Gay is the new Drab: Why Marriage Is Not The Answer

The Scottish Government is currently in consultation over extending the right to marry to gay couples.  Mixing in leftie circles, I find myself continually bombarded with people encouraging me to contribute to the consultation, always assuming that I would support such an extension, as is the dominant narrative on the left.  When I express my opposition, they tend to back off slowly with a puzzled expression.  In this opposition, I find myself in uncomfortable company: the main voices opposing gay marriage  in popular discource are voices from the (primarily Christian) Right, with evangelical and Catholic church leaders and homophobes leading the charge.  Nevertheless – while they oppose the extension of marriage as the diluting of an institution, I’m not convinced that people should really be living in institutions at all.

Marriage is inherently a conservative state of affairs.  Its basis is of two people of opposite sex living together monogamously.  A marriage has three aspects which are assumed – firstly a sexual inter-relationship between the parties to the exclusion of others; secondly shared living accommodation and finally financial interdependence.  Not all married couples adhere to any or all three; some adhere to none, but the assumption is there and at least the appearance, if not the reality, holds true for the vast majority of married couples.

The primary assumption of a marriage is that two people in the marriage will have exclusive sexual relationships with each other until one or other of them dies.  This assumption is so strong that a marriage can be annulled if the parties do not have sex (although interestingly this does not apply in the case of civil partnership) and that right up until the early 90s in England, this sexual relationship was considered a “right” – a man who raped his wife could not be tried for the offense as it was not illegal – yet it does not hold particularly true.   Sex is less frequent than 10 times a year (the definition of a sexless marriage) in between 15% and 20% of cases.  Moreover the assumption that this sexual relationship is exclusive also does not hold water.  Depending how infidelity is defined, between 20-60% of men and 12-40% of women indulge in extra-marital sex during the course of their marriage.  Putting these statistics together it would seem that the suggestion that a marriage is a sexual union of two people to the exclusion of all others is honoured more in the breach than the observance.

The assumption that married couples will live together is not only enshrined in many pieces of legislation and guidance, but actually infiltrates non-married couples relationships.  There is the ludicrous situation in social security legislation where a husband and wife living together in the same dwelling can be considered not living together as husband and wife and therefore not a member of the same household, while a couple who are eligible to marry one another but choose not to are treated as if they are married because they are “living together as husband and wife”.  A “quasi-marriage” can be imposed by the state, based on it’s judgement of the sexual and economic relationship between the couple, rendering the partners economically dependent on one another and hence ineligible for benefits and support that they would have received if judged to be single – the marital state that they have chosen.

The assumption of a couple as a single financial entity has weakened over the last half century.  This assumption was based on women’s subordination and that a married woman would be reliant on her husband for support.  As women’s independence has grown that financial dependence has lessened and with it, some of the financial ties that bind.  Between 1948 and 1978, married women were encouraged to pay a reduced rate of NI contributions, known as “the married women’s stamp“.  Although a welcome saving in the paypacket at a time when women had no legal right to demand equal pay to men, through this stamp over four million women forfeited their right to a pension in their own name.  It was thankfully abolished in 1977 for new female entrants to the labour market, yet tens of thousands of female pensioners who have worked and paid NI all their days have no pensions.

Despite the recognition of women as earners and holders of property enshrined in the 1882 “Married Women’s Property Act“, over a hundred years later, the tax system still assumed that a wife’s income belonged to her husband.  Up until 1990 women were expected to declare their incomes to their husbands to ensure the correct taxation, while married men received the “married man’s allowance” which reduced the tax that the husband paid on both incomes.  In benefits legislation and guidance however the assumption of financial interdependence still hold true with differential treatment given to married couples or those judged by the state to be “living together as husband and wife”, almost always to the detriment of the parties concerned.

Although the benefits in income tax for marriage were abolished in 2000, preferential treatment is still given in the taxation system for married couples – and indeed civil partners – particularly rich ones.   Wedding (or civil partnership ceremony) gifts of up to £5000 and gifts made to your spouse (or civil partner) are exempt from inheritance tax, while unused inheritance tax allowance can be transfered to a surviving spouse (or civil partner), who pays no tax on anything they inherit after death, nor on any assets transferred during the union.

In fact there is no difference between civil partnership and marriage in any practical sense.  Civil partners enjoy the same property, taxation, social security and pensions rights as married couples. They also have the same ability to get parental responsibility for a partner’s children as well as reasonable maintenance, tenancy rights, insurance and next-of-kin rights in hospital and with doctors.  The only practical difference between a marriage and a civil partnership is that civil partners of male knights or peers do not receive a courtesy title unlike any wife would (which I suspect does not give too many sleepless nights to the average gay man-in-the-street).

Sooo… as Tom Robinson put it …the buggars are legal now, what more are they after?  In terms of change, what is being fought for is for the right for gay couples to be obligated to consumate their union, for a particular form of words to be used in the ceremony, for religious recognition and for courtesy titles for the husbands of male peers.  None of which are particularly high on my priorities list for smashing heteronormativity.

But its bigger than that isn’t it.

