That equal marriage is still a contentious political question might justifiably bring about the exasperated question ‘Seriously? Still?’ The Australian Government’s lack of commitment to legalising equal marriage is baffling, particularly considering the conservative Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, and Conservative Party Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron, both voting in favour of, and passing, gay marriage legislation in their respective nations. Our supposed ‘motherland’ and close neighbour have both taken the logically consistent and politically sensible step, yet Australia’s governing party offers no hope at all for this good sense. And all this from a nation once touted as the one of the freest, most progressive and egalitarian countries on Earth.
What is particularly strange is the moral contradiction present in the system. As Stephen Fry argues, concerning polygamy, ‘if you deceive someone by having a mistress and a whole family that’s not against the law, but if you said to two women “Look, I love you both; you’re absolutely splendid, how would it be if I married both of you?” and they said “Ok” that would be breaking the law.’ The same silliness applies to gay marriage: it is illegal for persons of the same sex who are in love to marry, yet it is legal to actively deceive someone and misrepresent sexual and emotional relationships. There are innumerable polyamorous couples who are perfectly happy to live as they please, trust one another and have morally fulfilling sexual and emotional relationships, just as there are innumerable homosexual couples who live wonderful lives and have equally morally fulfilling relationships. They harm no-one, increase public good through shared happiness and sharing their love with the world; yet marriage is exclusively the domain of straight couples. Like Stephen Fry, I fail to see ‘why it should be quite so illegal if people are on for it and they willingly enter [marriage].’ Similarly, he and I are in agreement that ‘it if it’s a deception it should be wrong’ and most certainly illegal. If our law was aligned with our moral codes, i.e. correctly, deception and misrepresentation would engender fines and jail time whilst equal marriage would be celebrated for the love and happiness it brings. It is high time the law caught up with morality.
Leaving aside the additional happiness a few fabulous weddings will bring to the world, there is an economic argument to be made for equal marriage. As it stands, weddings do not come cheap. Legalizing equal marriage presents an opportunity to invigorate small business. An additional section of the population spending large sums of money on flowers, cakes, venues, clothes and photography is a direct benefit to small businesses. Florists, professional photographers, bridal shops and cake makers all stand to benefit economically from additional revenue. Further, the picturesque landscapes of Australia bring with them the allure of international marriages, and the promise of more money to the economy. Weddings are a complex and expensive operation, and a strong argument can be made for desiring the extra cash be injected into Australia’s local wedding and tourist industries via the passing of equal marriage laws. There are innumerable economic benefits brought with equal marriage, and yet politicians remain apathetic or opposed – despite their expressed desire for a stronger Australian economy.
But what of the perfectly sensible objection by some that homosexuals should not wish to join heteronormative institutions and culture and instead stake out a new cultural position, with its own practices and traditions? Paula Ettelbrick, a proponent of this position, argues that homosexuals should not pursue the right to marry because being homosexual is more than simply domestic partnership; it is an identity. If marriage is legalized, so the argument goes, then homosexual culture will be absorbed by heteronormativity. There would be the risk of becoming part of culturally restrictive gender and marriage roles – Ettelbrick does not suggest homosexuals will by default, but there is the undesirable potential of no longer thinking critically about cultural norms. This position, while reasonable, misses one crucial element of institutions and cultural practices.
As Ronald Dworkin reminds us, cultural institutions are not static and monolithic edifices. Instead, human beings have a capacity for ‘interpretation,’ which is ‘in part a matter of justice.’ He argues that communities enter into a dialogue with the past and with morality to change and transform institutions to best suit their own historical, political and moral time. In the same way, cultural practices are part of this dialogue. By legalising equal marriage, by entering into a dialogue through various communities, marriage will be transformed into something new; something just, honest and moral. The symbolic relationship of marriage will change, communities transforming its ideal into that which suits their own practices. Equal marriage need not simply be the absorption of queer culture into heteronormativity; instead it presents an opportunity for a whole new way of cultural being, a new form and new expression of individual and collective identity.
There are more reasons besides to support equal marriage. The present symbolic relationship of marriage presents a political and social problem. With sexual minorities excluded, it creates and maintains a second class of persons. Chesire Calhoun points out that while excluded from marriage, sexual minorities are excluded from equal status in the eyes of society. Their relationships cannot be ideal, and cannot be as fulfilling, as they cannot meet the perceived cultural happily ever after. This symbolic relationship is part of, and reproduces, the oppression and exclusion of sexual minorities from mainstream society. This cannot continue; to further the process of inclusion, the barrier of marriage exclusion ought to be removed through legalisation. While sexual minorities are symbolically excluded from an institution many see as a basic good, they are symbolically (and often actually) excluded from society and constructed as second class. To be symbolically second class, and refused the civil right of marriage, is be excluded from full citizenship and from the social-political community. There is no rational justification for this exclusion, not least of all in a society that believes in democracy. To oppose equal marriage is to oppose social and political equality.
But this issue does not affect a large section of the population; many are not prevented from marrying. Why, then, should we offer our support? The reason is simple: so long as equal marriage is not legalised, we are brought to harm. As citizens of a country that has constructed sexual minorities as second class, and thus excluded them from the social and political community, our moral integrity is compromised. We are human beings and thus capable of political action, of right moral judgement. Similarly, as members of numerous political and social communities, we are responsible for the institutions and practices that make up society. Whilst I allow an unjust or exclusionary practice to continue, having reasoned through a dialogue with my tradition, my history and my morality that it is unjust, I am guilty of injustice. I am guilty of immoral practice. Further, our capacity for political action implicates us in the continuance of oppression. Without equal marriage, without social equality, there is no equality to speak of. If I believe in equality, I am committed to following through as best I can in my social world. If I stand for equality, I stand on the streets, at the voting booth and with every word and every breath. If I stand for equality, and really believe in it with conviction, where inequality continues I must make a stand. Failure to act would be to sell everything I hold dear – democracy, equality, freedom, love, friendship, a hopeful future – to tyrants. Failure to take responsibility and make a stand would be a failure to my brothers and sisters, my friends and loved ones; to my history and my community. It would be to mark them as beneath me, as second class. This is unacceptable.
For these reasons, and many more besides, I support equal marriage. For these reasons, for the sake of justice and equality, I stand for equal marriage. To make good on my responsibility to friends and loved ones in the gay community, I offer my body and my voice, my mind and my heart. As an ally, and as a friend, I will stand in Melbourne’s streets and raise my voice for freedom, equality and a new beginning. Just as I swore to never be married until I can sit and watch two of my dearest friends be wed, I promise to do what I can to support the campaign for marriage equality. For the sake of moral integrity, I will continue to fight until equality is achieved. I urge you, on the 17th, to do the same; to make a stand for those you care about, for those who are harmed by oppression and inequality. Now, more than ever, it is time to make a stand. On the 17th take action, take responsibility and help build a freer, more equal, and more accepting social and political community; a new world with a new marriage.