Monday, July 30, 2012

Why I support marriage equality, but not marriage

In what is possibly going to be one of the most confusing posts I have ever written (not so much the points I'm making, but more the way I go about expressing them...), after years of explaining my rather contradictory thoughts on these two things I have decided to write these thoughts up. The good thing about this is that I know, on this front, I am not the only one who feels contradictory in their stance and so I am in good company here!

I state up front: I 100% support marriage equality. I have been to rallies, signed the petitions and promoted the cause constantly. I remember all too well when the Marriage Act was changed in Australia to specify that marriage is between a "man" and a "woman". I remember when the ACT got its Civil Partnership Bill up only to have it maliciously squashed by the Federal Govt. I remember when the ALP proudly announced that it was FINALLY recognising same-sex relationships for the purposes of Centrelink payments (which if you ask me was just a ploy to stop same-sex couples from being able to claim separate single payments). I found it incredibly hypocritical that the Govt would recognise same-sex relationships for this process, but not for the process of marriage. I do not have any religious ties and therefore my take on same-sex marriage is completely state-based: we have a law that discriminates against an entire section of the community and it needs to be changed. Same-sex couples who wish to formalise their relationship in the state via marriage should have the right to do so, and the sooner that this discriminatory legislation is removed, the better!

Now to throw the contradictory part in: I am anti-marriage. Yep, back when I was a teen-femoranter and changed my title to Ms. (rather than the irksome "Miss") I did so because I had decided that I did not support marriage, and that I would not buy into it. Apart from a couple of weird discussions when I was 16 about marrying in a pair of Stubbie shorts (?), I have not wavered from that stance, and indeed, it has strengthened. I have also made it clear that I would not shift from this stance depending on any future choice of partner. This has not stopped me supporting many of my most wonderful friends in their choice to enter into marriage and if anything I have felt incredibly privileged that they have invited me to be a part of their special day despite listening to me bang on for years with my views! But marriage, as a concept, is something I find deeply problematic on many levels.

To take the obvious level for a feminist first: marriage has been used for millennia as a tool to oppress women and reinforce their second-class status. I have been told by so many that marriage has changed, that people have the ability to make it what they wish, and I do believe that this is the case PROVIDED people have privilege (eg: white, western, middle-class etc). I feel personally that for me to acknowledge the majority local reality whilst ignoring the reality for so many other sisters is just unconscionable. Across the world, many women have no choice and no sense of equality when it comes to marriage. Forced marriage, for example, still occurs across many parts of Asia and Africa and it has gotten to the point where the UK government has just recently criminalised it and introduced tough penalties. Whilst both sexes can be forced into marriage, it is much more likely to be young women, and a third of the cases in the UK involved minors with the youngest recently being a girl of just 5 years old. Forced marriage is also rising in prevalence in Australia.  If it is rising in migrant populations within western countries then it can only be imagined how common it would be in the home countries.

Women's second-class status, their rights of inheritance and the cost of them entering into marriage are directly linked to why there are approximately 200 million girls "missing" across the world. In many parts of the world, baby girls are seen as a burden. Future dowry costs are a part of the reason why firstly, pregnant women are sometimes subjected to sex determination tests and forced abortion, and secondly why girls are killed, abandoned or trafficked at still alarming rates. Because there are deeply ingrained notions that girls are dependant on fathers, and then need to find good marriages in order to be supported (because they are not seen as independent and capable beings) the cost of having a girl is simply too much for impoverished families to bear. It is hard to be okay with a practice that contributes to the death, neglect or trafficking of so many women globally.

Polygamous marriages are still very much part of the majority experience across the world. Now, as much sense that this is going to make, I don't have a problem with "polyamory" and indeed wonder sometimes if it is more practical than monogamy for some people. But I do actually have an issue with polygamy in so far as the dominant form practiced across the world is "polygyny", not polyandry or polygamy of any other form. Whilst it is seen as noble and dignified for a woman to curb her jealousy and accept her husband and his other wives in many of the cultures that practice polygyny, it is unacceptable for a woman to take multiple husbands with the expectation that these husbands will also act noble and dignified. The subsequent wives in polygyny are usually younger to best ensure fertility. In many polygamous communities, this leads to teenage boys being cast out of their homes in fear that they will compete with older, more powerful men for brides. Polygamy (or more accurately, polygyny) was recently covered on Insight, and rather than delve further into some of the opinions on it, I will let people judge for themselves if they wish to view it. I will say that my huge extended family is no doubt partly as a result of historical polygamy, and whilst I would not trade that family for the world, I also have no wish to adhere to that tradition. I don't expect people to just be cool with that statement, but considering all my issues with marriage, that's how I feel.

At this point, I feel a couple of western context questions need to be addressed. I do understand that (in most cases) in Australia, people enter into marriage of their own free will and therefore they question whether patriarchy still plays a part in those marriages. In my political spinster observance, I would have to say "yes". Take for example the tradition* that the wife takes the husband's name and the resultant children do too. The majority of women who enter into marriage in this country adhere to this custom and state it is their choice to do so. However, on observing female friends that did not take their husband's name, I have pretty much come to the conclusion that it is a very socially-enforced "choice". Of my friends who have kept their surnames, all have stated that they have had to correct people on several occasions when it has been assumed that they are Mrs. Such-and-such. This has happened in conversation, via mail, even at a Christening. Of those who did change their name, quite a few have said that it was simply easier, or that it was about forming a family, or so forth, but if that's the case then why is it not just as easy for family-orientated for men to do the same? 

