Thursday, August 30, 2007

Why Marriage (still) matters

Why marriage (still) matters
tamara Gorzalka /

Gay marriage may seem like a dead issue to the average Canadian. After its legalization and the Conservative minority government’s failure to re-start debate on the issue, opposition to same-sex marriage has moved on or at least (mostly) shut up about it, so I really had no intention of writing an article about same-sex marriage any time soon.

I am, however, occasionally reminded of the importance that a marriage certificate holds, but I didn’t expect inspiration for my renewed interest in gay marriage to come from ex-convicts in Philadelphia.

Steven Roberts and Daniel Mangini have been a couple for more than two decades. A few years ago the pair went to jail for dealing drugs and have since emerged clean of the meth addiction that held them both. Eager to serve their five-year paroles and resume life together, they left prison one and two years ago, respectively. But less than a week before Roberts was released, the couple was told the law limited them to one 12-hour visit and two phone calls a week for at least 6 months, as federal policy forbids parolees from associating with other felons unless they are spouses or relatives. The American Civil Liberties Union took on the men’s case and the US District Court decided Roberts and Mangini have the same rights as a heterosexual married couple, and they now see each other every other day. But while this case had a happy ending, many aren’t so lucky.

Hopes for improvement in same-sex couple benefits were dashed in Australia last week when conservative legislators managed to a delay a bill providing limited rights to queer partners. The cabinet eventually chose to leave it up to Prime Minister John Howard, who’s made it very clear he will not consider legalizing marriage or civil unions. Howard’s government passed legislation three years ago specifically limiting marriage exclusively to opposite sex-couples.

A group wedding of eight gay couples occurred in Manchester over the weekend, reminding us that even in the UK queers can’t actually get married—they’re only ‘civil partners’ under the law. Vermont legalized civil unions seven years ago but just this month started organizing a commission towards legislating same-sex marriage; it’ll be at least two years before the bill makes it onto a ballot. Next year a civil union law—the usual ‘all the same rights, just not the same name’—goes into effect in New Hampshire.
It’s hard for me to mount an argument in support of same-sex marriage. It’s sort of like asking me if puppies are cute. There is no discussion necessary. Some things simply are, and if you don’t get it, there’s no explaining why.
Oh, I’ve heard arguments. We all have. Society will crumble. Polygamy, pedophilia and bestiality will run rampant. It’s nearly impossible to engage in such a baseless debate, so for now I’ll just assume that anyone intelligent enough to be reading this doesn’t need me to explain why the marriage of willing grown-ups isn’t the same thing as marrying a dog, a baby, a tree, an office building, a lizard and so on. When you get down to it, the suggestion is actually pretty offensive. I hope I don’t piss off any lizard-lovers here, but comparing queer love to the aforementioned aberrations is really pretty repulsive. Yet we’re forced to field this ludicrous argument on a far too frequent basis.

Some say it is dramatic to compare our struggles to the uprisings of race and religion that came before us—but in this case, the parallel is apt. Denying marriage to same-sex partners is as crazy as rejecting it on the basis of skin colour, class, denomination or any other arbitrary distinction. I’ll be the first to admit that our world is full of things that are much more important than marriage, but at some point, same-sex unions became a flagship issue bearing the brunt of ignorance and hatred. The debate brings out hidden homophobia from the shadows of average citizens who mostly let us do our own thing. The idea that a pair of loving adults could be a danger to one’s family or marriage is pretty ridiculous. Again, such a suggestion can’t really be refuted because it’s too laughable to comment on.

This is not even a religious issue. Despite the hard fought efforts of many so-called ‘spiritual leaders’ across the world, more and more places of worship continue to open up their congregations to all types of diversity. As long as marriage certificates continue to be bestowed by the government, this is a legal issue about granting the same rights and privileges as anyone else.

And this whole ‘sanctity of marriage’ thing doesn’t fly with me either. Not when a pregnant Nicole Richie becomes engaged to Hilary Duff’s mall-punk ex-boyfriend on the heels of her coke-fuelled DUI. Or when Katie Holmes marries her couch-hopping teen idol. (Of course, tying the knot with Tom Cruise might qualify as a gay wedding, but still.)

One less outlandish argument is the idea that straight marriage should be upheld for the sake of tradition. Societal changes can appear scary, but equal rights benefit everyone. Our nations are built upon struggles to enact change. Otherwise we’d be living in caves and wearing a lot of fur. I’m no fan of animal pelts, nor do I enjoy being clubbed over the head (not unless there’s a good reason, anyway). Societies evolve and nothing’s ever gotten better by standing still, except maybe whiskey.

It’s hard to legislate acceptance. You can’t make really make a policy that legislates toleration or criminalization of homophobia because you can’t police thought. But you can legalize rights and protect against discrimination. Marriage is a label that bundles thousands of opportunities. A spouse opens up the chance to adopt, inherit, share, visit and decide in every facet of a person and their partner’s life.

Outside of the western world, the debate about marriage probably seems absurd compared to countries where being gay will still get you jailed or worse. The danger in these places can’t be ignored and the fight to protect LGBT people across the planet is something we must all engage in, but that doesn’t negate our lesser struggles here. V

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