In its decision last week, the High Court of Australia cleared the way for a voluntary survey of the electorate to gauge community support for same-sex marriage. I don’t defend this idea: a voluntary survey is an unreliable instrument at best, and in any event providing for same-sex marriage is an issue that could be settled by an ordinary parliamentary vote without unusual steps such as a plebiscite or a national survey.
Still, the survey will go ahead whether I prefer it to or not. It will ask us whether we support same-sex marriage. I’ll reply “Yes” and I urge others to do the same.
This need not be an issue that divides (small-l) liberals like me and realistic conservatives. Conservatism has its place. It stands as a barrier to revolutionary, perhaps irresponsible, change. Liberalism acts as a needed social force pushing back against restrictions of individual liberty. Conservatives and liberals don’t have to disagree on every single issue.
In this case, continued denial of same-sex marriage would be illiberal, but it also goes against the best instincts of conservatives. Admittedly, some conservatives will never accept same-sex marriage because they wish to impose a traditional Christian moral code on the wider community. Note, however, that this is more reactionary and theocratic than merely conservative. Conservatives who are understandably wary of sudden, irresponsible change can acknowledge that same-sex marriage’s time has come. Many, I think, are already coming to that view and I hope they’ll continue to speak up.
Same-sex marriage is no longer a revolutionary idea or even a novelty. Many other countries, such as the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and even the staunchly Catholic nation of Ireland, have increasingly provided for same-sex marriage, and Australia has become an outlier among Western liberal democracies. The experience in other countries provides ample evidence that extending marriage to same-sex couples is not a irresponsible step. It can be workable and need not harm the social fabric.
More fundamentally, same-sex marriage makes sense because marriage itself has changed over the past two hundred years - and especially over the past fifty years or so - along with its social meaning.
Times do change. During the 1960s and 1970s - the era of the Sexual Revolution and the phase of modern feminism associated with the Women’s Liberation Movement - genuinely revolutionary ideas about sex marriage were in vogue. The institution of marriage was subjected to fundamental criticism, and, to be frank, it was largely deserved.
Marriage, as it was understood and practised in European Christendom and its colonial offshoots, had a dubious history. It functioned as a form of social, and especially sexual, control. In particular, it constricted the sexuality of women. More generally, unreformed marriage was a blatantly patriarchal institution. Writing in the 1860s, John Stuart Mill identified the marriage bond as a form of slavery for women. He was not far wrong.
To play its role, marriage operated as licence for sexual experience, which was otherwise forbidden by morality if not by law. Standards of chastity were, of course, applied far more harshly to women than to men. Among the wealthier classes, marriage also operated as a tool for economic ends such as estate planning. From the viewpoint of sixties-and-seventies radicals, there was much about marriage that was far from romantic and did not deserve to be sentimentalised. Like Mill a century earlier, they had point.
Yet, marriage had already changed and softened from what it once had been. There was a long process through the 1800s and the first half of the twentieth century that improved the legal situation of women and altered the ideal of marriage far more toward one of companionship between equals. Under a range of social pressures, marriage has continued in that direction.
Marriage has become a kinder and far more flexible concept than it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or even the 1960s. This came about in the context of a grand social compromise, not necessarily imagined by anybody in advance, where marriage’s importance was largely preserved even as its character and ground rules changed. The current ideal of marriage in Western democracies is an equal union between two companions, involving love and intimacy. Often, it even lives up to that ideal.
Same-sex marriage became increasingly more thinkable during the 1980s and thereafter until the idea is not at all revolutionary. The impetus came, in large part, from the 1981 AIDS crisis, but the idea of marriage for same-sex couples was able to gain traction because marriage itself had been changing in an accommodating way. Broadening the scope of marriage to include same-sex couples is now a coherent and attractive proposition. Indeed, younger people who were born after the AIDS crisis and have grown up with the contemporary ideal of marriage find the exclusion of same-sex couples incomprehensible.
The changing ideal of marriage has been very significant, but it happened sufficiently gradually for Western societies to adapt around it. Provision by Australian law for same-sex marriages will give effect to a concept of marriage that meets contemporary social reality and keeps the institution relevant. Far from undermining marriage as a cherished social institution, same-sex marriage will tend to strengthen it. It will show marriage as still socially relevant, as adaptable to the needs and values of 21st-century Australians.
At the same time, the trend in Western countries toward recognition of same-sex marriage is not entirely a social defeat for conservatives. I urge them - those who have not already done so - to embrace the idea as one they can live with and even take some comfort from.
Marriage continues to maintain social prestige, and it retains deep emotional significance for most citizens, including many gay men and lesbians. Once they shed their aversion to homosexuality itself - as they increasingly have - realistic conservatives can take comfort that marriage is something that so many gay men and lesbians actually want.
Our choice as voters over the coming months is to accept a genuinely modern ideal of marriage - and thus base policy upon it - or to affirm a much older concept of marriage that younger people find irrelevant and has relatively little community support. The latter would bring marriage into disrepute.
More and more conservatives have grasped that the continuing importance of marriage is in many ways a victory for their viewpoint, and that there are other issues around which they can continue to define themselves. At this point, resistance to the idea of same-sex marriage has become somewhat absurd, even by the lights of these clued-up conservatives.
Marriage itself has changed, along with its social meaning. It’s time to accept that not-so-harsh reality, whatever our views might be on other political issues. The trend in Western countries toward recognition of same-sex marriage is not entirely a social defeat for conservatives, and I urge them, in particular, to embrace what is happening. Almost all Australians, liberal-minded or realistically conservative, now have good reason to vote “Yes”.
Authors: Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle