My Godfather was a bachelor who lived in a small cottage in East Melbourne. We called him Uncle Ernest but he was actually my grandfather’s brother and technically my mother’s uncle. He came once a week to dinner at our house and was an important influence on my development. Although my parents were by no means uncultured, he brought something extra into my life in terms of a respect for the arts and the value of refinement and taste. He was for me a model of elegance and urbanity and, most important of all, gave me a sense of style. I still remember when he took me to my first Shakespeare play in the city, performed by the visiting Old Vic Company. I believe he had a similar positive influence on some of my cousins.
He was a loved and respected member of my extended family and I never heard a word spoken against him. The family sometimes mentioned his late companion who shared the cottage with him for many years, well before my time, but there was no hint at all that there was anything untoward in this.
I am now almost certain that he was gay and I am grateful that he was. If he had been heterosexual he would most probably have married and had his own children and been too busy with them to give me the benefit of his dignified presence.
My subsequent life has been enriched by countless encounters, and sometimes ongoing relationships, with a wide range of gay people in all walks of life. Most of them were first and foremost fine people, intelligent, creative and enthusiastic, and their homosexuality, while part of their identity, was neither here nor there in the argy-bargy of day-to-day existence.
I believe my personal experience can be generalised to the whole society. Our whole culture has benefited from the presence of homosexuals in our midst, not just as mentors but as productive and creative people in their own right, and we should thank whatever evolutionary forces made it a fact that it is normal that a percentage of the population at any one time will be drawn to same-sex rather than heterosexual unions.
Homosexuality is normal, but it is not the norm. If it were the norm, the human race would have died out eons ago. The norm for human beings is sexual reproduction which requires not same-sex but opposite-sex unions. At the most basic level, our survival as a species requires the coming together of male and female gametes.
In human societies the way this essential union is symbolised is in the institution of marriage. This is how the centrality of the male-female partnership is celebrated in our culture and, in a non-religious sense, it is sacred; that is to say, heterosexuality is so important to our survival, so fundamental to the continuation of the species, that we have an ingrained sense that marriage as a heterosexual union should not be tampered with. It symbolises in the social sphere the vital role that the male-female gamete union plays at the biological level.
It is true that in the past, and even now, many societies have discriminated against homosexuals and one of the ways they have done this is to deny them the civil advantages that are bestowed on married couples. In a just society, no-one should withhold such privileges from a person or a couple simply on the grounds of their sexual orientation. But to solve this problem by introducing same-sex marriage is to strip marriage of its deep meaning as a symbol of the male-female union that it is quintessentially a part of nearly all animal life, including human life, on this planet, and to pare it down to the status of a civil union, a merely legal arrangement. This is why I feel queasy about the idea of same-sex marriage. It is achieving equality for some by taking something important away from many others, and that, I think, is not just. The just way to give equality to homosexuals is to acknowledge their relationships in civil, unions which give them the recognition and legal rights they want and deserve, without at the same time making meaningless the rite of marriage as a female/male inter-relationship in the process.
Being equal does not mean being the same. Marriage celebrates the male-female bond, which is worth celebrating, but his doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also celebrate homosexual partnerships for the contributions they have made. I think of Gertrude and Alice. Of Patrick and Manny. And so many more. The list is a long one.
But we must also recognise that there is a sense in which homosexual partnerships are not the same as heterosexual ones and this difference should also be celebrated.
I sometimes think that some members of the homosexual community are playing a game of “Let’s Pretend” – “Let’s pretend we’re heterosexual”: Heterosexual couples have children, so let’s get ourselves a baby. Heterosexual couples get married, so let’s get ourselves married. This seems to me to be at one level a denial of one’s homosexuality, of what makes homosexuality unique. Freedom is not the ability to become like other people, freedom is the ability to become more fully yourself! Isn’t this what “Gay Pride” means. There is no pride in making believe you are just like everyone else.
So by all means find non-discriminatory ways to recognise same-sex relationships but don’t do it at the expense of blurring and obscuring the unique role of sexual reproduction and its social representation in marriage in the continuing social life of our species.