Marriage Equality: “not exactly the biggest issue of the day”

6 Aug

Women getting marriedEveryone seems to be talking about marriage equality at the moment. From Obama to a New South Wales Anglican Vicar who recently put up a sign outside his church advocating for it. This Vicar suggested that it was time that society discuss the issue. So it’s pretty interesting that New Zealand is currently engaging in just such a debate. Labour MP, Louisa Wall’s “marriage equality” bill, was recently pulled out of the ballot for a conscience vote which may take place as early as late August.

For some people the issue seems like a no-brainer. Marriage equality, specifically widening the definition of marriage to include same sex couples is in line with United Nations mandates about equality under law for all people regardless of gender, sexuality, religion etc. However ‘marriage’ is a pretty loaded term and means different things to different people. Some people argue that marriage – as both a relation and state institution should only apply to a specific gendered configuration – often drawing on religious ideas about a sacred union between a man and a woman. Opponents of marriage equality appear to be arguing that marriage needs to be respected as a cultural tradition and to change the current rules would risk damaging the nuclear family and the ‘children may suffer’. But let’s not be naive here, marriage may traditionally have been about the union of a man and a woman but it has also been used to build nations, avoid wars, a way to gain financial security, escape poverty and do a bit of social climbing. While it might be about love for some people and having children, for many it is about more pragmatic and mundane concerns like visas, next of kin rights, keeping food on the table and protecting financial assets.

For some politicians, such as Deputy Prime Minister, Bill English its ‘not that important’ and was presumably solved with the introduction of the Civil Union Bill in 2004. Others like Steven Joyce haven’t given it a ‘moment’s notice’, stating that it’s ‘not exactly the biggest issue of the day’. I can only assume here that Joyce is referring to understandings of the ‘public sphere’ (the ‘economy’) being somehow separate and more important than the ‘private sphere’. Of course feminists and others have long been interested in debunking such ideas. And increasingly ‘marriage’, or at least the ceremony and associated paraphernalia like the photos, the catering and invites (not to mention divorce) is an industry in itself and would probably contribute significantly to GDP if anyone ever bothered to analyse it.

But justifying something based solely on economic function (whether in support or not) also misses the point and limits the terms of the debate. We are talking about legislation which impacts people’s lives, the form of their families and their legal rights. While the Civil Union Bill may have solved some of these issues, for queer/LGBT people, the issue is also about achieving a form of official recognition and visibility (which depending on one’s age, may have felt like it would never happen). For many gay men particularly, it wasn’t that long ago that male ‘sodomy’ was still illegal in this country.

However even within the queer/LGBT community there isn’t necessarily agreement on the marriage equality debate. Some are completely pro marriage equality, while others argue that the debate misses the point. Some queer activists suggest that we are missing the opportunity to actually re-think our lives, to re-think the straight/gay binary and most importantly, the underlying privileging of a long-term monogamous relationship and a nuclear family.

However amidst such debates what I don’t see that much of are the personal accounts which explore what marriage and what being married actually mean to different people. I recently heard a discussion on Australian talkback about marriage equality and this guy phoned up and said he supported it because his wife is gay. Another guy phoned up and said he supported it because his son was gay. I wanted to ask both of these men more questions. So in the next few posts I am going to ask (others) questions about their position on marriage equality in the hope that these discussions will contribute in some way to a more productive and compassionate exchange.

Gradon Diprose

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One Response to “Marriage Equality: “not exactly the biggest issue of the day””

  1. tomandemma August 6, 2012 at 1:47 am #

    This is such a great post Grady – well written, supported, and interesting. You’re right, with everything else we often hear from people about what it’s like to be in their situation and I haven’t seen a lot of that in the media yet. I’m going to add this blog to my list of blog reading so I can follow along on your other posts too.

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