Marriage: Not that there’s anything wrong with that
Raised on a diet of Disney movies, contemporary society has become so besotted with the idea of heterosexual romance, marriage and weddings, we fail to see the people for the confetti and happily-ever-afters.
Caught up in a Hollywood version of what constitutes a legitimate union, we’re becoming exclusive, political and discriminatory and overlooking what should be a very basic human right: the right of the individual to form a loving, public and legal commitment to another person and have it civilly sanctioned regardless of sexuality.
I find it fascinating and more than a little bit perplexing, that when it comes to discussions of same-sex unions, those best positioned to provide compassion and understanding resort to straw polls, prejudicial language and silencing tactics to proclaim, yet again, the almighty significance of heterosexual unions.
But this is perhaps where we all need a good dose of history.
Marriage, or whatever else we want to call it, is part of a long and fraught saga. Fundamentally a business transaction between two families since Ancient times, marriage didn’t involve the church until the Medieval period. Even then, most people avoided the clergy (because of rising costs) and opted for civil ceremonies – or union under ‘common law’, fundamentally, a public declaration of commitment before witnesses followed by consummation.
According to Maureen Waller’s book, 1700: Scenes from London Life, the ‘marriage legislation of 1694-6 added a new dimension [to marriage]. For the first time, the state had a vested interest in the formal performance of marriage because of the taxes it accrued from it.’
Waller also reports instances during this period of same-sex marriage, of men literally swapping wives, bigamy, polygamy, secret marriages, back-dated marriages (to legitimise unborn babies), of much misery and little happiness. It was an economic transaction, where women were merely chattels of exchange, and little else.
Writer Daniel Defoe, equated the ‘marriage-market’ to violent rape and, in a very progressive vein, advocated for friendship and respect as the basis of a union.
We would all do well to listen to Defoe.
In other words, this heterosexual institution we idealise has a long, rocky road, littered with the legislative attempts of governments to control it and thus make money and of the church to undermine the government and wrest financial and spiritual control of its flock.
Discussions about same-sex unions need, first and foremost, to recognise this complex social and sexual history as well as the contemporary emotional, legal and spiritual rights of all human beings. Sexuality does not need to enter the discussion – if it did, how many heterosexuals would want to hide in their sexually-charged, skeleton-cluttered closets?
We also need to redress the language used when having these discussions. Homosexuality is not a choice, nor is it a ‘lifestyle’. Describing it that way homogenises homosexuals and reduces their very sense of self to a sexual act only. Sexuality alone should never define a person.
But what’s so wrong with same-sex unions anyhow? What difference does it make if male or female homosexuals are legally allowed to form an emotional commitment and accrue the business and other benefits of such a transaction? How does it really affect me or you?
If same-sex unions are understood as some commentators have described them, as ‘inverting’ traditional marriage, then we’re all in trouble. If, however, they’re regarded as including anyone who is capable of love and commitment, of choosing to have children or not, and giving the couple public and legitimate recognition, then we’re not only being responsible and wise, but compassionate, tolerant of difference, and inclusive.
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