So, the subject of same-sex marriage has been back in the headlines lately. While the finer details are still being debated in Parliament and the Unrepentant Wanker wing of the Conservative party has been wailing and gnashing its dentures, it looks extremely likely that in the not-too-distant future, civil partnerships will be scrapped and the term ‘marriage’ will apply to legally recognised partnerships between two people of any sex.
Some people will be very excited by this news. Many more will greet it with a sigh of relief and a quiet murmur of ‘about bloody time’. For my own part however, I can’t say I’m especially pleased. This is not because I have some passionate ideological objection to the idea of gay people getting married, but because I’m not entirely sold on the concept of marriage in itself. In amidst all the protest and mudslinging, the one question I’ve never heard asked is: what’s the point of marriage anyway?
The traditional Anglican wedding ceremony, as written in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (which remains the official prayer book of the Church of England), lists three reasons for the existence of the institution of holy matrimony. Only the third relates to love. Otherwise, according to the church, marriage exists so people can have children and bring them up as Christians, and also to prevent fornication – that is, because it’s unrealistic to insist on everyone being celibate, the Church will graciously permit you the occasional shag as long as you only do it with one particular person.
Throughout most of history and in most cultures worldwide, marriage has traditionally been less to do with the deep emotional bond between two people, and more of a property transaction, with the means of production (ie. women) being formally passed between one owner (the father) to another (the son), sometimes with livestock and furniture thrown in to sweeten the deal. The main point of marriage as an institution is not to recognise the deep emotional bond between two people in love, but to provide some guarantee that a man’s heirs are likely to be genetically related to him.
So when hard-line conservatives use ‘but they can’t have children!’ as a reason not to allow same-gender marriage, it’s not the bizarre non sequitur it seems – the main reason for the existence of marriage is to provide some certainty about the parentage of children, or at the very least, who’s going to bring them up.
‘That’s all very well,’ you say, ‘But that’s in the past, and laws and attitudes have changed. Marriage now is about love.’
To which I’d respond, if you love each other, why do you need to get married? Co-habiting couples aren’t inferior to married ones. A marriage ceremony doesn’t magically make a relationship somehow better and stronger. Whether a relationship lasts depends entirely on the people within it, not their marital status. The only reason to be married now, particularly if the issue of children is irrelevant, is for the legal benefits.
A decent enough reason, but why is nobody questioning why married people get benefits for being married? It makes sense, I suppose, to have a means of formally recognising in law that two people intend to permanently live together and share their resources. It does not make sense, however, to purely limit this to couples who are romantically involved. Platonic friends may choose to permanently live together, ditto siblings. Some romantic relationships involve more than two people. None of these people, however, can be officially partnered in law.
The emotional weight attached to the word ‘marriage’ has led many to feel that civil partnerships are a second-class option, and we will only have equality when all couples are entitled to a marriage. Certainly the system as it currently stands is a shambles, with two separate legal frameworks for what amounts to the same thing, and a truly ridiculous situation for any trans individuals who wish to legally change their gender while remaining with their current spouse – as it is, getting one’s birth certificate amended requires that the individual get divorced, then re-marry/re-civil partnership their partner accordingly, all because the law won’t allow same-sex marriages or different-sex civil partnerships.
So clearly something has to change. I just feel it’s a shame that the move is towards marriage, with all the historical baggage and religious connotations, when there’s the chance to make a clean break with the past and replace the whole outdated mess with something simpler.
I realise, though, that I’m in the minority, and the abolition of marriage is unlikely to happen any time soon. Thinking pragmatically, I find myself in the unusual position of actually agreeing with David Cameron and Boris Johnson for once. Let those who want to get married, get married, and let those who want to perform the ceremony, perform the ceremonies. If nothing else, once we have this issue finally resolved and done with, at least then the discourse about gay rights can move on to talking about something else for a change.