The campaign for same sex marriage in N.I. and other countries is loud, persistent, and extremely well funded. It is supported by an ever increasing array of public representatives, businesses and corporations. This is hardly surprising considering it is always framed in terms of ‘marriage equality’ ‘positive social change’ and even ‘human rights’. Those that are against ‘marriage equality’ are portrayed as religious fundamentalists, homophobic, or both. This frame perpetuated unquestioningly by our media only serves to create an us and them mentality. Imagine what it feels like to be gay and to be repeatedly told that those who oppose gay marriage despise you and want to deny you equality! Homophobia like sectarianism, racism, and other hate filled attitudes, exists and it is indeed possible that some people who are opposed to SSM fall into this category. It is however incredibly misleading and insulting to portray those opposed to redefining marriage as anti-equality and homophobic (otherwise in France alone for example, the over one million brought out by Le Manif pour Tous would every one of them have to be deemed homophobic: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/issues/may-15th-2015/the-french-counter-revolution/).
Considering how the debate is currently framed by the media, it is actually surprising that only 25 out of 195 countries worldwide have so far legalised same sex marriage.
Any discussion surrounding redefining marriage by the state therefore should have at its core three simple questions: What is marriage? Why unlike every other human relationship is it regulated by the state and has the status of an institution? Who does this institution benefit and why?
Marriage has always been understood to be a sexual (conjugal) union involving one man and one woman naturally ordered to be procreative. Unlike all other human relationships this sexual union is one which brings new life into the world. We know through anthropological study that before the creation of church or state marriage existed in some primitive form and had some form of regulation by those in authority. The main reason for this is obvious but increasingly needs to be pointed out in today’s culture and that is children! The state has a vested interest in the wellbeing of the next generation and it was seen as an unquestionable good for children to be raised by their own biological parents where at all possible. The development of marriage and its status in countries worldwide as an institution, making it the recipient of certain rights and benefits, was society’s way of acknowledging that mothers and father matter especially to children.
Does this mean that children who are and always have been reared in all types of different situations either by single parents, grandparents, or same sex couples, are less than any other child? Of course not! But we can all agree that every child ever conceived has a mum or dad and when circumstances such as death, separation, poor mental health, etc, prevent that child from being raised by that parent, this is usually understood as being a loss to the child.
Marriage is the institution in society that encourages the natural ties between children and their parents. The desire to know our identity is rooted in each one of us. In the Irish language the terms ‘Mac’ and ‘Ní’, ‘son of’ and ‘daughter of’ reflect this reality. What has happened in countries like Ireland and the UK following the legalisation of gay marriage should be of concern to anyone genuinely interested in the wellbeing of children. When marriage is redefined children’s rights are redefined. Two men cannot make a baby and neither can two women. Following the legalisation of gay marriage there is an increased demand by same sex couples for egg or sperm donation. These are generally sourced from European sperm banks. In the UK two parents of the same sex can now legally appear on a child’s birth certificate and the Republic of Ireland seems set to follow suit. Children can now be deliberately deprived of even knowing the identity of their biological parents. How is this progressive or in the interests of children?
Modern marriage of course is not only about children. It is about love, commitment, and wanting to have your love publicly recognised. Some couples cannot have or choose not to have children. But the fact remains that the vast majority of couples who marry will have at least one child together and children are the main reason that marriage ever became regulated by the state in the first place. If marriage is simply to become a romantic relationship with no relation to children, why should the state bother to regulate for it at all? And why should those in romantic or sexual unions have special status as opposed to two siblings living together or two friends? In Columbia, less than a year after gay marriage was legalised, the state legally recognised a three man union (throuple). In the United states there is currently a movement underway to legalise polygamy. In the Republic of Ireland to men married to avoid inheritance tax. Marriage is being redefined out of existence.
The reality is that we live in a pluralist society where people can live whatever way they want. Retaining marriage as it is in law and practice does not in any way prevent same sex couples from living together and rearing children together. Civil partnership laws grant couples in this position all necessary rights, given that in the UK there are no substantive legal differences between civil partnerships and marriages. By retaining marriage law as it is states are recognising the huge (and well documented) benefits for children in being raised by their own parents. In giving marriage special recognition within the law, the state encourages its citizens to recognise and take responsibility for rearing their own biological children where possible. Surely this can only be a really good thing.