I have changed my mind about gay marriage: it’s time for the federal parliament to legalise marriage for same-sex couples. Marriage, as in the real thing. Not a “gay version”, not a euphemism-laden consolation prize that comes close: marriage equality for same-sex couples.
When I’ve written about same-sex marriage in the past I haven’t been avowedly anti-gay marriage, I just – “just” – haven’t taken it particularly seriously.
I’ve dismissed it as a “political bandwagon that can’t be stopped” – that is, a fashionable issue rather than a burning issue of equality and human rights.
I’ve joked about it, warning that “gay marriage will mean more cards distributed around the office for signing and more envelopes doing the rounds for donations to buy useless gifts”. Or this: “I always thought the most compelling advantage of being gay was not having to bother with marriage. Now it seems gay romantics are determined to rip up their get-out-of-jail-free cards.” (I’ve got a million of ‘em.)
When I have sought to make a serious point about gay marriage it is to question whether the federal government should be in the business of defining marriage at all. Here my argument was that gay marriage should be free to emerge in an environment in which social and cultural behaviour, not legal definitions, dictate custom.
“[G]iven that marriage has become such a flexible and diverse social institution, surely it is time for government to give up its role as protector of the institution. Rather than amend the Marriage Act, the federal government should abolish it. The government’s business should be to record permanent relationships for purposes of taxation, superannuation and other benefits and legal requirements,” I wrote in 2011.
“Beyond that, it should be for churches, registered celebrants and even commercial enterprises to offer marriage as a service. Let private operators offer whatever products and services they please – marriages, civil unions, certified life partner agreements, even renewable licences. Open up marriage to the competition of private enterprise, let the government concern itself only with recording these arrangements and let’s get on with the things that really matter.”
Well, my condescension aside, same-sex marriage does matter. And given that the law currently does and pointedly has done since 2004 define marriage as being between a man and a woman, it’s time to for Australia to show some consistency in its attitude to the gay community and some honestly in acknowledging how much society has changed from the white-picket-fence era of the 1950s.
It seems extraordinary now, even shocking, that there was a time not so long ago when homosexuality was illegal in Australia. There remain pockets of intolerance towards homosexuality, some of it virulent, but on the whole gay men and women are visible and welcome members of the community. (Hopefully there will come a time when we don’t even have to make such a statement.)
In 2014, there is nothing remarkable about same-sex couples and “the family” has become such a complex and diverse social organism that same-sex parenting has fused itself into the social fabric virtually without murmur – “traditional family” warriors notwithstanding. So one can be gay, one can live in a loving same-sex-relationship, and a same-sex couple may even be bringing up children in the suburbs. But no marriage. It is mean-spirited, disrespectful and irrational to draw the line at gay marriage, to insist on marriage as the exclusive preserve of male-female couples.
I once wrote: “I won’t pretend to understand the demand for same-sex marriage.” But now I do understand it. And like so many epiphanies, it is personal experience that has opened my eyes.
A couple of months ago my marriage broke up, just a few weeks short of our 25th anniversary. (No one to blame but me. I’ve not been an easy person to live with.) That catastrophic event brought into sharp relief the profound love I had, and have, for my wife and of course my children. I don’t know by what circuitous route my mind took me to the issue of gay marriage, but I thought to myself: if two people of the same sex love each other with the same depth as I do my wife, and they wish to express that love through marriage, by what right does anyone dare stand in their way?
Seen in these unequivocal terms, it’s impossible to mount a credible argument against same-sex marriage, and irresponsible to consider it an inconsequential issue.
Society has changed, attitudes have changed, and our laws must change accordingly. Marriage is not a natural state; it is a social instrument, something we have invented. And even the very best inventions have to be finetuned from time to time. If Prime Minister Tony Abbott won’t show leadership on this issue, let us hope that federal parliament will.