On marriage for lesbian and gay and other non-traditional couples

The Labor party in Australia has rejected the call to extend marriage rights to lesbian and gay and other non-traditional couples. They say that same-sex unions should be recognised, but there should be no “gay marriage.” [link] Under Labor, the state will not recognise marriages between couples other than a man and a woman. That’s because Kevin Rudd, who must be obeyed, has said that marriage is a commitment between a man and a woman [link]. The Australian Christian Union is delighted. And why would they not be? The full power of the state has been deployed to reinforce their views about who is blessed by their god, and who is not.

I think the state shouldn’t be involved in marriage, and defining marriage, at all. Further, I think that religious groups co-opt the power of the state to reinforce their own views about what relationships are permitted and what relationships are not, and they use the state’s power to augment their own standing..

Frankly, I don’t see why the state should be interested in marriage per se. I can see why the state might be interested in registering relationships, in noting who says that they are in a committed relationship with an-other person(s), and in applying special laws to those people, such as matrimonial property law. As a society, we want to be able to distinguish between people who just happen to be sharing accommodation, and people who are in a long-term committed relationship, where their interests are amalgamated for the foreseeable future. But from the state’s point of view, the reasons for wanting to be able to distinguish between people who just happen to share accommodation, and people in long-term relationships, are mostly to do with allocating rights and responsibilities, so we know who is deemed to be responsible for looking after other people (for welfare purposes), who shares income and resources with who (for welfare and tax purposes), who has claims on which bits of property (mostly to enable property to be apportioned fairly in the event that a partnership ends, either through death or dissolution). However, I can’t see why on earth the state should give a damn about whether those long-term, committed relationship households are based on sole parents, or cis-gendered male/female couples, or lesbian couples, or gay couples, or bi couples, or trios, or quartets, or whatever.

Of course, we need to distinguish what I’m calling households from share-housemates, or flatmates, or room mates (depending on your preferred terminology), but that’s comparatively easy; people come and go from flats and sharehouses and apartments, and it is intended that they will come and go. In a household, people intend to stay, and to build a life together. It’s that idea that they are building a life together that is the basis of the state allocating rights and responsibilities to the household as a whole, not to the individuals who happen to share a house or a flat or an apartment for a few weeks or months or even years.

No matter how we delineate households from temporary arrangements, the fact that the state gives a certain standing (marriage) to some households is unfair. Either the recognition of the state should apply to all households, or to none. Anything else represents the state picking and choosing amongst its citizens, saying in some arbitrary fashion that some people are more worthy than others. That ought to be anathema in an egalitarian state.

Even worse than the state giving standing and status to some households but not to others, the churches, of all denominations and religions, have muscled in on the act. Their marriage celebrants are entitled to conduct ceremonies which are valid for the state’s purposes of recognising households. So when for example, a Catholic priest stands there and intones his words, he is performing a state function. That gives him and his church power and recognition and standing that may be denied to other groups, simply because he is deemed to be performing a state function (registering relationships / marriages). Moreover, many many churches routinely refuse to marry some people, and whaddyaknow, the people who are excluded by churches turn out to mirror almost exactly the people that the state refuses to marry (gays and lesbians and trans-people, of course). In effect, the churches have co-opted the power of the state to reinforce their own views of morality.

I think that the churches should not be allowed to marry people. For official, state purposes, that is. If the Head Prefect of the Assembly of Fairy Worshippers want to conduct wedding ceremonies on midsummer night’s eve, then she is most welcome to. As is any Catholic or Presbyterian or Anglican or Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish cleric. It just oughtn’t to count for the purposes of the state. So people who want to register their relationship in the eyes of the state as well as in the eyes of their church/coven/synagogue/temple/fairy circle/humanist association/mosque/atheists and sceptics society/whatever should go ahead and do that i.e. register their relationship, and then do whatever else they like that constitutes solemnising a marriage in their preferred dispensation.

Alternatively, if churches/covens/synagogues/temples/fairy circles/humanist associations/mosques/atheists and sceptics societies/whatever want to continue to offer wedding ceremonies, and to have those ceremonies perform a dual function of registering a relationship for the purposes of the state, then they had better make their ceremonies available to all citizens of the state. Other people who provide a state service are required to provide it for all citizens who meet the state’s rules for eligibility, and there is no reason that it should be any different for clerics providing marriage services.

