Should Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie be allowed to marry, as a same-sex couple setting new norms for the world of children's TV? Prime Minister Julia Gillard would probably not agree. Gillard insists that her 'conservative upbringing' will not allow her to accept marriage as anything other than the union of a man and a woman. Presumably her conservative upbringing was put on hold when she decided to 'live in sin' with her male partner Tim Mathieson. She cites no religious reason for opposing gay marriage, being a professed atheist, merely the conventional past. She seems not to understand that marriage under the Act is already a 'civil union', not a fixed moral law or a religious sacrament to be preserved at all costs.
The looming Labor Conference debate on gay marriage will be a defining moment not just for the Labor Party but for the whole of Australian society. Already several States recognize what they call 'civil unions' which give same-sex partners equal rights to medical decisions if one is ill, to state superannuation and property distribution rights if they split up. The Marriage Act is under the purview of the Commonwealth, not the States and Prime Minister Julia Gillard is being called upon to allow a conscience vote in Parliament to test the waters. That is what should happen.
Marriage has a long and varied history, of which opponents of gay marriage seem to be ignorant.
With very few exceptions, marriage has been monogamous, secular and personal. It was an arrangement between two families (the two individuals had varying say) for the purposes of regulating the natural sexual instincts of young people, consolidating and managing family property, ensuring procreation and the passing on of a legitimate family name, and protecting the rights of both partners (though more the male's than the female's) and the rights of children born or raised within the marriage.
Gay marriage threatens none of these traditional goals. Indeed it may make for greater social stability and certainly ensure the equal rights of all partners who agree to accept marriage's legal obligations and responsibilities.
In early Greek and Roman times marriage was virtually compulsory, the single man being ridiculed and denied important public roles. Even the Spartans who openly practised homosexuality had to marry and have children. It was good for society. As Demosthenes put it, "We have prostitutes for our pleasure, concubines for our health and wives to bear us lawful offspring." The word 'lawful' is the key word here. It was St Paul who wrote, "Better to marry than to burn." (1 Corinthians 7:9) Nowadays you don't have to. But marriage still serves important legal and social purposes. Islam enjoins its adherents to marry 'for the greater community'.
Early Christianity accepted Roman law, with marriage seen as a civil and private arrangement, but stopped penalizing singles because celibacy came to be seen as a desirable state. It stopped the barbaric northern European practice of 'sale marriage' (which gave us the wedding ring as a down payment on the full 'bride price' paid on delivery) and thus improved the status of women and gradually civilized marriage customs. Indeed in Europe, even after the Catholic Church declared marriage was a 'sacrament', it was still seen to spring from the free consent of two partners.
Most marriages throughout history were not religious, but what we call common law marriages – some consensual, recognized simply by living together for one year, others marked by a commitment ceremony with witnesses. Up to the tenth century, most such ceremonies took place outside the church door and it was not until the thirteenth century that the priest took charge. It was a practical, economic affair, a union of convenience which improved the capacity of an individual man or woman to survive and thrive and joined two families in mutually advantageous kinship. To say that marriage was not yet a 'romantic' matter of love and personal choice (given arranged marriages and patriarchal control) ignores both the sexual urges of youth and the reality that even intimacy after rather than before marriage can lead to love.
But the 16th century Protestant Reformation set the cat amongst the pigeons. Luther declared marriage 'a worldly thing' that belonged to the realm of government. Calvin agreed. So the Catholic Church's response at the 1563 Council of Trent was to denounce all common law marriages, insist on having unions ratified by a priest and two witnesses. It imposed complex impediments to marriage (through the 'banns') such as blood relations to the seventh degree, family affinity and godparent relationships and, most significantly, it abolished divorce. The Catechism of 1566 spelt out the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman (i.e. heterosexuals only) and indissolubility for life, 'until Death do us part'. This is the bottom line for those who oppose homosexual marriage.
The Church hung on for centuries, losing the battle against secularism and the power of the State, but not against a broad acceptance of that basic definition. The French Revolution made civil marriage compulsory, regardless of whether a church service was held; Bismarck imposed State control over the institution of marriage in the 19th century, returning marriage to its traditional status as a legally binding economic and social contract between two consenting adults. This was an important step in the bureaucratic rationalizing of modern society. The poet John Milton was a bit ahead of his time, arguing that divorce was a must when mutual love was lacking and marriage had become a sham. But it is that sentiment that informed the new no-fault divorce laws of the twentieth century, based on the breakdown of an agreement between two equal partners. It is the quality of the relationship that matters.
This left the protection of partners' and children's civil rights as the main reason for having a legally recognized marriage of any kind. Today, sex is easy to have outside marriage, and long-term sexual partnerships take the place of formal marriage for many. In countries with an over-population of youth, such as China (with over 18 million more young men than women) social instability threatens with bride kidnapping and hormonally riotous (and often unemployed) youth having no ready outlet. They may have to encourage homosexual relationships!
The problem then is no longer the regulation of sexual behavior, but the legal rights and responsibilities of the partners and the care of children. The economic value of mutual care and financial support through marriage is clear from the growing cost of welfare support for single mothers and research clearly supports the view that two parents are better than one in the raising of children. A violent or unhappy marriage is not good for children, but divorce also often involves ongoing conflict, unstable housing and schooling, poverty and disadvantage. Australia's marriage rate has declined by a quarter since the 1980s. We should be encouraging and supporting marital stability, regardless of the sex of the parents.