically that marriage is the sole option: “MarriageEquality believes that marriage is the only option for achieving equality for lesbians and gay men.”

In a recent correspondence with MarriagEquality, one of its co-chairs stated that they ‘are about the RIGHT TO CHOOSE’ ( sic), but Grainne Healy’s recent article in GCN states exactly and dogmatically the opposite. In it she argues that marriage is the only vehicle for equality and that other forms of civil partnerships for gay and straight couples will be easier to develop from that basis, but she does not say how or why she thinks that can happen, nor does she commit MarriagEquality to pursuing that end. Surely, if marriage is reinforced as the traditional institution by which all are expected to regularise their partnerships it will be even harder to unseat it as the only available form of regularisation. Healy uses the ‘back of the bus’ analogy for equality, rationalising that any other form of partnership recognition only moves us at best to the middle of the bus. The article pre-supposes that we all want to be on the same bus and that it is the only form of transportation to a state of fairness and equal treatment.

If we truly respect the right to choose then the challenge for progressive activists is to focus on winning the social and economic supports which reflect family and household diversity and the range of choices and arrangements that we enter into. To do that we need a broader vision of social justice, than the single-tracked confining of our lives into the narrow template of marriage.

Marie Mulholland was Convenor of the ICCL working group which produced the Report, Equality for All Families ( 2006) From 2000-2002 as a Development Officer for the Equality Authority she had responsibility for developing work on the sexual orientation ground and producing the Equality Authority report, Implementing Equality for Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals ( 2002).

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