Equal Marriage and Poor Arguments from the LGBTQ side
Are queer writers and activists who argue for equal marriage by attacking others like turkeys voting for Christmas?
One of the most enduring & most enraging logical fallacies I have encountered from equal marriage advocates over many years is the tendency to attack opposite-sex marriages whose participants are seen to be “doing it wrong” as a way of bolstering the equal marriage position. I’m not even going to give examples, as there are so many I’m sure you can find your own. Hint: you could start with Dan Savage. I think this tendency is not only offensive but also counter-productive, for a number of reasons.
A standard tactic is to point in general to the high divorce rate in the country of the writer (usually but not always America). Some writers specifically pick on what they consider particularly egregious examples of “bad” marriage-related behaviour. The classic is Britney Spears’ 55-hour marriage in 2004 to her childhood friend Jason Alexander, which took place in Las Vegas and was swiftly annulled.
The object lesson that the author generally draws from this is “it’s a disgrace that these people who don’t respect marriage are allowed to get married and we aren’t”.
Let’s leave Britney Spears out of this. Some heterosexual celebrity marriages didn’t work out. So what?
Now, before I tackle the general problems, I want to talk specifically about the problem with picking on Britney. This is a woman who was a child performer and acquired sudden, huge fame at the age of 16, whose hymen became an international topic of media speculation for crying out loud, who was publicly derided for sleeping with her famous boyfriend while in a committed relationship and then went through an extremely public breakup with him. Without even considering her later struggles with mental health difficulties or the supposedly dysfunctional relationships she has with family members, it is clear that her life was already so far from being typical that to use her experiences as an example of any kind of social trend is deluded in the extreme.
If one is going to point to a social trend here, arguably the presence of a trillion wedding chapels in Vegas is more interesting, especially when you consider that the “crazy Vegas wedding” is such a trope of popular culture (from Ross & Rachel in ‘Friends’ to Katchoo & David in ‘Strangers In Paradise’) that people actually book weddings in Vegas on the basis that the environment is either “romantic” or gloriously kitsch fun (much was made of both in the 1992 Nic Cage/SJP film ‘Honeymoon In Vegas’) which, either way, is good to indulge. That a celebrity does it is hardly surprising, but somehow it is a “dumb blonde” (I hope I hardly need to point out that this is *not* my opinion of Britney Spears), not the state of Nevada, in the dock here. It’s not as if a celebrity’s activities are going to make the rest of us go out and do it… just as homophobes like to claim about the buttsex, in fact.
Leaving the specifics of Britney to one side, it is clearly a complete and utter coincidence that the celebrities huffed at for not respecting marriage are female, usually young and, shall we say, not taken very seriously? Kim Kardashian, anyone? Which isn’t to say that if Natalie Portman or Joseph Gordon-Levitt had a whirlwind marriage, it wouldn’t be big news. It clearly would, but would journalists treat it as an embarrassing aberration or as symptomatic of their entire personality? Let’s hope they don’t have to find out. Those who think this isn’t a feminist issue haven’t been paying attention. Those who have been paying attention to the recent shaming of Kristen Stewart may notice you can easily be publicly accused of ruining your marriage before it’s even happened!
But the problem goes far beyond the use of the celebrity example and to the very heart of the critique’s problems itself. For one thing, many of the more staunchly religious-conservative objectors to equal marriage also like to complain about falling moral standards, the high divorce rate, slutty celebrities, etc. Sure, they may well be divorced hypocrites themselves, but when we take up their dreadful talking points, we give them an artificial validity. Many of them would probably like to stop opposite-sex couples marrying & divorcing as they please too, so telling them how straight people are also sending us to hell in a hand-basket with their selfish marital practices is telling them nothing they haven’t already complained about.
Civil marriage is not a morality play.
Civil marriage is not a discretionary arrangement to allow the Right Sort Of People into communities; it is a simple matter of qualification. In Britain, we have had civil marriage since 1837, and the unifying aim of it was that ANY citizen who was of age/competence & not married could enjoy the right for a small fee, regardless of their religious affiliations. This was a very important step for confirming the centrality of the state’s role in impartially administering rights without favour (however well or otherwise one thinks the state carries it out), and its amendment to reflect changing opinions is completely in keeping with that. It meant there was no need to satisfy arbitrary standards of behaviour as long as you ticked the boxes. When we decry the ability of people who don’t “respect the institution” to participate in it, it’s an odd reversion to a dead idea of patronage. Entitlement is a thousand times better than permission for genuine equality.