I feel too that even in the most civil of ceremonies, the many religious markers remain (and religion has hardly been neutral territory for women over the years). Most women don't shirk the tradition of being "given away" by their fathers (or a close male relative should their father have passed away or not be in their lives) to their husbands. A lot of women still choose to spend fortunes on a white gown. The engagement ring, a symbol of commitment, is only usually given to the betrothed wife. Marriage and babies are socially-enforced for women from an incredibly young age via stories of princess brides to dolls that poo and wee on command. With all this in mind, I do have to wonder how truly egalitarian an event that is so heavily embedded in the patriarchy can ever be?

So back to the original point. It is my hope, despite all of this (and really, this is actually just a short version as anyone who has ever had this discussion with me knows), that marriage equality is won, and that this becomes a worldwide phenomenon with time. I hope that not only will same-sex couples have the choice to enter into marriage if they so desire, but that through same-sex marriage, some of the inherent gender and sex disparities of marriage and culture are challenged and dissolved leading to a more egalitarian situation for all. I hope that through marriage no longer being "between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others..." the idea that women are tradable commodities ceases to exist and more women are able to live their lives and freely chose their situation. And I hope that all those who enter into marriage have long and wonderful lives together! But I still will not be joining in and walking down the aisle myself. After all, I'm going to be trying to shake all the historical issues still ;) 

* I speak, of course, of the dominant local tradition. In many other cultures, this is not the case
** I also wish to note that it has been pointed out to me by those who know a hell of a lot better than I that freedom to marry whomever you chose, whilst being part of the 1967 referendum fight, was only a small part. I wish to note that here, but not tackle it in detail and rather leave it until later or until someone with more knowledge covers it.


  1. I can understand your stance, and have shared many of your reservations over the years- after all, men have historically held power and it's hard not to hold suspicions about how societal structures have been set up to maintain the status quo.

    Notwithstanding those suspicions, I think marriage can benefit both men and women both economically and emotionally (and I hope that through marriage equality it will also benefit men and men, or women and women, in the same way). I suppose the emotional support is largely self-explanatory. Of course people don't have to be married to provide emotional support, but I would say that across most cultures marriage is the nucleus of, and supports the family. Here I admit to some bias, having benefitted from both my parents marriage, and from being brought up with my brothers who remain my best friends, and among a large extended aiga, I'm all for family and structures that support family. In terms of economic benefits, two people can save up faster/ purchase large wealth-generating assets much easier than one person alone, and while I acknowledge people don't have to be in a marriage to do so, marriage is a structure that can support this (I acknowledge that marriage can also have a devestating economic impact- two people can work up more debts together, or worse one person can work up debt and foist it on another- but I don't think that detracts from the arguement that marriage can support wealth creation). Also as a woman, if I want to have a biological child then I will have to bear that child and there is likely to be a period when it is biologically better for me to nurture that child (because of the benefits of breastfeeding etc). Marriage is a structure that assists the pooling of resources in support of that child. As an unmarried mother who pools resources with my partner, I do realise that you don't actually have to be married to do this, but I still consider that the structure (and social expections around the structure) assists.

    Seperately, while I see how you can argue that marriage "contributes to the death, neglect or trafficking of so many women globally", we could say the same thing about sex. I personally don't think that we should eschew either! But hey, each to their own :-)

  2. Marriage is just awful, isn't it? I do love that quote, can't remember who it was that said it... where they said something like best thing about being gay is not getting married and not being in the military. Amen!

    I think one of the more fascinating things about these middle class folks who get all excited about tracing their family history to find the skeletons in the closet is their deep realisation that until fairly recently very few people across a range of cultures, bothered about getting married. Didn't mean that they weren't partnered, sometimes for life, but it did mean that there wasn't the same variety of institutional investments in it.

    I think it's an odd thing. I have the experience of either a bad formal marriage (my parents), good informal and formal arrangements (my siblings and friends) and I see no difference whatsoever with whether people are formally joined or not. These days, relationships between adults are negotiated... and that's what I want. I want them to be that. Relationships with kids might be negotiated too, to some extent, but the law is pretty clear about it and marriage (in this country) doesn't do that much to consolidate that. And that's how it should be too. And of course marriage is NOT the same as staying together. Someone can not be married and still stay in the same household and live as a partner and support for kids. And they can be married and bugger off. I mean it's not a contract, no matter what we think... and an implied contract IS a contract as well. It's because there are too many variables for marriage to be meaningfully imagined in the same way for everyone and providing everyone with the same level of equity... so naturally we allow and support (culturally, legally, and in the family context) a huge amount of variance.

    So... get married, don't get married. Here, in Australia, it actually means bugger all. The thing that is more worrying as a big old lesbo, is that same-sex partners are NOT equal under the law. Should be, are sometimes, but there are some key differences. But partnerships and civil unions can cover all but two areas... and those two areas, they're biguns. But THAT is a story about homophobia, not about marriage.

  3. (Hi there, found this via IndigenousX - enjoyed your guest week!)

    As a polyamorous person, I spend a lot of time telling fellow poly-folk that polygamists (the religiously-mandated kind) are NOT our allies. For me the principle involved is that consenting adults get to choose the arrangement that works for them, whether that's asexuality or straight monogamy or genderqueer ambiguous sort-of-poly or whatever.

    Religious polygamists replace one form of mandated relationship structure with another one. And TBH, when enforced as a social norm, FLDS-style polygamy is probably WORSE than monogamy; the only ways to make the demographics work out are to import women (unlikely), expel surplus boys (it happens) or marry women off in their early teens (happens a LOT).

    My preferred scenario would be that government gets out of the marriage business altogether - each person can decide whether they want to call their situation "marriage" and each other person can decide whether they want to acknowledge that, with no legal consequences. But since that's not likely to happen any time soon, I'd like to see sex requirements removed as the next best option.

  4. Lederhosen, I agree with you so much and nearly all fronts here! Brilliant and thanks for visiting my blog

  5. It's late in the conversation but I'd thought you like this.
    The number one cause of divorce is: