Though the Howard government’s bill to ban recognition of same-sex marriages looks set to become law, debate on the issue in this country has remained embryonic. So far, arguments from the left have centred on the ideal of equal rights; while the right asks us to believe it is "defending" a traditional institution set in stone. Meanwhile, political commentators have viewed the issue primarily on its value as a tactical wedge manoeuvre.
But surely, a decision to deprive a significant minority of citizens access to such a fundamental institution should require more reasoned consideration than The Australian’s recent patronising plea for gays to just “get over it”.
In the United States a more nuanced debate has emerged, one that recognises this issue demands more than a simple reactionary duel between liberals and conservatives. Certainly, President Bush’s plea for Congress to encode a heterosexual definition of marriage in that country’s Constitution has met with opposition from a significant minority of conservative Republicans. Some oppose the interference in states’ rights, while others regard enshrining discrimination in the Constitution as a sacrilege that would sully one of the world’s great symbols of freedom.
"We meddle with the Constitution to our own peril," warns conservative Republican Bob Barr. "If we begin to treat the Constitution as our personal sandbox, in which to build and destroy castles as we please, we risk diluting the grandeur of having a constitution in the first place." But other conservatives are going further by coming out in full support of Adam and Steve’s quest for full and equal citizenship.
“The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments,” writes David Brooks, New York Times columnist and resident Bush-booster on the Jim Lehrer News Hour. “We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.”
Brooks’ pitch to fellow conservatives is taken further by Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution fellow and author of Gay Marriage: Why It is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. Rauch argues that excluding gays turns them into “walking billboards for the irrelevance of marriage”.
He says US conservatives have more to fear from civil unions and other forms of de facto recognition because they will make "real" marriage less attractive to heterosexuals: "As society makes room for unmarried but devoted same-sex couples, custom and law will provide cohabitants with many of marriage's benefits - only without the bother of formal commitment, legal responsibilities, or a messy divorce."
To those who insist marriage is inherently linked to child-raising, Rauch points out the ban on gay marriage does nothing to stop gays and lesbians having children, it only ensures such children remain legally disadvantaged: “The choice here is not whether children of a homosexual parent will live with a mommy and daddy, because that is not going to happen. They will either have two caring, legally responsible adults in a relationship recognized by the state, or they will have two adults in their lives but only one who has a legal obligation to their care”.
Conservative supporters of same-sex marriage all owe some debt to pioneering advocate Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic and an influential, openly-gay right-winger. Citing “social cohesion, emotional security and economic prudence” as benefits of same-sex marriage, Sullivan writes:
“It's one of the richest ironies of our society's blind spot toward gays that essentially conservative social goals should have the appearance of being so radical.
But gay marriage is not a radical step … it is humane; it is conservative in the best sense of the word. Given that gay relationships will always exist, what possible social goal is advanced by framing the law to encourage those relationships to be unfaithful, undeveloped, and insecure?
And elsewhere, “those conservatives who deplore promiscuity among some homosexuals should be among the first to support [same-sex marriage]. Burke could have written a powerful case for it.”
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