Critique of equal marriage from radical gay and queer communities
Fierce critiques of equal marriage campaigns have always come from the radical gay (and subsequently queer) wings; these have frequently observed that not being constrained by heteronormative standards is one of the greatest gifts of being who we are, and that we should not be so eager to abandon this in our struggles against oppression, not least because heteronormative LGBT+ communities end up excluding the most vulnerable members – those who don’t “pass” in a range of ways.
And these critiques are valid in many ways. Assimilation is a double-edged sword. This doesn’t mean, however, that I share the views of other queers who wholly reject the equal marriage campaigns on this basis. They are free not to care, but the assumption that the struggle is intrinsically assimilationist is a mistake. It doesn’t have to be. It can be about equal rights and free choice – those who reject marriage as an institution will still be free to do so, but those who want it can have it.
Biology is not destiny, and to suggest that one’s sexual orientation should dictate one’s politics is a worrying echo of this idea. However, as soon as any argument is made that The Gays should be allowed marriage because they’ll do it better than those bad heterosexuals, we are in assimilationist territory LIKE WOAH. We’re also kidding ourselves, because same gender marriage will inevitably mean same gender adultery, same gender divorces, same gender custody battles and yes, I’m sorry to say, probably even the odd same gender spouse murder (partner murder, after all, has famously occurred already; poor Joe Orton). The sad events surrounding Matt Lucas’ civil partnership & divorce fuelled a deluge of spiteful “See? We told you they couldn’t commit!” comment pieces from conservative journalists. We can’t help that, but we can avoid setting other queer folk up for such abuse by not making exalted claims about ourselves.
We’re not better human beings than the next lot. Or, if you prefer, there’s no justice, there’s just us. So any claim that we are somehow going to be better at marriage is going to be used against us by the disgruntled losers in this struggle before you can say “I told you so”. This is basically inevitable, but why hand them the bat? And frankly, when we start one-upping straight people in the monogamy stakes, we WILL lose.
The reality of life for most queers is not one of purity vows or lifelong commitment to childhood sweethearts, thank f*ck, but what is normal & healthy experimentation in the face of a hateful or indifferent world reads as immorality to those on the opposition, and that won’t change any time soon. We cannot compete on those grounds and, frankly, why would we want to? Framing same gender marriage debates around respect for the institution assumes that the people who want to join the institution share a common view of marriage with heterosexuals (as if there is even any kind of common view there!). This monolithic approach to the legal arrangement excludes those of us who do not, from those who don’t intend to be parents to those who practice any number of forms of ethical non-monogamy, from monogamish to polyamory, and swinging to sex work. We want those legal rights too, goddammit, whether or not we choose to use them. Married polyamorists (as well as the child-free) exist a-plenty as opposite-sex couples, and they would never satisfy the heteronormative standards to which these kinds of shallow arguments appeal. They don’t have to, because the law, thankfully, doesn’t care, and nor should we. Rights are not and must not be contingent on good behaviour. And when we fall into the trap of believing that relationships ending other than by death is a sign of failure, we do ourselves a disservice.
Slamming other people’s marriages is tacky. End of.
Finally, apart from all the other arguments, the one which really provokes me about the use of other people’s marriages is the matter of courtesy – it’s just so incredibly tacky. Most people aren’t happy when their relationships end, and for those who have it happen in public, often accompanied by embarrassing revelations, it must be even more excruciating. So to make political capital out of other people’s misery seems low, opportunistic & nasty.
We really should just butt out of making judgements on the media-orchestrated shame festivals these stories involve. They’re none of our business and we honestly don’t know how we’d fare in the same situations. We don’t have to follow Christian ethics to agree that casting the first stone is a poor way to behave. And we don’t need to stoop to fighting dirty either. We are winning. Not as fast as we might like, but we’re doing pretty well as far as social change goes. Equal marriage will happen soon. It’s already happened in some 11 countries (Sweden, Canada, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Iceland, Denmark, Norway & South Africa; also in 6 US states), and it’s not going to stop. While we don’t quite have it in the UK yet, the current government is still promising it by 2015 (despite some mutterings to the contrary) and it has the official support of the Big Three political parties, the Green Party, the SNP & Plaid Cymru.
This doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels, but it does mean we have already won the legal and ethical arguments. The only opposition positions are those grounded in intolerance or inaccurate beliefs about biology, often both. These persist, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to prevail, which is why equal marriage opponents have to throw ever-increasing sums of money at the problem to get their own way.
Success always entails some compromises along the way; this is the way the world works, and it’s not always a bad thing, because humans are fundamentally communal creatures and negotiation is an essential skill for communal living. But there are some things on which we should not compromise; full inclusion and standards of decent behaviour are among them.
So no more slut-shaming celebrities or railing against heterosexuals who have the audacity to end their marriages. Let’s stick with skewering bigotry & hypocrisy, and leave other people’s marriages up to them. We have better things to do.