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Back You are here: Home Sex, Gender & Sexuality Diversity GLB The right to marry is only the first step

The right to marry is only the first step

marriageequalityMarriage equality is important, but it is certainly not where the debate needs to end. Erin Stewart reports on ‘Why get married when you could be happy?’, a discussion panel presented at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last week featuring Jeanette Winterson, Dennis Altman, Benjamin Law, Masha Gessen, and chair Annette Shun Wah.

24 May 2012

The discussion started with the premise that it is obvious that same-sex couples should be able to get married. Winterson described this as “necessary for equality” and “obvious”. The rest of the panel agreed – as did most of the audience. Winterson asked all those who didn’t think marriage equality is self-evidently important to raise their hand. A lonely hand waved in the packed venue.

Law further claimed that marriage equality was inevitable. With 80 per cent of young people aged between 18 to 25 recognising that same-sex couples should have a right to marriage, Law pointed out that “old people die”, rendering this issue not one of “if” but “when”.

It was refreshing for a debate regarding same-sex marriage to start on this point, rather than to argue whether same-sex marriage is okay. This is a real treat in the context of mainstream media and the push to present ‘both sides’ of particular debates, however derogatory or offensive some arguments presented are.

Yet, while each member of the panel emphasised the importance of marriage for legal and practical benefits, the value of marriage was disputed. The panel recognised that people should have a choice, and that queer rights activists should put up a united front on this issue .But behind the high-profile debate about same-sex marriage is a complicated and diverse picture of the realities of different relationships, which the debate tends to sideline. This is a cause of frustration.

In sum, as Altman said, there lingers the notion that we should “reform the Marriage Act to allow same-sex marriage, then repeal the Act entirely”. He wishes that people would aspire beyond the “sanctity of marriage” and organise their own relationships in ways that suited them. Clearly, civil unions solve the problem of legally tying people together, but it was up to individuals to create relationship arrangements for themselves.

Altman said that marital relationships assume a long-term, monogamist relationship between two people. He describes this as “heteronormative”. Yet, he sees this as being at odds with the many kinds of relationships which don’t fit this mould but are widely accepted in the queer community. He says, for instance, that it is rare for two gay men, even in a committed and long-term relationship to be entirely monogamist.

This was the main cause of respectful disagreement amongst the panel and the audience.

An audience member felt that Altman’s general summary of ‘the gay male’, however well-researched, did not reflect his own experience. The audience member felt that he had chosen monogamy because it was want he genuinely wanted, not merely as a way to ‘blindly mimic heteronormativity.’

The controversy surrounding Altman’s words also went to the heart of what marriage is and what role it plays in society.

Law noted that talk about same-sex marriage is quite “boring” because essentially, we are “arguing about contracts”. It can be helpful when a couple chooses to travel overseas to be officially married, as well as for medical, tax, and superannuation reasons.

Aside from the practicalities of marriage (or in the very least, a civil union arrangement), Altman said that marriage was simply an anachronism, a way for a man to ensure that his wife bore only his children. Marriage is reflective of a desire to be reconciled with one’s biology. Gessen, who has three children with five identified parents, feels that there is no way an institution of marriage could reflect her family lives or the multitude of family arrangements which are possible and preferable.

Yet, as Winterson outlines, there are a number of different theories why people may want marriage. She said that perhaps marriage attempts to create a sacred space between people in the absence of large-scale spirituality, or perhaps that it is a way to find stability in the midst of instability.

It could also act as a force to tether two people. If a couple are fighting, they can refer to their marriage and their formal commitment to each other to stay when they might otherwise leave.

Winterson queries whether this solidarity and commitment to one person, regardless of whether or not it is ‘natural’, helps humanity thrive.

Law also observes from the weddings that he has attended that marriage is a wonderful opportunity to “throw a big party” and a moving way for people to express their commitment to each other in a kind of right-of passage. An audience member added that her “big parties” (she described herself as unofficially married to her partner) helped them stay together. The expression of love was motivating and important in the face of overwhelming and daily discrimination as a lesbian.

On the edges of this debate, though pursued through audience questioning, was the fact that often the idea of polyamory is used as an argument against same-sex marriage. For many people who are happily polyamorous, being used as a scare tactic is obviously a concern. As Law pointed out, we’re often asked in the marriage debate, “If we legalise same-sex marriage, where will it end? Will people have multiple husbands and wives? Will they be able to marry their fridge?”

Gessen added in relation to her own experience that when multiple people in a relationship are afforded the opportunity to legally unite, the people who benefit most are the children.

The debate on same-sex marriage was also criticised for the way it persecutes singledom. Not everyone has a partner and marriage literally cannot be for everyone and their lovers. As Altman points out, “You have to have a lover first!”

The discussion also briefly looked overseas. Gessen is from Russia, and though she describes the legal structures surrounding marriage in the US as woefully inadequate, it’s still “like time travel” when she goes between Russia and the US. While queer issues are at least discussed in the US (albeit in ways that can be quite offensive), the oppressive regime in Russia makes it particularly difficult to be openly queer.

Even in her state of Massachusetts, a liberal state when compared to others, Gessen opted not to divorce her partner for several reasons. She exclaimed, “If you think getting into marriage is difficult, try getting out of it!” If she were to divorce, the state would decide custody arrangements and money arrangements on behalf of her family, regardless of the fact that they have put in place their own arrangements which work perfectly for them. In a lot of cases, still, it’s ‘the state knows best’.

Additionally, Law has recently conducted research for his upcoming book, Gaysia, in which he found gay men in China purposefully going on the internet to find wives in lesbians so that they could meet social expectations about marriage.

Overall, the message that was sent out loud and clear at this discussion was that marriage equality is important, but it is certainly not where the debate needs to end. The debate needs to be both global and personal, emphasising that individuals may want to create different paths for themselves and their relationships, and that the marriage framework needs to either support that or go away.

Erin Stewart is associate editor at The Scavenger.

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