Ever since a friend posted a quote on Facebook from this article about same-sex marriage by Archbishop John Sentamu, I’ve had a lengthy analysis and response drifting through my mind. The government consultation ended on the 14th of June, and they’ve indicated they intend to press ahead with legalisation, but the debate is still very much alive. To my mind, equalisation of marriage seems entirely sensible, and those objections to it not based on outright prejudice are missing some crucial logical point. This is obviously just my opinion, but I’m going to attempt to back it up with some thorough logical analysis below.
A Thought Experiment
When I was first thinking about this, I came up with what I thought was the killer answer to the whole debate, in the form of a simple thought experiment. I realise now that that was a touch optimistic, but I want to start off with that thought experiment anyway.
Let’s imagine a couple, call them Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve want to get married. Here are a few facts about them and their relationship:
- Neither Adam nor Eve is a member of any faith. Nor were either of them brought up in any religious tradition. They are looking for a civil marriage, not a religious ceremony.
- Eve is a high-earning professional software programmer. Adam has never had a high-paying or satisfying career, and currently volunteers in a charity shop so he’s not waiting at home all day for Eve to get back from work.
- For reasons we will leave private, Eve is medically unable to bear children. They have discussed adoption, but neither is particularly fond of children, and Eve worries that she would not be able to divide her passion between her work, Adam, and a child.
- Eve’s parents aren’t terribly keen on Adam, and may not attend the wedding, although they will of course be invited. Adam’s parents, on the other hand, are happy he has found someone he wants to spend his life with.
- They have their differences, and their arguments, but believe that they are better off together than apart, and want to publically commit to staying together whatever and whoever comes along.
Can you think of any reason, based on the above, that Adam and Eve should not be allowed to marry? I certainly can’t.
Now, re-read the above sentences, but every time you see “Eve”, replace it with “Steve”, and every instance of “she”, “her”, etc with “he”, “his”, etc. What has changed? Is there now any reason that Adam and Steve should not be allowed to marry?
Before I begin…
Before I start deconstructing his arguments, I should say that I have a great respect for the Archbishop of York, and while I thought from the edited Guardian version of his piece that it lacked his usual open-mindedness, the full piece is an honest and humble attempt to express his beliefs. His final paragraph is, I think, sincere and admirable:
I write as a seeker after truth and understanding, so please be patient with me, because God has not finished with me yet. And I will try to be patient with the many of you who wrote to me.
I am a follower of Jesus Christ, still seeking understanding.
The other thing I want to mention here, so I don’t have to link to it every time, is the government’s consultation paper on their proposed changes to the law. Since the consultation is now closed, the original location of this document is no longer available, so I have saved a copy of the document for reference [warning: PDF file]. It’s actually very accessible, if slightly repetitive in its thoroughness, and explains a lot of the reasoning behind the government’s stance, including pre-empting some of the points I’m going to cover below.
Child-bearing and child-rearing
Possibly the easiest argument to dismiss when discussing the legalisation of same-sex marriage is the idea that marriage is necessarily about providing a stable foundation for a family. Let us ignore, for the moment, the thorny question of whether a same-sex couple can provide such a stable foundation, and concentrate instead on opposite-sex couples who can’t, or don’t want to, start a family.
There are many reasons a marriage might not lead to a family: a medical condition or accident may have led to infertility; age or a pre-existing medical condition might mean that one or both parents expect to die before children are fully grown; and some people simply do not consider themselves suitable parents.
If you consider the primary meaning of marriage to be child-bearing or child-rearing, you must logically object to the marriage of couples in these situations. The law, however, does not restrict such couples from marrying. No test of fertility or parental competence is required for a marriage licence, and to my knowledge a third party cannot challenge a marriage’s validity based on non-consummation.
As such, arguments that same sex couples cannot biologically produce children, or should not raise them, are irrelevant to any debate on the legal definition of marriage.
Complementarity of the sexes
A subtler argument put forward in the Archbishop’s article is that marriage recognises “the complementarity of the sexes”. The implication being that men and women are fundamentally and immutably different, and that a same-sex relationship can never contain the balance this difference provides to an opposite-sex relationship.
This is certainly a complex issue, and one which sociologists (and feminists) have spent considerable time discussing. However, it is far from clear to me that the difference between a man and a woman both born into the same middle-class 21st-Century southeast England culture is necessarily more fundamental than the difference between them and, say, an impoverished Nigerian farm labourer.
Can we really say that we are so sure that a combination of two genders is necessary and sufficient for a marriage to be “complementary” that we should make it a requirement under the law?
A universal definition
Many people, including Archbishop Sentamu, argue that the definition of marriage is “universal” and “absolute”, and that it is impossible to change its “essential nature”. In the Archbishop’s article, he backs this up with a statement that “No Act of Parliament touches upon a definition of marriage” – while statutes have adjusted the processes and limits of marriage (such as how closely related a couple can be) it “has always taken the essential nature of marriage as between a man and a woman as a ‘given’”. I am no legal expert, but this seems to me a basic misunderstanding of the English legal system: due to the long history of Common Law and Precedent supporting it, I gather that no statute specifically defines the offence of “murder” either (correct me if I’m wrong). Parliament could, nonetheless, create such a definition if it so wished, by following the appropriate processes, and the new definition would replace the old.
Another point raised in the same section is that of international agreement on the definition of marriage:
It should be noted that the definition of marriage has in fact, until very recently, traditionally been part of International Law, and not a matter only for domestic national law.
This has actually been anticipated in the government’s consultation paper in two ways. Firstly, under “consequential issues”, there is a discussion of the diplomatic efforts to increase recognition of same-sex relationships under whatever legislation they fall:
2.36 — International recognition:
Current position — overseas countries will not automatically recognise same-sex marriages
just as they do not automatically recognise civil partnerships. The Government would continue
working to increase international recognition of same-sex relationships whether that was civil
partnerships or civil marriages for same-sex couples.
Secondly, Annex A lists 10 countries which have introduced same-sex marriage, including some I didn’t expect, such as Sweden and Spain; a further two are listed as having adopted it in some areas but not nationally (the USA and Mexico); and more than 20 as having introduced some form of “same-sex union”. With the Presidents of both the USA and France recently voicing in public their support for same-sex marriage, the UK Government is hardly taking a bold unilateral step by considering this move.
Of course, the more general answer to the “universal definition” argument is simply to cite the variety of definitions of marriage recognised throughout history and around the world today. To pick a few random examples:
- polygamous marriages were the norm in the cultures of the Old Testament, and are still accepted in some Islamic cultures
- the notion of a wife as a chattel owned by her husband would previously have been taken for granted, but now seems abhorrent to many
- arranged marriages are commonplace in many Asian cultures
- and, contrarily, UK law allows for “no fault divorce”, a notion which many strict Christian interpretations would entirely reject
The discussion of legal definitions is one of the few places in his article that Archbishop Sentamu specifically brings in religion, in this case mentioning the role of Anglican Canon as a basis of English Law. It is perhaps natural for him to feel pride at the central role played by the institution he represents, but to many non-Anglican citizens of the UK, it is less of a positive. Indeed, many would welcome the complete “disestablishment” of the Church, with its historical role acknowledged but no longer a governing force in modern law.
Reading the consultation document, I realised that it is precisely to avoid opening that particular can of worms that religious institutions are to be not just exempted from but actively banned from performing same-sex marriages:
For the Church of England, provided that the couple is eligible to get married, they have the
right to get married in their local parish church (or in a parish church with which they have a
In other words, the Church of England, because it is the established church, is obliged to allow marriages according to the eligibility agreed under law. By placing a ban on all religious ceremonies for same-sex marriages, the question of how this duty is squared with the right of religious groups not to recognise same-sex unions is neatly sidestepped.
Interestingly, although it acknowledges that there is no formal definition dividing civil and religious marriages under current legislation, the consultation document is able to list seven distinct ways in which a marriage can be conducted; briefly:
- according to Church of England rites
- according to Quaker tradition
- according to Jewish tradition
- through some other religious ceremony on registered religious premises
- in a register office
- on approved premises (e.g. a hotel)
- ceremonies for the housebound or detained, and “death bed” marriages
These all have different regulations pertaining to how they are supervised and licenced; importantly, those marriages not conducted on religious premises are legally prohibited from including any religious element. As someone raised in a secular family, it seems obvious to me that a civil marriage is completely divorced (pardon the pun) from any religion, but many religious people seem to think any “marriage” is necessarily religious. So let me make it clear: regardless of the relationship between Church and State religious concerns already have no place in a civil marriage ceremony.
The slippery slope
As with a lot of political / social debates of this sort, one of the concerns often raised is that a change to the status quo might represent “a slippery slope” or “the thin end of the wedge”. In the case of same-sex marriage, the main suggestion is that this would open the door to legalisation of other kinds of marriage – incest, polygamy, marrying your dog, etc.
Marrying a dog would, presumably, require the dog to be a legal party to the marriage, and therefore pre-suppose granting legal rights to dogs similar to those of people, an issue somewhat larger than the definition of marriage.1
As for incest and polygamy, there are actually some interesting debates to be had here, such as these I’ve seen on h2g2 over the years:
- If an incestuous relationship does not produce children, and is genuinely consensual, is there a problem?
- Is there a fundamental reason not to accept a marriage involving more than two partners?
- Or indeed should government have any role in defining / policing marriage at all?
I also love this wonderfully geeky mixture of philosophy and database design, dubbed “the y2gay problem” (and which incidentally includes the lovely phrase “antihomonuptial legislation”).
The point of all this being, if legalising same-sex marriage leads to open discussion of some of these questions, then bring it on. We don’t have to go further, if we decide as a society that it isn’t necessary or desirable.
Plain old homophobia
I’ve deliberately avoided the topic of homophobia in this article (as did John Sentamu in his) because there isn’t really much to say: people have a right to believe homosexuality is “wrong”, but society as a whole doesn’t have to be ruled by that opinion.
However, in discussing slippery slopes, I feel it would be remiss not to mention those who feel that allowing same-sex marriage would somehow encourage homosexuality in general. To take a particularly extreme example: on a blog called “Anglican Mainstream”, Lisa Nolland actually suggests that legalising gay marriage would lead to teenagers being taught about scatalogical fetishes – a leap of logic so astounding it’s hard to believe she is not a troll aiming for a reaction like this one (from Pink News).
And so to the primary argument put forward by Archbishop Sentamu against same-sex marriage: that to do so would be to force two different situations into the same umbrella, whereas granting marriage-like rights to “Civil Partnerships” recognises those differences.
It is the model of the just society that responds intelligently to differences rather than treating everyone the same.
This is actually quite a tricky philosophical area: as with arguments over gender equality, or race relations, there is a risk of conflating “difference” with “discrimination”, and attempting to enforce some kind of homogeneity on society. As the old cliché goes “It’s Political Correctness Gone Mad!”
But for Civil Partnerships to be a necessary “recognition of difference”, there needs to be some truly fundamental difference between every same-sex relationship and every opposite-sex relationship. Otherwise, you could “recognise the difference” between men and women’s rights to work, or vote; or, as in 1960s America, “recognise the difference” between Negroes and Whites by giving them different lunch counters.
Obviously, we can tell the difference between a same-sex couple and an opposite-sex couple; the line is slightly easier to draw than between racial groups, but no easier than between men and women.2 But is this line so fundamental that we should actually encode it as a difference in law? Is it a greater difference than between a Christian marriage and an atheist one? Or than between a passionate marriage and a largely convenient one? Or than two people in their twenties and two people in their eighties – or, indeed, one of each?
That is, ultimately, a matter of opinion, but in my opinion, no such fundamental difference exists, so to claim that a Civil Partnership is “different from but equal to” a marriage is a nonsense: if it is equal, it is a marriage; if it is not a marriage, it is not equal.
If you’ve read this far, then thank you for sticking with me; if you’ve skimmed down to the bottom, sorry, no summary, I’m no good at being brief. What I will sign off with is what to me are the underlying views which lead people to adopt positions against same-sex marriage, however they justify that opposition:
- They believe that homosexuality is fundamentally, morally, wrong. No logic can argue against this, only moral philosophy or theology. Society has to accept that such views exist, but we cannot restrict laws to only those which offend nobody’s morality.
- They don’t really believe that homosexual feeling is real (or equal to heterosexual feeling). Some people (“homosceptics”?), while not condemning homosexuality, seem unable to overcome its “otherness”. Rather than a moral argument, it becomes one of subjectivity: how does a gay man “prove” that he is “really” experiencing same-sex love?
- They’re fine with homosexuality, as long as it’s Over There Somewhere. The classic self-contradictory position people adopt when they don’t really want to face an issue. This is the kind of thinking that led to the US military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and the notorious Section 28 which banned British schools from teaching about homosexuality. Perhaps we should call it “homonimbyism”.
- They just find it all a bit icky. I think quite a large number of people fall into this group: they have no problem with homosexuality, and “hey, some of my best friends are gay!”, but somehow they don’t feel comfortable about it. Maybe they’re repressing homosexual feelings of their own; maybe they just find it hard to empathise because they have none at all. Their attempts to rationalise their feelings lead them to adopt stronger negative positions than they really believe in.
Obviously, the above is painted with very broad brush-strokes, but if you’re opposed to same-sex marriage, ask yourself, honestly, whether you fall into one of those four groups. I’m not saying your arguments are invalid if you do, just that they’ll be stronger if you’re honest with yourself about which argument you’re trying to win.
On which note, over to you: tell me in the comments if you agree or disagree — as long as you tell me why — and tell me what glaring omissions or logical errors let my argument down. :)
- Actually, there are non-human “legal persons”: corporations. Hence the backstory in The Truman Show involving a media corporation adopting a baby is actually less far-fetched a notion. But I digress… [↩]
- This statement holds whether you think sex/gender is binary, and every human is either male or female, or recognise the complexity of both sex and gender. Either there are two sexes/genders, and therefore two types of marriage; or there are many types of sex/gender, and thus many types of marriage. [↩]