As for marriage for lesbian and gay and other non-traditional couples, or trios, or quartets, I think that what is available for one Australian must be available for another. If the government wants to stay in the marriage game, then it needs to make its version of marriage available to all Australians. So while I oppose the idea of the state offering marriage services at all, if the state is going to ignore my advice (hah!) and continue to offer them, then it had better offer them to everyone – het, cis, trans, gay, lesbian, other, whatever. That’s only fair.

Update: Edited slightly to add mosques and temples and synagogues to my list of possible marriage-performing institutions.


Note: This post is a little late, I’m sorry. Ideally, it ought to have been up on Sunday, but stuff happened. The ideas have been knocking around in my head for years, even since the civil unions debate in New Zealand, but I didn’t have a blog back then. I supported civil unions as being better than nothing for gay and lesbian and other non-traditional relationships, but ideally, it should either be marriage for all, or civil unions for all, or nothing for all. Should Australia go down the civil unions route, then I would hold much the same position.

For the record, Mr Strange Land and I had a full-scale nuptial mass, nearly twenty years ago now. I was young… and it wasn’t until a few years later (about four, to be precise) that I finally walked out of the Catholic church, and all god-belief whatsoever. These days, I think that a civil union would be the way to go, in New Zealand.


15 responses to “On marriage for lesbian and gay and other non-traditional couples

  1. Great stuff, Deborah. I agree with you about the role of the church, but nonetheless think it’s fabulous that Quakers in the UK are extending their services to gay couples.

  2. Er, marriage services, that is.
    I’m proud to have Quakers in my ancestry – they are very fine people.

  3. I largely agree with your end point but not with your analysis, in that I think it’s not that the state should stay out of marriage, as marriage is historically exactly the state ratification of relationships, mostly for the purposes of property/inheritance. And of course, the state and church were almost identical centuries ago and it’s been a gradual process of separation, which hopefully we are at the tail end of.
    I hadn’t realised you left the Catholic church as an adult – that’s interesting. A post on how that came about would be readable (speaking as someone who left the church as soon as I left school.)

  4. Interesting post! My own take on the issue is that religious and civil marriage should be strictly separated. They are, after all, different things! A civil marriage is a contract between two individuals that they will take on certain responsibilities defined by the state (be responsible for each others’ debts, etc.) They also receive certain benefits from the state (different inheritance status, “next of kin” status, etc.).

    Religious marriage differs according to the religion. Jewish marriage is a covenant, most Christian marriages are sacraments, and both are quite distinct from one another and from civil marriage.

    Personally, I am a big believer in a total separation of religion and state, and that includes for the purpose of marriage.

    I am so sorry to hear that the Labor party in Australia has taken a stance against same-sex marriage. Equality under the law is a long, hard fight for us in many places.

    Again, nice blog. I look forward to continuing to read!

  5. I was thinking about posting on this after hearing my local MPs response as “You can’t always get want you want, but you get what you need”. I could see what he was getting at, but he missed so much of the point. Now I don’t have to, because apparently you already thought and expressed everything I could think of saying.

    We had two ceremonies, one state sanctioned and one conducted by a good friend who holds no legal right to marry people. The latter is our wedding anniversary. 🙂

  6. Religious and civil marriages are separate in several countries (so if you want to be legal and faithful you have two ceremonies) and I can’t see any reason why that shouldn’t be the case in Australia. Personally, I think the god-botherers can keep the term marriage if they’re so fond of it, so long as “marriage” doesn’t confer any civil benefits, and the rest of us can have unions. Mostly I want to know that my lesbian friends, who all have longer-lasting relationships than mine, will have their families recognised and protected. At the moment one couple of my acquaintance are a couple (well, “mutually dependent” or some other innocuous term) according to some government departments but not others. In every interaction with the government (immigration, Medicare, Centrelink etc) they have to find out whether or not their relationship exists or not.

    Unfortunately in some quarters there’s talk of gay and lesbian couples “registering”, and that just makes me think of pets. We could wear tags and get microchipped!

  7. “You can’t always get want you want, but you get what you need”

    Ironically, that song seems to be about infidelity and selfish relationships.

  8. Marriage laws were orginially designed to protect women in the bad old days when we had few rights and were considered the property of male relatives.

    Argentina, Spain, Germany – and no doubt other countries – don’t recognise religious ceremonies. Couples who want to be married in church there have to have a civil ceremony too.

    There is nothing in NZ law to stop any couple having a ceremony and call it what they will. However, it’s not the ceremony but the legal trappings which come with marriage which matter. That’s why the Civil Union Act in NZ was followed by another granting similar rights to civil union partners as married couples ie inheritance, next of kin . .

