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Some opponents of marriage equality declare that it will demean or destroy the institution of marriage.
However, there is no evidence that heterosexual marriages have suffered, or that marriage is held in lower esteem, in those countries where same-sex couples are allowed to marry. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true.
Rarely do opponents of marriage equality explain how marriage is diminished by equality. We can only assume they mean that same-sex relationships are worth less than their opposite-sex counterparts and that to equate the two somehow symbolically degrades the latter.
Some men felt the same way when legal equality was granted to women as did some whites when legal equity was granted to black. But such fears proved to be groundless and in retrospect appear deeply prejudiced.
In Australian law there is no direct link between marriage and raising children.
For example, there is no legal requirement that marrying opposite-sex partners can or want to have children. This is why we allow partners to marry if they are infertile or passed child bearing age, and to stay married if they use contraception, don’t have sex, don’t want children, or for whatever reason don’t reproduce. It is also why Australian law provides the same legal rights, protections and responsibilities to unmarried parents and their children.
Again, this legal regime reflects changing social norms. According to the ABS, the proportion of Australian children born outside marriage is increasing, while the proportion of heterosexual couples with children, compared to those without children, is declining.[i]
There is still a widespread belief that marriage benefits children by providing them with stability and security. This leads some critics of marriage equality to argue that same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry because children suffer when raised by them.
However, studies from Australia and overseas show that children in the care of two parents of the same sex are not disadvantaged by being raised by these parents.
One of the best summaries of the research on same-sex parenting was put together by the Australian Psychological Society in 2007. It found that:
“…parenting practices and children’s outcomes in families parented by lesbian and gay parents are likely to be at least as favourable as those in families of heterosexual parents, despite the reality that considerable legal discrimination and inequity remain significant challenges for these families.”[ii]
Far from hurting children, marriage equality will actually benefit those children being raised by same-sex couples by removing legal discrimination against their families.
[i] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Couples in Australia. See Doc no 4102.0, http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features20March%202009
[ii] Short, E., D Riggs, A. Perlesz, R. Brown and G. Kane, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Parented Families: a literature review prepared for The Australian Psychological Society. Melbourne, 2007. See: http://www.psychology.org.au/Assets/Files/LGBT-Families-Lit-Review.pdf
Some people believe marriage a religious ceremony and homosexuality a biblical sin. However, in Australian law marriage is a civil institution and Bible-based views are not relevant.
In the past there was a clear separation between civil and religious marriage. Marriage pre-exists all modern religions, including Christianity. Early Christians married under Roman civil law and did not observe marriage as a sacrament. Only in the later Middle Ages did marriage as a civil institution and marriage as a religious sacrament converge.[iii]
In modern times, religious and civil marriage are again separate. In Australian law, there has always been a clear distinction between civil and religious marriage. It is because of this distinction that the law allows divorce, even though this is expressly prohibited by Jesus, it prohibits polygamy, arranged marriages, child betrothal and the subordination of married women, even though these are commonly found in the Old Testament, and it allows marriage between people of different faiths or no faith.
The legal distinction between civil and religious marriage reflects the same distinction in society. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 69.2% of marriages performed in 2010 were performed by a civil celebrant rather than a minister of religion. This compares to 42.2% in 1989.[iv]
[iii] Boswell, J., Same-sex unions in pre-modern Europe. Random House, New York, 1994
[iv] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Marriages and Divorces, Australia, 2010. See: Doc no 3310.0, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/3310.0Main%20Features22010?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=3310.0&issue=2010&num=&view=
Some people of faith are concerned that their religious freedoms will be violated by marriage equality.
They believe religious marriage celebrants will be forced, against their beliefs, to conduct marriage ceremonies for same-sex partners. Some are also concerned that faith-based charities and welfare agencies will be forced to recognise same-sex married couples, and their own children will be taught about same-sex marriages in school.
In none of the countries that allow same-sex partners to marry have any churches been forced to marry same-sex couples. Indeed, in Australia marriage celebrants are not forced to marry anyone against their will.
