The issue of equal marriage is sometimes referred to as “same-sex marriage”, “gay marriage”, “homosexual marriage”, the right to marry, the freedom to marry, or even, if you’re quite mad, the anti-marriage or support marriage issue, because this issue has been framed by its most ardent opponents in terms of destroying marriage between mixed sex couples.
There have been times and places throughout history, all over the world, where it was lawful for two men or two women to marry: but in general, in the past, in countries and at times where marriage gives a different set of rights to a husband and to a wife, same-sex couples could only marry when one partner took on one gender role and one took on the other: two men could marry if one man were to be “the wife”, and two women if one woman were to be “the husband”.
In the 20th century, beginning in Western Europe and North America, the question of whether same-sex couples should have the same freedom to marry as mixed-sex couples, would arise after legislation made the rights of husband and wife in civil marriage equal and the same. If there is no issue about which half of the couple shall legally be “husband” and which be “wife”, if both are legally equal, then there ceases to be any legal, civil, secular reason why same-sex couples should not marry.
Where there is no legal or civil impediment against a couple marrying, an individual or a group opposing the marriage of a couple who wish to wed had better have some solid justification on their side. No such solid justification exists: no opposition to same-sex marriage can be morally justified.
The unsolid justifications presented fall into the following classes:
1. Religion: In a country with no state religion, the government has no business prescribing to any religion which couples may marry in religion and which may not. Equally. no religion has any business prescribing to couples of any faith or none whether they may have a civil marriage or may not. A church has a right to say “you may not wed here”: a rabbi or a priest or a minister has a right to say: “I will not marry you”: but they do not have the right to say “You may not marry legally”. No religious argument can be used against same-sex marriage by anyone who values freedom of religion.
2. Tradition: The assertion that “marriage has always been between a man and a woman, and government ought not to change that” is not a strong one. Marriage traditions change as society changes. The notion that same-sex couples ought not to have the civil right to marry because “tradition” (if you ignore all the instances where it was otherwise) says that same-sex couples never had, would have applied to women having the right to initiate divorce, to women having the right to custody of their own children after divorce, to married women having the right to the money they themselves earn (tradition would say that all money earned by a wife is her husband’s), to a married woman having the right to refuse her husband’s sexual advances (it is only very recently that the tradition that a husband living with his wife could have sex with her at his will and against hers, was overturned and it was legally determined that a wife could charge her husband with rape if he forced her). All of these are marital traditions which have been overthrown because they were determined to be bad traditions. Merely citing “tradition” as a reason why same-sex couples shouldn’t be able to marry is no reason at all.
3. Heterosexism/Homophobia: Gay sex is icky/lesbians and gays are icky. You can always recognise this argument. It’s usually couched in “sodomy is wrong, allowing gay men to marry is legalizing sodomy” – as if it were somehow the state’s business to approve or disapprove of what two consenting adults do in bed. Regardless of anyone’s personal feelings about any consensual sexual act, that act only becomes anyone else’s business if it’s not consensual or if the couple performing it are doing so in public.
4. Saving marriage for mixed-sex couples! This one is a complete nonsense, but for some reason it’s very popular. The notion is that mixed-sex couples won’t want to marry/won’t see the point of marrying/will get divorced if same-sex couples can also marry. Insofar as this is not purely argument 3 dressed up in silly clothes and a frilly hat, what it’s based on is the fact that as countries approach marriage equality for mixed-sex couples, they in general also begin to allow rights for unmarried couples. Where there is no significant penalty for not getting married, many people will only marry when they decide they really want to. (While there’s no reason a country couldn’t have complete marriage equality and have it equally impossible to get a divorce for both wife and husband, in fact no-fault access to divorce* tends to be one of the useful byproducts of progress towards marriage equality.)
So when same-sex marriage is legislated, a country will usually have many mixed-sex couples already living together without getting married, and without planning to unless they see a good reason. For some reason, opponents of equal marriage then blame that on same-sex couples now getting to marry. The timing is all wrong, but this doesn’t seem to bother them.
*No-fault access to divorce: not having to justify, in court, in front of at least three complete strangers and your soon-to-be-former spouse, exactly why you can no longer bear to live with the person you once married. Anyone who thinks this is a bad idea usually argues as if it would be possible to keep two adults together in a marriage like breeding animals locked in a cage.
5. Children. This argument is that the legal rights and privileges of marriage are mostly granted so that couples with children can have a firm legal basis for their relationship, and there is no point in couples who do not have children and never will have children being able to get married.
This argument is not in fact used to exclude from marriage couples who don’t have children/never will have children – there is no upper age limit on marriage, even though the number of children two octogenarians will have when they marry can probably be counted on the toes of one hand.
There are five ways in which two people living together may have children. Obviously, only a mixed-sex couple can have children of the relationship by method 1. Only a mixed-sex couple or a lesbian couple can have children of the relationship by method 2. Any couple who wants children and cares for them may have children by methods 3 and 5: and anyone who isn’t living the life of a complete celibate may end up with children by method 4.
- Mutually biologically engendered. A man and a woman who are interfertile and who have heterosexual intercourse may engender children. (These two people may of course not be married to each other: blood group testing has shown that roughly 15% to 20% of children in all heterosexual marriages are not living with their biological father, but with their mother and their mother’s husband.)
- Insemination by donor A couple are living together and are not interfertile. They want children, so the woman (or both women) make use of donor sperm and/or donor eggs to get pregnant.
- Adoption A minor child whose biological parents can’t or won’t care for the child needs adoptive parents or will have to live in an institution. (Despite considerable hostile/sceptical investigation, no one has been able to show that the adoptive parents a minor child needs must be a man and a woman for best results.)
- Previous relationship Since it has proved impossible to legislate that couples must stay together until their youngest child (adopted or engendered) is at least 18, it follows straightforwardly that there will be couples with children who are parent and step-parent to the child. If the focus is on caring for the children rather than punishing the adults, it becomes necessary to acknowledge that a step-parent has a relationship with and a responsibility towards the child of their partner.
- Fostering A minor child whose biological parents can’t or won’t at the moment care for the child needs foster parents or will have to live in an institution. (Despite considerable hostile/sceptical investigation, no one has been able to show that the foster parents a minor child needs must be a man and a woman for best results.)
If marriage is good for children, is there any reason why adopted or fostered children, or children engendered by donor, should not have married parents? If marriage is supported by the state because marriage is a beneficial environment for raising children, this is an argument for the right of same-sex couples to marry, not against it.
In fact, opponents of same-sex marriage who use this argument do not argue that mixed-sex couples who intend to adopt or foster or conceive by donor or don’t ever intend to have children at all ought not to be allowed to marry: nor do they ever concede that the children of same-sex couples deserve married parents as much as the children of mixed-sex couples: suggesting that while this is on the face of it a more logical argument than the first four, it is really just an excuse that has the merit of sounding better than any of the other reasons – if you don’t give it any close examination.
Since the 1970s, multiple studies have been carried out on same-sex couples individually and by cohorts, attempting to find some difference between same-sex parents and mixed-sex parents. Differences have been found – the children of same-sex couples tend to be healthier, happier, and more emotionally stable than the children of mixed-sex couples, because same-sex couples tend not to have children by accident nor have unwanted children nor have more children than they can care for. Once those factors are corrected for, there is no measurable difference between children with same-sex parents and children with mixed-sex parents.
Even if there were (even if you are sincerely convinced that same-sex couples make inferior parents to mixed-sex couples) – the fact is that it is impossible to prevent same-sex couples having children if they want them. Even laws against same-sex couples adopting or using fertility clinics won’t prevent couples who want to be parents from fostering or making use of a private donor. No state ever has enough foster parents to be able to refuse a couple who are clearly suitable in every way except (if you see this as a barrier) for their sexual orientation/for their being a same-sex couple.
But, if a person sincerely believes that marriage legislation exists to support children, even if they also believe that same-sex couples are inferior parents, that cannot be a valid reason for arguing that the children of inferior parents do not deserve the support of marriage legislation. If you believe a child is being handicapped by having same-sex parents, it doesn’t help that child in any way to say “and so we won’t permit you to live in a family supported by marriage”.
So, rregardless of your personal or spiritual feelings about a person’s sexual orientation, there is no moral justification for opposing the right of same-sex couples to marry legally.
If you’re in the US, please show your commitment to equal civil rights for all, freedom of religion, and your support for all children to have married parents, by donating to No On Prop 8, which, when it fails in November, will ensure that 20% of the population US have access to equal marriage …and hopefully, will mean that within a generation the imbecilic anti-marriage laws that various American states have passed are declared as unconstitutional as the anti-marriage laws for interracial couples overthrown with Loving vs Virginia.