Same-sex couples to the rescue of marriage?

The latest issue of Free Inquiry features pieces by myself and Tom Flynn on same-sex marriage and related matters. Free Inquiry publishes some material online, to tease potential readers, and in this case it has published Flynn’s interesting piece, which suggests that the institution of marriage, which has lost a lot of on-ground support in recent decades (many people are not bothering to marry, and a sizeable number think the institution has lost its relevance), may be actually be saved by gay couples pressing for equal marriage rights.

As I emphasize in my own piece (which is not available online, so you’ll have to buy the magazine), I have consistently argued in favor of sex-same marriage throughout the current debate, including in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State and a bit more briefly on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal.

Perhaps, however, I’ve been less enthusiastic than some – I don’t mean that I’ve been unenthusiastic, just that I’ve, quite literally, not been one of the most enthusiastic people on my side of the argument. You might think that the arguments I’ve concentrated on have a more detached, less passionate sound to them than those from certain other commentators. If that’s what you think, I possibly stand guilty, and it may be because I feel some ambivalence about the entire concept of marriage, and especially about state involvement.

Flynn captures some of the reason why – and it will be familiar to many people who’ve been thinking about the issue over decades, not just over the last few years:

In one 2010 Pew Research Center Study, four in ten respondents said they already considered marriage obsolete.

Increasingly, matrimony has lost its power as the default state/religious apparatus for sanctioning pair-bonds. “The institution is dying—for the poor,” Streshinsky declared, while for wealthier Americans it has come to serve less as a normative rite than a design platform for celebratory excess.

As I’ve often written, secular humanists—in­deed, Enlightenment in­dividualists generally—should hail these developments. There’s something deeply wrong with the idea that free individuals should require the public sanction of the state—or even of their families and friends—to make their choice of a life-partner “legitimate.” And we should be no less queasy with matrimony’s historic cargo. At its roots it’s a disturbing amalgam of state and religion, a separationist’s nightmare entangled in its pedigree as a sacrament of the church. Anyone who views women as men’s equals should recoil from marriage’s origins as an arrangement for transferring property rights in the bride from her father to her husband. (Which is why the father traditionally “gives away” the bride.) For all these reasons, since the nineteenth-century Golden Age of Freethought, a strain of dogged resistance to matrimony has run through much atheist and, later, secular-humanist activism.

Later he adds:

Fifteen years ago, no LGBT advocate could have imagined that we would be where we are today. Back then, gay activists hoped not to reform marriage but to respond to its presumably irredeemable bigotry and narrowness by supplanting it. They dreamed not of same-sex marriage but of civil unions.

To be frank, civil unions had much to recommend them. Given time and focused activism, it is likely that they would have grown to confer most or all of the same rights granted by traditional matrimony: parental rights, sickroom visitation, health-care decision-making, community property, the right to inherit, and so on. What secular humanists especially liked about civil unions was that they would represent a brand-new institution constructed entirely within the domain of secular law. Civil unions would be as free of matrimony’s tangled roots as they were of its historical negatives. The activists of fifteen years ago dared to hope for a future, perhaps a couple of decades ahead, when robust civil unions might be available to same-sex couples across the land.

This perspective is not heard much in current debates, and perhaps that’s understandable, even appropriate. The priority may, after all, be equality for LGBT people. That may mean dispensing with some ambiguities and subtleties for the purpose of practical political campaigning. Still, I do find it refreshing to get a reminder from time to time that the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples while leaving marriage itself much as it was might not be the utopian outcome – perhaps it’s the best practical outcome and the one we should be fighting for, but there are other possibilities that looked viable and progressive even quite recently.

Again, I support moves for liberal democracies to recognize same-sex marriages for those who want them. It is often argued that this will somehow undermine the institution of marriage, but it may be that the opposite is actually true: it might even help the institution’s survival if large numbers of same-sex couples value it so much and start to take part in it; it may even tend to give the institution more credibility when we currently have people fighting to gain access to it. More power to the people concerned.

All the same, what if a time comes one day when marriage no longer seems needed or especially desirable as a legal institution – perhaps if more and more people come to the view that it is not important, and if we progressively extend the legal rights that go with it to couples who are not formally married?

I won’t be losing sleep at the possibility that – for completely different reasons that began to have effects some time ago now – the institution does erode and we find viable alternatives to it. Marriage is not an institution that needs to be preserved for its own sake. It is valuable insofar as it serves human needs … and if they can be served in other ways, so be it. Or so it seems to me.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Here’s an important article on the question of where marriage is going. Short version: it’s here to stay among more educated people, and good for children. So I’m not sold on this idea that the fight for LGBT marriage (however much I do support it) will be the thing that saves the institution.

  2. michael reidy

    Russell wrote:
    All the same, what if a time comes one day when marriage no longer seems needed or especially desirable as a legal institution – perhaps if more and more people come to the view that it is not important, and if we progressively extend the legal rights that go with it to couples who are not formally married?

    If people aren’t registered in any way how are they to have rights alloted to them – simply on their say so?

  3. Couldn’t the idea that marriage is increasing among educated people be a U.S. trend instead of a
    universal one?

    From my experience, which may not be a representative cross section, marriage is not on the rise among educated couples in Chile. Quite the contrary.

  4. Let’s have a good, democratic debate about whether we should free the slaves or let women vote 😛 Thus is the “debate” on “gay marriage.” What’s obvious to some may not be to others….

  5. I am so friggin BORED of ‘gay issues’

  6. Michael, it’s not actually a great problem in practice. Most countries have moved to grant the sorts of rights we’re talking about – those that Tom Flynn lists – without relying on formal marriage.

  7. michael reidy

    Following Tom Flynn on this issue will have you on the scenic route. His latest stop is that he has got married to his woman by regular license in order to avail of advantageous health insurance. It’s a matter of cost/benefit analysis on the part of both the individual and the state. At the moment the single mother is at a disadvantage in comparison to the married. Fathers should be pursued for maintenance. Gay or straight lack of commitment ought not to be rewarded.

  8. What you say is doubtless correct in the US (among other things because the US has a bizarre health insurance system unlike any other in the Western world). But you’ll find that the situation is now very different in Western European countries. My comment wasn’t that there are no advantages to being married (I’m married myself, though the advantages to this at the time, here in Australia, were probably much greater than they are now). It was that there are no insuperable barriers to extending the legal benefits of marriage to people who are not formally married. Outside the US, no one is finding this terribly difficult.

  9. In 1998 in Chile they passed a law giving all children, born in or out of matrimony, exactly the same legal and inheritance rights and making all parents, whether legally married or not, equally responsible for their children.

    That changed the picture regarding children and marriage.

  10. Leo Smith: And I’m rather bored of not having the same legal rights as straight people. And I’m a bit bored of homophobic bullying and discrimination too.

    Wait, bored might not be the right term. Hopping mad, actually.

    Stop violence, discrimination and lack of legal equality and these “boring” issues will go away.

  11. Steve Merrick

    Leo: in supposedly civilised countries throughout the world, gay men are being beaten, simply for being gay men. If you’re bored, get over it. It’s better than being kicked and punched until you’re dead.

  12. But why should anyone have ‘legal rights’ of any kind merely because they happen to cohabit with one other unrelated adult human being — as opposed to, say, none, or two, or a couple of grown children, or an aged parent? The only ‘rights’ married people should be entitled to are the same rights as every other person. A person’s choice (or non-choice) of living arrangements should be completely immaterial to their status as a human being.

  13. Norman Hanscombe

    Two aspects in this ‘debate’ have fascinated me.
    1.The passion of arguments in favour of change coming from advocates who previously made quite disparaging comments about marriage per se.
    2.The apparent lack of thought given by educated participants to questions about the evolutionary values inherent in “old-fashioned” notions about marriage which have been seen in societies, regardless of what (if any) sort of religion particular societies happen to have adopted.

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