A 2011 Roy Morgan Poll found that 68% of Australians support same-sex marriage, up 6% from a Galaxy Poll taken the previous year. Nevertheless, opponents of equal marriage for homosexual, transgender and intersex people still receive the support of the majority of federal politicians.These opponents have focused their attention on “immoralities” that they claim will be the next step in the fight for marriage equality.
The Australian Christian Lobby has run campaign videos claiming that same-sex marriage would lead to polyamorous (multiple lovers) marriage (i.e. polygamy). Its comments were echoed by former shadow parliamentary secretary Cory Bernardi, who said that same-sex marriage could lead to “three people or four people that love each other being able to enter into a permanent union endorsed by society”. He also said that it could lead to “consensual sexual relations between humans and animals”.
The more conservative section of the campaign for marriage equality has argued against this slippery slope hypothesis, saying that same-sex marriage is virtuous and distinct from polyamory or any other form of relationship which breaks down traditional structures. An Australians for Marriage Equality (AME)’s submission to a Senate enquiry argues: “Certainly, those calling for same-sex marriage are not proponents of polyamory. A large part of same-sex couples’ desire to marry is being able to experience the traditions, rights and responsibilities that come with marriage as it is currently understood.” In his speech supporting same-sex marriage, US President Barrack Obama said: “When I think of members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed, monogamous same-sex relationships who are raising kids together … I think same-sex couples should be able to get married”.
Proponents of same-sex marriage have also frequently commented on the marriages of others (particularly celebrities) that have ended in divorce, the implication being that they can do “committed for life” much better than many heterosexual people.
Marriage and the family as an economic unit have oppressed women since the emergence of class society. The word family derives from the Latin word familia, meaning the totality of slaves belonging to one man. Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai pointed out in her essay “Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations”: “In the era of private property and the bourgeois-capitalist economic system, marriage and the family are grounded in (a) material and financial considerations, (b) economic dependence of the female sex on the family breadwinner – the husband – rather than the social collective, and (c) the need to care for the rising generation”.
Or, as then Prime Minister John Howard put it in 1997, “The family is the best welfare system there is”.
Proponents of equal marriage such as AME’s Rodney Croome argue that “marriage is no longer the antiquated one-size-fits-all cultural monolith it was a few decades ago”. And while it is true that marriage has come a long way (in 1985 rape within marriage was still legal), heterosexual marriages and most recognised heterosexual domestic relationships are still far from being equal. Working women still carry out the vast majority (two-thirds) of housework, and this only tends to increase when they are working more hours than their husbands. With the burden of child-minding still placed on individual women rather than on society, the old institution maintains its social function even if it is decaying. Homophobia exists primarily because it stands in contradiction with the ideological defence of the family and women’s oppression.
Reinforcing a conservative institution
With an increasing number of people involved in non-conventional households (de facto relationships, blended families, single parent families, house-sharing etc.), domestic labour is becoming increasingly “socialised” either through professional services, required by working parents, or through collective sharing of tasks among housemates, step-parents etc. The “best welfare system” is being challenged. By appealing to “tradition”, some proponents of equal marriage are in fact looking at redirecting homosexuals into a system of micro-economic units (families) that they have previously been excluded from, rather than questioning the basis of this system.
Studies have shown 70% of men in long-term (five years or more) homosexual relationships are not exclusive. Non-monogamy is also common among lesbian (29%) and heterosexual (up to 28%) relationships. In order to push the line that homosexuals are “normal” and can create “traditional” family units as well as (if not better than) heterosexual couples, the dominant paradigm among homosexual men (and a significant proportion of lesbians) is repressed. Researchers Blake Spears and Lanz Lowen note in The Couple Study, “[A] majority of long-term male couples are creating their own unique models – despite societal injunctions”. As one participant in their study noted, “In our community and society, it feels like something huge isn’t being talked about or studied or understood”.
With the family in crisis and many heterosexual people now starting to follow their homosexual brothers and sisters in considering alternative “families”, does the equal marriage campaign run the risk of attempting to bail out a sinking ship? If, in order to achieve equality with heterosexual marriage, equal marriage activists espouse the virtues of “traditional” marriage and denigrate alternative relationships, then the movement for full equality for all queer relationships will be partially set back.
Marriages where gender oppression is irrelevant may undermine the more reactionary elements of marriage where it is relevant. A study in Victoria released two years ago entitled “Work, Love and Play” showed that homosexual parents divided housework more evenly than their heterosexual peers.
Also, while some equality advocates promote a “traditional” model, the simple reality is that, with so many homosexual people already in non-exclusive, committed relationships, a greater discussion about relationships can occur. As The Couple Study concludes: “Ironically, when California legalized gay marriage (however briefly), we began hearing more and more of our study participants mention their marriages … Clearly they weren’t equating marriage with monogamy! So, as a gay community, if we don’t want to replicate the heterosexual divorce rate, we might begin looking for ways to talk more openly about how our relationships really work.”
Comedian Bill Hicks once commented that he believed anyone stupid enough to want to join the military should be allowed to do so. The same should be true for marriage. No matter how reactionary marriage is as an institution, the fight for queers to have the right to join that institution is a progressive struggle.
But we should not legitimise the current nature of that institution or limit the struggle from going further. In order to liberate human relationships, we need to accept diversity and move relationships, both polyamorous and monogamous, away from economic dependency. The acceptance of equal marriage can open the door to further discussion of alternatives. Let’s ensure that this movement does that rather than roll up the drawbridge behind it.
The demand for equal marriage regardless of gender is the spearhead of the movement for people with alternative sexualities. However, if the goal of this campaign is to fight for acceptance, respect and equality, then the “we are all as traditional as heterosexual people” line serves only a particular type of queer and further marginalises a large number of others. Non-monogamous queers who want to get married shouldn’t be closeted by this campaign. Those whose relationships don’t fit the mould of marriage proposed by this campaign also need to be supported in taking the campaign further and having their relationships recognised. This campaign is an important step, but we shouldn’t stop fighting till every consensual relationship and every person has full civil rights.
Direct Action – October 24, 2012