Marriage Equality: Culture Wars One

12 Nov

Back in August Kiri and I both wrote about the marriage equality bill put forward by Labour MP Louisa Wall. I said I was going to ask some people what marriage means for them, in attempts to foster a more compassionate and productive discussion. I have finally got around to it!

What follows is a quick interview with my friend Susan, followed by a brief discussion. Susan is in her early 30s and has been married and divorced, attended a Christian church during her teenage years and also just had a baby with her partner.

G: Do you support marriage equality legislation?

S: Yes – because of the word equality. I see no reason to deny anyone the right to marry based on their sexual orientation.

G: Is the idea of getting married to someone important to you?

S: Personally no, but that is based on a past experience of being in an unhappy marriage. I think there are more important signifiers of a committed relationship than a marriage certificate. In saying that, I wouldn’t rule out getting married again.

G: What does marriage signify for you?

S: In the past it has signified one person being submissive to another. However, this is something I would like to redefine for myself!

G: Do you think marriage equality is a significant issue and needs to be discussed?

S: When this issue became a discussion point again, I must admit that I didn’t understand why it was even an issue considering that in NZ we had civil unions. I thought that once that bill had passed that was the end of the debate. My main confusion was with the fact that I had wrongly believed that marriage was more of a religious institution and I couldn’t understand why anyone in a homosexual relationship would want to have their relationship legitimised by a religious ceremony, when most religions aren’t particularly tolerant of their lifestyle. However, I did some brief research which quickly changed my point of view, when I realised that marriage isn’t something that any religion can claim ‘ownership’ of. And this is why I think the issue needs discussing, to clear up any misconceptions out there over who has ‘ownership’ of marriage. I also think that it’s time for marriage to evolve again. Even in the bible there are different types of marriage, usually revolving around a man having more than one wife, or a wife and several concubines or that really great marriage between the victim and her rapist[1]

G: Do you see any major differences (whether these be legal/technical or more symbolic/emotional) between the Civil Union Bill and the Marriage Equality Bill?

S: The ability to legitimately be able to call someone your husband or wife rather than the clinical ‘civil union partner’. I believe there are also some legal differences, the only one of which I’m sure of is the adoption law.

G: If you are heterosexual or in a heterosexual marriage/relationship, do you feel like the Marriage Equality Bill would change the value/meaning of your relationship or marriage.

S: Of course not.

G: Is there anything else you would like to say about the issue?

S: I read a great quote somewhere debunking the argument that marriage has always been between a man and a woman. It said something like ‘historically marriage has been between two men, the groom and his father in law‘. 

What Susan talks about, and what I have observed in the general debate about marriage equality is the way it generates a kind of cultural conflict. Marriage equality causes discomfort for some people because it challenges their certainty around what it means to be a heterosexual man or woman in a relationship. I recently heard about a post on Facebook from some guy who didn’t support marriage equality because he claimed that if gays could marry then people might assume he was gay if he was married. While his fears point to a certain homophobia (I mean why would it be so bad to be thought gay?) marriage equality is threatening because it destabilises the language around heterosexuality and includes people and relationships which have generally been seen as ‘different’, ‘weird’ ‘perverted’ and sometimes ‘disgusting’. It seems that marriage equality is much more threatening than civil unions ever were. Civil union legislation (and the non-gender specific word ‘partner’) basically found new terms to legally define relationships that included homosexual couples. However to draw on Slavoj Zizek, what LGBT/queer activists have done with marriage equality is actually deprive the heterosexual majority (and religious institutions) ‘the monopoly of defining their own tradition[2]. Stokey Carmichael, the founder of Black Power writes that ‘we have to fight for the right to invent the terms which will allow us to define ourselves and to define our relations to society, and we have to fight that these terms will be accepted[3].

Susan’s responses above raise three key points for me.  Firstly she highlights that the marriage equality debate is essentially a conflict over who gets to ‘speak for’ marriage, define its meaning and effects, including all the associated legal, symbolic and emotional attachments. Secondly she points to the historical patriarchal nature of marriages and gives voice to those stories about marriage which most people like to ignore or suppress – like the victim and her rapist or the subtle ways many women get socialised into submissive roles. Thirdly she highlights the ways in which we can learn, resist and re-define identity stories, both individually and collectively. She talks about redefining marriage for herself so that it is no longer about a submissive type of relationship with a man.

I can only hope that those opposing marriage equality take the time to reflect on why they find it so threatening and in the process maybe allow themselves a little more freedom to live beyond the limiting gender narratives which subtly structure their lives.  

Gradon Diprose


[1] See Deuteronomy 22:28–29.

[2] Slavoj Zizek (2009) First as tragedy, then as farce, Verso: London.

[3] Quoted in Slavoj Zizek (2009) First as tragedy, then as farce, Verso: London.

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