I write this as a person that has been engaged twice to different men.
In the last year, the issue of legalising same-sex marriage has become a prominent issue in both Australia and the USA. On Monday night (25th November), the Australian Senate passed amendments to around 100 family, health and taxation laws that give homosexual couples access to the same services as opposite-sex couples living together in “de facto,” or common-law, relationships. They have, however, ruled out same-sex marriage. Is this a victory or a loss?
It is a bitter-sweet victory. It is a victory, because it finally grants a significant measure of entitlement in Australian Federal law for same-sex relationships. It is a loss, because there is a clear statement that same-sex relationships do not share equal privilege to heterosexual relationships. Being told that I can have the same effective legal and social privilege as another couple, but only if I do X, Y and Z first, or meet a lesser set of criteria is not equality. It is second-class status, and currently civil unions are only recognised in two states (Victoria and Tasmania) and the ACT. There are many questions that I would like to see challenge the 'equal' standing of civil unions. I present two here:
“If I were to die, what criteria would a potential partner of mine have to fulfil in order for the state to bequeath my property to them, and how much disparity is there between that and a marriage?”
“If I were to establish a relationship with a foreign person of the same-sex, how much more difficult is it for the State to grant the same ease of entry into the country that a marriage could provide?”
A large part of the debate on same-sex marriage revolves around its definition. Marriage is an institution that has been possessed, given privilege, defined, redefined and owned by states, religions, tribes, and individuals. It is an institution that spans both culture and civilisation. To quote Kathleen Hull:
"Marriage: Personal commitment. Pillar of civilisation. Spiritual covenant. Legal bond. Political football. Source of social status. Site of gender inequity. Tool of sexual regulation. Dying institution. Partnership for reproduction and childrearing. Path to material gain. Reflection of divine love. Legalised prostitution."
Every society surrounds itself with ritual and rites of passage that inform our identity, our relationship with society and the state. All of which contribute to socially privileging the status of this arrangement, and not merely legal privilege. I will not accede the institution of marriage to traditional religions, for I have a stake in what is a foundation of a society, which I am a part of. It affects my life even if I am single, therefore I assert my claim over its nature.
Marriage is a privileged status, whether I like it or not, and the role of privilege in our society determines a majority of our relationships and capacity. People who are privileged have difficulty understanding the experience of lack of privilege. Imagine a male understanding the subtle and blatant hardships a woman endures simply because she is a female in a society that favours men. Imagine a child of a poor socio-economic background attempting to affording an education to the equal of that of wealthier backgrounds. Lack of privilege means that it takes more resources, effort and difficulty to achieve the same things as those with privilege, which is why it's so pervasive. Not only does it sit takes more effort to meet the same means the same things, but this increased difficulty creates insecurity over things that people with privilege can take for granted (in the most explicit meaning of the phrase). This insecurity expounds the problems, not merely adding to them. The stress created by this insecurity feeds back into the problems causing the insecurity itself, making a vicious cycle. This is most noticibly visible in the poverty trap.
In much of the rhetoric I have observed, the sanctity of marriage is often aligned with the sanctity of the family. Let me examine the impact this privilege has upon any desire I might have to raise a family. Firstly, if I were to attempt a family with a same-sex partner, then I must overcome the biological limitation of not being able to naturally breed with him. While I can adopt, use IVF or any number of technological provisions capable of overcoming these limitations, they are both prohibitively expensive and an example of how I must expend more resources to achieve the same results that many heterosexual couples achieve through sheer accident. On top of that, I must contend with a social environment that is currently hostile to same-sex couple raising children (for reasons I will explore below), and this itself creates an issue of insecurity for my potential family as well as my potential children. So to lack legal privilege as well is merely one of a trifecta of concerns that make it highly difficult for me to participate in an assumedly normalised social convention.
On the matter of same-sex couples raising children, I would attest not only their right to having a family, but also denounce any claim of their suitability to raise children. The role of the family in society is an exceptionally protected one: politically, legally, financially, and socially. It's supposedly the basic unit of society that becomes the rock upon which family values are built. Namely a conservative value system that seeks to secure the existing social order against innovative, alternative and otherwise 'deviant' social values, by effectively sheltering and cloistering children from exposure to them. It seeks to propagate into the minds and hearts of children, who become the next generation, in the hopes that they will abide by the same conservative values. Yet, I can cite time and time again that these conservative values can instil a sense of intolerance, hatred and violence in those who have no exposure to diversity. I would like to point to the social conflict between Islam and the West as an example of how bringing up children intolerant of different value systems can bring violent conflict. Human beings develop socially through stimulation and challenge, and grow the most when they learn to adjust and cope with social conflict and tension. Raising a child in a diverse environment helps them cultivate tools to understand that which is strange and alien to their own. It provides with the ability to fully appreciate and interact within a pluralistic world, one whose cultural borders are shrinking by the day. Exposure leads to tolerance, tolerance leads to peace.
Finally, I worry that people will simple accept this as the new status quo, because it seems a step up from where we were before. Yes, this is true, but I am dismayed by today's apathy from a large portion of the queer community about politics that are about them, but don't directly affect them. While we are far more privileged than we were 30 years ago, it does not mean that we should rest on our laurels. It is a dangerous trap, because we find that society has reached a new equilibrium, and one that is comfortable enough to tolerate. The fact that a minority cannot tolerate the status quo seems less important because we're not that minority.
Congratulations. If this is you, then you are privileged. Make sure you enjoy that privilege because someone else fought hard and won it for you. Someone else stood up to face the slings and arrows of abuse, and suffered violence so that you wouldn't have to.
Can you now stand up and speak for those who have less privilege than you?