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?
Wouldn’t it be simpler just to abolish marriage?