Because they are essential services for the entire community, most Australian schools and charities are subject to anti-discrimination laws which prevent them from discriminating. Under these laws it is possible for charities and schools to seek exemptions should the need arise.
Some opponents of marriage equality believe it will lead to the legitimization of a range of socially unacceptable relationships, including incest, paedophilia, polygamy, and marriages between people and their pets or household items.
Incest and paedophilia are abusive, exploitative practices rightly held in almost universal contempt. Marriage is a legal contract and neither animals nor inanimate objects have legal standing to sign contracts.
Polygamy is generally about a man controlling the lives of several women. It is an arrangement that comes from a time when men and women had strictly defined social roles, with women considered less valuable than men, restricted to the house and to childrearing, and made their husband’s property. Wherever values like this prevail same-sex marriage is inconceivable. It only becomes possible for two men or two women to marry if men and women are already free to choose how they lead their lives regardless of their gender.
This is why in none of the countries which allow same-sex marriage are polygamous marriages officially solemnised, even though some of them, like Spain and the Netherlands, have large religious minorities that traditionally allow it. In places that allow polygamy, like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Nigeria, homosexuals are not only unable to marry, they are put to death.
Often we hear opponents of marriage equality declare that reform will fundamentally change the nature of marriage and that this is unnecessary when only tiny number a people will benefit.
If you believe the definition of marriage is the official recognition of a loving, committed, romantic relationship between two people the definition of marriage will not change at all. It will simply expand to include those loving, committed couples who seek to be part of the institution of marriage and contribute to upholding it.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics says about 50,000 Australians register their same-sex relationship on the Census, but it also acknowledges that this ia a gross under-estimate of the number of same-sex couples in Australia. On top of this marriage equality directly affects the much larger number of gay and lesbian Australians who are not in a relationship at the moment, and the even greater number of people who are their friends and family members.
Ultimately, the people who will benefit from marriage equality are the 13.5 million Australians who support it. Marriage equality will mean their desire for a more equitable and tolerant Australia will be respected.
Some opponents of marriage equality argue that same-sex relationships cannot qualify as marriages because these relationships are relatively unstable, unhappy and short-lived.
The studies cited to back up this view are often not relevant. For example, they often compare married opposite-sex couples with unmarried same-sex couples including those who wouldn’t marry even if they could[v] or, like a commonly-cited Dutch study of HIV risk among young, inner-urban gay men, deliberately select subjects who are not monogamous.[vi]
In contrast to these isolated and mis-construed studies, there is a substantial body of peer-reviewed research which indicates that many same-sex attracted people form committed relationships that are long term, and that these couples have the same level of relationship quality as opposite-sex couples.[vii]
For example, large-scale Australian research has found that 93% of gay men in relationships are monogamous. A large scale study of same-sex couples registered under civil union schemes in the US found that, “what’s most interesting about this analysis…is the banality of the results. Civil union households simply don’t differ that much from those of the general population”.[viii] A recently released by the University of Minnesota, affirmed this result. It found that the gay people surveyed valued romantic love, faithfulness and commitment no less than their heterosexual peers.
Perhaps the most important evidence of all comes those nations that allow same-sex marriage. When we compare divorce rates between same-sex and opposite-sex couples in the Netherlands, since same-sex partners were permitted to marry in that country in 2001, we find they are exactly the same.[ix] Clearly, same-sex couples are just as capable of the level of commitment associated with marriage as their heterosexual peers.
But if, for the sake or argument, same-sex relationships are more unstable and uncommitted, isn’t this an argument for same-sex marriage rather than against it? People who believe homosexual promiscuity is a bad thing and who believe that marriage is a way to promote values like commitment should be among Australia’s strongest advocates for marriage equality.
[v] Herek G.M., “Legal recognition of same-sex relationships in the United States: a social science perspective”, American Psychologist, No 6, Vol 6, pp. 607-621, see p. 609ff. Also see, Weedon-Fekjr, H., “The demographics of same-sex marriages in Norway and Sweden”, Demography, Feb, 2006.
