Why I’m conflicted about gay marriage

Here is yet another story of bigotry against gay people: a gay woman went to buy a wedding dress. When the shop found out she was marrying a woman, they refused to sell her the dress. So strong was the force of prejudice that the wedding-industrial complex forgot its main motivation of making a profit from a woman perfectly willing to shell out a small fortune on a single-wear garment. Capitalism fail.

Despite this, public opinion in the USA is favourable towards gay marriage, despite a media-based wobble which made the public opinion graph look like the end of a cock. And, of course, you have to be a remarkable bellend to display such naked prejudice as to oppose gay people basic equality.

The thing is, I’m fairly sure I’m not a bellend, and I’m not sure I’m in favour of gay marriage. It is not because I do not think queer people are human beings who deserve equal treatment from society. In fact, I would rather see marriage abolished entirely, for everyone.

As marriage equality advocates have pointed out, it is not very fair that only a certain type of relationship is legally recognised: one man, one woman. However, the marriage equality movement tends to discriminate against other types of relationship. In their rush to point out that same sex marriages would not lead to the world ending, marriage equality advocates often fight against the slippery slope argument and say that all they want is for two people of the same sex to get married, and that anything else is wrong.

I think this is somewhat unfair, and discriminates against people who have loving relationships outside of the traditional monogamous framework. What of poly people? Marriage equality advocates do not care for three or more people in a relationship to put a legal stamp of approval on their relationships, using the same arguments against polyamory as those who seek to deny marriage to gay people. Why only fight for marriage between two people, when consensual, stable, loving relationships can be defined far more creatively?

Here, I suspect the “family” argument abounds: that one of the vital functions of marriage is for building stable families. Yet two parents seems somewhat arbitrary when one looks beyond the basic biological function of reproduction–indeed, even biologically, many children have more than two parents with the advent of IVF and egg and sperm donations. The only function marriage serves is to decrease the ways in which a family can be defined, maintaining the traditional nuclear family as the only way to live.

I have reached the age now where a lot of people I know are getting married, and I have been invited to a lot of weddings. I am not looking forward to this; it will be intensely hard for me to stay quiet when the vicar asks about any objections to the union when my brain is screaming “MARRIAGE IS A TOOL OF SOCIAL CONTROL AND HAS NO PLACE IN A MODERN FREE SOCIETY.” . I am not alone in thinking this: there is a rich tradition in believing in free love without state intervention. My imaginary BFF Mary Wollstonecraft was an advocate. And why should the state have any role in valuing some types of relationship over others? A relationship between two or more people should not be a concern of anyone but the people involved.

Those who advocate marriage while acknowledging the basic tenets of free love tend to defend marriage by saying that it is useful for two reasons: property inheritance and medical decision making–the next of kin status. Both of these problems can be solved without getting married, though. Next of kin status in hospitals is far more fluid than most people think: they tend to recognise “common law” partners, and it is possible to draw up “next of kin cards“, which are like organ donation cards and leave instructions for medical staff in case of unconsciousness. The rationale behind next of kin cards is that families are becoming far more diverse than those which are recognised by the state.

As for the rest, why can people in a relationship which looks to continue for the foreseeable future draw up legal documents together? People in same sex relationships who have been denied the right to legally marry have done so for years. An added bonus of this approach is that the documents drawn up will be unique to every relationship: far from the state-mandated, one-size-fits-all approach, there is an individual legal status for an individual relationship.

Perhaps this sounds somewhat unromantic when compared to a wedding. Here is another problem with marriage: it has been thoroughly co-opted by the wedding industry. Weddings are a capitalist’s wet dream: one day will cost the happy couple on average £18, 605. This cost includes all of the things that marketing has told us we must need or we are Doing Relationships Wrong, such as engagement rings and a big white meringue dress that can only be worn once. Rather than a simple signing of a legal document, which is what marriage essentially is, it becomes a big party where one has to do everything right in a certain order. Weddings reinforce the notion that marriage is the done thing; they make legally linking oneself to another person a rite of passage, rather than something which should be a matter of choice. They reinforce the default optioning of monogamy.

If some people in a relationship fancy throwing a party to show how in love they are, that is fine by me. Why should the party coincide with signing legal documents, though? Why should it also coincide with a pantomime of tradition and ritual, and a vast amount of cash spent which could better be spent on building a life together? You wouldn’t throw a lavish party costing tens of thousands of pounds to celebrate writing a will, or filing a tax return, would you?

Bringing in same sex marriage will not help bring about marriage equality, as marriage itself is so grubbily problematic. In the long run, those who are helped by the recognition of same-sex marriage are those in the wedding industry: suddenly, they have a whole new base of consumers for an army of single-wear suits and flowers that will die and a cake that nobody wants to eat because nobody really likes marzipan.

For real equality, we need to abolish marriage. We cannot have the state and the church dictating how love and families should look. For real equality, we need freedom from marriage.

In a world without marriage, anything is possible.


14 responses to “Why I’m conflicted about gay marriage

  • Nick

    Hmmm…marriage isn’t something I personally believe in (I too personally find it greatly problematic, for many of the reasons you’ve listed), but I do also think it should be available to anyone. I don’t feel the need to validate my relationship with an OTT party (I do like wedding cake btw), but again, some people do. I just don’t think it should be forced on anyone as the only way to show you love someone (hell, my sister is already unhappy and bored of her marriage from last September). I would rather society changed its views on unmarried people instead than abolish the whole thing entirely. I think more people are getting used to the idea of relationships that don’t result in marriage anyway, though I realise there is greater pressure on women to marry/have spawn early.

  • Claire Q

    I wrote about this a little while ago, and I sort of agree with you but I’d say open the definition way wide, rather than remove marriage altogether. This *may* be because I feel happy for the many of my friends who are getting married at the moment – I seem to have reached that age too. I had a “just the party” celebration in a previous relationship that worked out fine (well, the party did…). I know people who have had the *just the legal bit* weddings too. You’re right that there is an awful lot of pressure to conform to this system and I am finding it hard and perhaps pointless to resist, since my current relationship model happens to be endorsed by society at large. Yay.

    http://nowebsite.co.uk/blog/2010/12/marriage/

  • cartographer

    Next of kin status in hospitals is far more fluid than most people think: they tend to recognise “common law” partners, and it is possible to draw up “next of kin cards“, which are like organ donation cards and leave instructions for medical staff in case of unconsciousness. The rationale behind next of kin cards is that families are becoming far more diverse than those which are recognised by the state.

    This may be true in theory but in practice not so much, I have had too many people with serious mental health issues tell me how the medical establishment ignored their wishes and insisted in informing and taking decisions from their parents (who very often were the cause of some of the mental health issues instead) This is why I got married. I wanted no wiggle room on the fact that my parents have nothing to do with me or any treatment I may need.

    To be fair weddings do not have to cost that much, capitalism will co opt everything and convince us that we must pay through the nose to do it “right”

  • Duck

    The Mental Health Act is rather strict on definition of ‘nearest relative’, and marriage (or CP) is the only way you can choose your NR, who then has particular powers that no-one else can have. ‘Power of attorney’ doesn’t work for the MHA.

    Also, the figures showing people spend silly money on weddings are generally from crap commercial ‘surveys’ with a very skewed sampling population (people who read bridal magazines, mostly). I suspect that the median is going to be a lot lower.

  • Scriptrix

    Surely this isn’t a problem with marriage so much as with how marriage is defined? The numbers or genders involved or the fact that an institution has been co-opted by capitalism do not necessarily invalidate the basic premise that many human beings want not just a legal protection or benefit from, but a ritual celebration of, their relationship(s).

    If people should be free to make choices about their relationships (in a “modern free society”), then abolishing marriage would be to restrict those choices. Especially bearing in mind that many people marry for religious or spiritual reasons – we may not agree with those reasons, but they should not be restricted (interestingly, many religious people would agree with you that marriage should have nothing to do with the state, but for rather different reasons…)

  • Claire Q

    The question is not about banning marriage in a spiritual sense, though. It’s about the legal recognition of marriage as a contract that confers certain rights and responsibilities. Abolishing legal marriage would for me require the wider provision of the legal benefits separately – by many separate contracts, something you can already do to a certain extent but as other have mentioned not *everything* in the marriage contract can be replicated elsewhere. Being free to make choices doesn’t necessitate state support for those choices, merely state indifference.

  • Ben

    Hmmm. You’re normally pretty bang on in your analysis, Stavvers, but I think you’re kind of off here. Two points…

    1. Just because something is a rite of passage, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value or that it buys in to a socially oppressive model. I got married at the back end of last year – it was a nice way of celebrating an aspiration (and commitment) to permanance within the relationship, rather than the ‘lets see how it goes’ kind of view which my previous relationships had. It wasn’t strictly speaking necessary, but it was nice to do – and it has, genuinely, changed my perception of our relationship in terms of hopes for the future. I’m not sure that popping down to the solicitors would have had the same effect…

    2. While it is a tough break that legitimate polyamorists can’t enjoy the legal benefits of marriage, I suspect that the more super-patriarchal polygamous dynamics such as the more unsavoury flavours of Mormonism and Islam where ‘junior’ wives are manipulated and oppressed would be the majority of relationships that were being legitimised through this sort of expansion of the scope of marriage.

  • fearlessknits (@fearlessknits)

    As someone who is both married and polyamorous, I can see both sides here. On the one hand, my husband and I got married because we love one another and we want to spend the rest of our lives together. (The others weren’t around then – we were poly, but hadn’t yet all gotten together.) On the other hand, the present system sucks because I now can’t make the same legal promises to my two boyfriends and my girlfriend, to whom I have an equally strong commitment.

    I’ve heard the idea of separating legal and religious marriage before, which is an idea with some merit. This could involve making legal marriage more flexible, but still something that requires agreement from all participants. (For example, I could marry my girlfriend, but only if her husband and my husband also sign the paperwork.)

    For the situation we’re in, we would want all 5 of us to be able to marry as a group. I suspect that this is unlikely to be possible within our lifetimes, but it’s really nice to see someone else even mentioning the subject. Very often, being polyamorous feels invisible.

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  • Anna Machell (@thespyglass)

    Yis to this. (Which I just found coz you were talking to someone on Twitter about it.)

    Also the nuclear family serves as a decent capitalist bootcamp, in that the set-up reflects many of the power roles on which the system of work is built, so it’s good to do whatever we can to undermine the conditioning that it’s the best way for us to live together. (Which, as you point out, tonnes of people are already doing quite naturally.)

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  • Jessica Burde

    Interestingly, the US has twice approved treaties and/or UN resolutions guaranteeing family as a fundamental right, with no mention as to how family is defined. There is a small (but growing) movement towards ‘family rights’ – the idea that in keeping with these already-established international agreements, all types of family should be legally recognized and protected.

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