The Augustinian virtues of fidelity, offspring and sacrament can be found in virtually all politican’s ravings on the subject.  (Christian) marriage is actively promoted by the state.   In the guidance issued to Academies in July, which states the conditions of their funding demands that

The Academy Trust shall have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State on sex and relationship education to ensure that children at the academy are protected from inappropriate teaching materials and they learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and for bringing up children.

The specification that a marriage is between people of the opposite sex is only one restriction on the contract.  Issues which are yet to be challenged are the number of partners to the marriage – at present only two people may marry each other and the lifelong union which can only be dissolved by a further legal process.  Internationally there are examples of group marriage and temporary marriage which are unrecognized in UK law.  Hell – in France you don’t even need to be alive to get married.

By demanding the right to enter into marriage, accepting of the definition given by the Christian culture in which we live, the gay community is practicing assimilation and unwittingly supporting an inherently conservative institution.  Assimilation is not liberation. The old radical slogan of ”We’re here, we’re Queer, Get used to it” has been replaced by a viral whisper of “We’re just like you really“.

Why register with the state?
Why enlist in the legions of the respectable?
Why risk the whole apparatus of roles
and rules, of laws and liabilities?

Marge Piercy

Wouldn’t it be simpler just to abolish marriage?

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3 comments
EdinburghEye
EdinburghEye

"n fact there is no difference between civil partnership and marriage in any practical sense. Civil partners enjoy the same property, taxation, social security and pensions rights as married couples. " Actually, this isn't true. A man with a substantial pension who married a woman gets to leave her a nice pension supplement after his death (or she can claim it on divorce) as her share in his pension benefits, based on all contributions the man made to his pension throughout his life. A woman with a substantial pension who married a man gets to leave him a not-quite-so-nice pension supplement after her death (or he can claim it on divorce), based on all contributions since 1985 the woman made to her pension. (1985 was the year a man made the claim as a widower on his late wife's pension.) For a woman or a man with a substantial pension who has a civil partner, they can leave their civil partner their pension supplement based only on contributions made to the pension fund since 5th December 2005, the date on which it became unlawful to treat same-sex couples differently from mixed-sex couples. In about forty years time, this won't make any difference. It does now, though. Older couples who got a civil partnership will be substantially better off if allowed to convert their civil partnership into a marriage. The only institution in the UK which treats civil partners and married couples exactly alike with respect to pensions and other survivor benefits is the military. As an ardent pacifist, I find this strangely sad.

mhairi
mhairi

Thank you for that info. Didn't know that and don't think many do.

Sarah
Sarah

I do support pretty much all of what you're saying here about marriage. I do want to fight for a world in which these institutions, and the pressure to conform to them are disappeared. But that doesn't mean that I necessarily would never get married, even though I support the ultimate abolition of it. It's kind of like shaving my legs or putting on make up. I am aware of the societal pressures that pressure me to do those things, some of them I won't even be aware of because they're so subconsciously embedded. But it doesn't mean that I don't still take some enjoyment from doing these things, even though I want to fight for a world where women have no pressure to do these things. It's an odd kind of oppression that I half embrace and half reject, but I have considered it enough to not feel any guilt about continuing to enjoy those aspects of my enforced femininity or however you want to put it. I feel the same about marriage, it's something I'm pretty sure I will one day enjoy as a part of my life, despite being aware of the inherently problematic aspects of it, and I don't really like it when other feminists make out I'm mad for having that attitude (not in this blog obviously, it doesn't feel like an attack here, I mean in discussions I've had with other feminists who are more hardline about marriage than me). I completely respect their decisions to reject marriage, and I agree with most of their reasonings for it and their ultimate goals of abolition, I just don't think the way to achieve that is by blaming other women, feminist or not, for consciously or subconsciously conforming to that institution in a world where we're expected to and are taught from birth to look forward to. The reason I would still support moves to making gay marriage legal though kind of reminds me of an argument I had on the SSP Discuss forum years ago about the BBC's lack of censorship of the word 'faggot' in Fairytale of New York. Of course I am anti-censorship. I don't like that censorship of words exists on the radio. I am not into the bullshit concept of 'free speech' as an excuse to say whatever offensive and socially damaging things you want to say, but in general I am anti-censorship as a concept. But I absolutely unflinchingly believe that in a world where words like 'bum', 'shit' and 'fuck' (which I do not believe should be censored, but sadly are) are censored on the radio, so too should the word 'faggot' be censored, otherwise the message being sent is that some words are bad and shouldn't be used, but faggot isn't one of them. I likewise don't think it's okay that in a world where like it or not, marriage exists, gay people are not allowed to partake in that institution. I don't think it's contradictory to the goals of abolition of marriage to support equality for gay people in the existing institution. I think it's a little bit like saying 'we shouldn't fight for equal pay for women, we should instead fight to abolish pay'. It's a bit of a logical fallacy to me. But I do think that the points raised here about marriage as an institution are very valid and any informed socialist and feminist person's decision to support moves towards legalising gay marriage should take all these points on board and discuss them widely.

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