[vi] Xiridou M., R. Geskus, J. de Wit, R. Coutinho, M. Kretzschmar, “The contribution of steady and casual partnerships to the incidence of HIV infection among homosexual men in Amsterdam”, AIDS, Issue 7, Vol 17, May 2003, pp. 1029-1038, See: http://journals.lww.com/aidsonline/pages/articleviewer.aspx?year=2003andissue=05020andarticle=00012andtype=fulltext. An analysis of the misuse of this study by opponents of same-sex marriage is available at http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/Articles/000,003.htm
[vii] For example,
__ Bradford, J., C. Ryan, and E. Rothblum, “National lesbian healthcare survey: Implications for mental health”, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 62 No 2, 1994 pp. 228-242.
__ Falkner, A., and J. Garber, “2001 gay/lesbian consumer online census”, Syracuse, Syracuse University, New York, OpusComm, and GSociety. 2002
__ Morris, J., K. Balsam, K., and E. Rothblum, (2002). “Lesbian and bisexual mothers and nonmothers: Demographics and the coming-out process”, Developmental Psychology, 16, 144156.
__ Blumstein, P., and P. Schwartz, American couples: Money, work, sex. William Morrow, New York, 1983
__ Bryant, A. S., “Relationship characteristics of gay and lesbian couples: Findings from a national survey”, Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services, 1, 1994, pp. 101-117.
__ Kurdek, L. A., “Differences between gay and lesbian cohabiting couples”, Journal of Social Personal Relationships, 20, 2003, pp. 411-436.
__ Peplau, L. A., and K. P. Beals, “The family lives of lesbians and gay men”, in A. L. Vangelisti (Ed.), Handbook of family communication, pp. 233-248, 2004
__ Peplau, L. and L. Spalding, “The close relationships of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals”, in C. Hendrick and S. Hendrick (Eds.). Close relationships: A sourcebook. Thousand Oaks, California Sage, 2000, pp. 449-474.
[viii] The authors of the Vermont study agreed with Professor Mitchell, that most previous studies were of gays and lesbians “who are visible and concentrated”, producing “a body of literature about homosexual lives that tends toward the ‘exceptional’”[viii] (see, Elder, G., “The Non-significance of Significant Others: a National Geography of Gay and Lesbian Coupledom”, report from the University of Vermont, http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/518987/)
[ix] Gottlieb, S., “Five years of gay marriage”, Radio Nederland Wereldomroep, 2006. See: http://static.rnw.nl/migratie/www.radionetherlands.nl/currentaffairs/gay060403-redirected
Opponents of marriage equality often declare that same-sex couples to not need to marry because they already have access to spousal entitlements as de facto or civil union partners.
The suggestion is that marriage for same-sex couples is an unnecessary luxury.
As shown earlier, there are very practical advantages to marrying which are denied to same-sex partners. There are also less tangible advantages which greatly benefit same-sex partners and their families.
For many people, the decision to marry is not a frivolous one. It is not just a party to celebrate a relationship. It is an important step in the lives of the couple involved, sometimes the most important step they will ever take.
Marriage is not an unnecessary luxury. It is solemn life moment. Neither is the right to marry dispensable. It is one of our most fundamental human rights.
Some opponents of marriage equality believe there is no currently discrimination in the Marriage Act because everyone is allowed to marry as long as it is to an opposite-sex partner.
The underlying assumption is that attraction and love between two people of the same-sex is a choice which can and should be “unchosen” in the name of normal heterosexual relationships.
Biological sciences have shown that sexual attraction between members of the same sex is as natural as opposite-sex attraction and is to be found across all cultures and in many hundreds of animal species. The Psychological Associations of all western nations agree that it is not possible to “cure” same-sex attraction and not healthy to suppress it. In short, falling in love with someone of the same sex and wanting to share your life with them is no more a choice than falling in love with someone of the opposite sex.
Those who believe same-sex attraction is a choice will often use this argument to deny any legitimate comparison between the current ban on same-sex marriages and the former ban on interracial marriages. But those who helped overturn the ban on interracial marriages disagree. In 1967, civil rights activist Mildred Loving took a case to the US Supreme Court which saw that nation’s interracial marriage bans struck down. In 2007 she stated,
“I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. I am proud that Richard’s and my name are on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life.”
Many opponents of marriage equality believe marriage should not change because such change will weaken it , or cannot change because the definition of marriage is set in stone.
But history shows that the meaning of marriage has changed substantially without the institution being weakened.
For example, it is only in relatively recent times that partners married for love. Before that, marriage was primarily about the inheritance of property, shoring up ethnic or religious identity and, as we will see in the next section, the begetting of children.
This is why fathers arranged their children’s marriages and women lost all their legal rights upon marriage. It is why rape was allowed within marriage but contraception banned. It is why interracial unions were barred and inter-faith unions frowned upon. As old ideas about the purpose of marriage changed, so did the laws governing it. Divorce was allowed so partners could escape abusive or unhappy marriages, equal rights were extended to unmarried de facto partners and their children, marital rape was prohibited, wives were given legal equality, and, as already mentioned, barriers to interracial marriages were removed.
When each of these changes occurred, opponents of change claimed that the institution of marriage would be destroyed. Clearly, this was not the case. Instead marriage was reformed, renovated and rejuvenated so that it remained relevant to an ever more tolerant and egalitarian age. Same-sex marriage is part of the same tradition of reform and renovation.
Citing examples of how marriage has changed reminds us, not only that these change were inevitable, but that change is essential for marriage to survive. Imagine if marriage was the same institution today that it was a hundred years ago when wives were virtually property, divorce nearly impossible and the races effectively segregated?
It would no longer be considered relevant and few heterosexual couples would wish to marry. The same consideration applies to same-sex marriage. As society becomes more accepting of same-sex relationships, the current prohibition on same-sex marriages will come to be seen as anachronistic and the institution of marriage as whole will be increasingly seen as an instrument of prejudice rather than a symbol of love.
The real threat to marriage today comes not from those same-sex couples who seek to become part of the institution and uphold its values, but from those who would make marriage a vehicle for their prejudices, and who would fossilise the institution until it was as repellent and irrelevant as these prejudices are fast becoming.
Not all criticism of marriage equality comes from people who oppose homosexuality, oppose change, or think marriage is a religious institution.
Some believe marriage should be abolished because they believe it is old-fashioned or disagree with what they believe it represents. Other argue that marriage should simply be a private contract with no involvement from government. Both proposals are impractical and undesirable.
Marriage remains an important institution because the love and commitment between two people serves an important social as well as personal purpose.
There are also people who believe gay and lesbian people will lose their distinctiveness and be assimilated by mainstream culture if they are allowed to marry. This ignores the many same-sex couples who already live ordinary, marriage-like lives distinct from their heterosexual family, friends and work colleagues only insofar as they cannot marry.
As for those gay and lesbian people who value their distinctiveness, there is also no evidence they have been unwillingly assimilated in other countries where marriage equality exists. There is also no evidence that minorities that previously were denied freedom to marry like African Americans or Aboriginal Australians lost their cultural distinctiveness when granted this freedom. To be “equal” is not necessarily to be “the same”. To be integrated does not have to mean being assimilated.
Finally, there are those who believe allowing same-sex couples to marry will create a hierarchy between “respectable” married same-sex couples, and less legitimate unmarried couples and singles. However, this ignores the growing legitimacy of the choice not to marry, and the choice not to be in a relationship. Allowing same-sex couples to marry is about enhancing choice, not limiting it.
Sometimes people who are conflicted about allowing same-sex couples to marry will project their concerns on to others, suggesting those around them, or the population at large does not yet support reform and more time is required to educate and inform.
This happened in response to many important legal and social reforms including the vote for women, de-segregation in the southern United States and Aboriginal land rights. On each occasion reform occurred despite concerns it was “not the right time”.
As we have seen, a majority of Australians support reform, as do an increasing number of companies, unions and other non-government organisations. It will never be possible to convince everyone to support law reform but the importance of the reform to a significant segment of the community, and the support for reform across the whole community, should be enough to convince our political leaders to act.
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