  9. But the state still offers marriage only to traditional couples. So it still gives some new Zealanders and status that it doesn’t allow other New Zealanders to have. And it still allows the churches to perform state services and to discriminate in who they will perform those state services for, in exactly the same way that the state itself discriminates.

  10. The state should marry anyone who wants to marry and is eligible to do so (ie of age and not already married to someone else). Then, if people wish, they can go to their own denomination and get married there as well. That seems to me the only fair way to go.

    I don’t want to marry my partner, but we’d like to be able to register a Civil Union to tie up a lot of legal issues that we presently have to attend to, which cost us money and are a constant source of worry in case they fall over in a crisis or become outdated for our requirements. These includes joint property ownership, wills and legal guardianship/next of kin type things.

  11. Deborah, I don’t understand your stance. You say that you feel the only role the state should have is to record who is in a relationship for the purposes of property/welfare etc. Given that that’s all a civil union is, and all a marriage is as well, how does allowing some couples to have only one, and some to have both, give the latter group more prestige? OK, they get more choice, but choice between two things that are identical is not really a right.

    Would you feel better if civil unions were for same-sex couples only and marriage for different-sex couples only?

    Similarly, you’ve said that you feel it’s wrong to allow priests or other religious officials to marry people. Should they not be allowed to do this at all – i.e, should being a minister of religion prevent one from officiating over a civil ceremony?

    You’ve also said it’s not fair that religious celebrants get to choose not to officiate over same-sex couples. Technically this is not true. Any celebrant can refuse to officiate over any couple for whatever reason, be it religious disapproval, personal dislike, or plain old can’t-be-arsedness. I imagine some civil celebrants have probably declined to officiate over civil unions, possibly for religious reasons – we don’t know.

    Would you advocate a system whereby a refusal to officiate must be accompanied by a reason for refusal – and that some reasons would not be allowed to be given, eg ‘because I don’t think gays should be married’?

  12. Yes! Yes! These thoughts have been crashing around in my head for weeks. You’ve summed it up perfectly.

    Permission to send it to all and sundry please.

  13. Of course! If you think it’s going to be helpful to people, please do send them the link. I’d quite like to be given the credit for the words… even as a semi-anonymous blogger, which is why I’d prefer a link to just cutting and pasting the text, if you don’t mind.

  14. I’ve had debates on subjects such as this with a libertarian family member, and whilst I disagree with the morality of their arguments I think I see something of the reasoning. Marriage, in their reasoning, is set up to do several things. One of the things that it does is confer special legal rights, particularly inheritance, tax and child-related rights and privileges. A major idea behind this was that there were, and are, certain relationship configurations which are considered preferable (by the government/the majority population/I’m not sure who) and in order to encourage such relationships people who enter into them are given certain privileges.

    Such judgements and privileges are arbitrary, but to some extent it’s no more arbitrary than food stamps for mothers (because it is believed to be advantageous when children have lots of fruit and veg) or than certain actions being designated by society as being undesirable (and hence illegal). Yes you could argue scientific/statistical advantages to fruit and veg, or illegal behaviours, as I would, but I’m sure some conservative can come up with a stat about why nuclear families are better for children or some rubbish.

    So to some extent I don’t think the argument of “the government is giving privileges to others and not me” doesn’t hold up, because that’s what governments do; to truly get rid of that you’d have to get rid of the government.

    On the other hand, I personally think it is unjust and the wrong decision to restrict such relationship privileges to heterosexuals only. I’m a lesbian in the UK and hence don’t have such privileges. I want them. I suppose at the moment I don’t think the government is doing wrong because it is privileging some people over others, as that is an essential part of doing government, simply that this decision is wrong. I think that heterosexual relationships are equal to homosexual ones and that polyamorous relationships are equal to monogamous ones. The government is making a decision as to the morality of non-heteronormative relationships, and I think we need to show them it’s the wrong one, that we are just as capable of raising children, that we are just as distressed by being separated from a loved one in a hospital, that we too deserve to have the financial security of building a future together and having the knowledge that we will get to keep the family house in case of death of a partner. It’s there that I think we can win, not by arguing about something which is an essential aspect of government.

  15. Austin – move to New Zealand. Your lifestyle and eloquent intelligence would both be welcome (the usual sad minority of bigots notwithstanding) and you could have a civil union.