Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Eilis O'Hanlon: Love and marriage go together for gay and straight

AS YOUNG Leftie feminists studying politics and sociology in the far-off Eighties, we were all convinced that marriage was a failed bourgeois institution which had run its course and would soon bite the dust of history.

Liberated women wouldn't stand for it anymore, and that recently discovered subspecies, the New Man, wouldn't dream of asking any woman he cared about to subsume herself into his oppressive patriarchal identity.

Of course, it didn't quite work out that way. Rather than becoming unfashionable, marriage is more popular than ever. Look at Kate Winslett, who did it last week for the third time. 

Kate's only 37, so she still has plenty of time to catch up with Zsa Zsa Gabor (nine weddings), and why not?

People like getting married so much these days that they do it all the time. Even gay people, who could once have been relied upon not to fall for those icky, socially-constructed delusions, ended up being as sold on the whole marriage shtick as the rest, especially when marriage was reconstituted, according to the liberal vocabulary, as a "right". 

There's nothing more guaranteed to make a being want something than to tell them that they can't have it.

Marriage has become, in the process, not a serious commitment, but more of a social occasion to mark certain points in a person's life. Like a party, but with more paperwork. 

And people seem to want marriage so much that even those bitterly hostile to the church's role in every other part of their lives seem to demand the stamp of approval from men in cassocks when it comes to tying the knot.

It's hard to understand why that should be so, but at least they're consistent. According to the latest Millward Brown poll for the Sunday Independent, 64 per cent of people in Ireland are in favour of the Government legislating to recognise same-sex marriage, with only 23 per cent against. 

Heterosexuals aren't selfishly trying to keep the institution to themselves. Getting hitched is such fun they want everyone to have the chance of doing it too, regardless of sexual orientation.

Support for gay marriage crosses all social, geographical and political boundaries. 

Opposition is slightly higher in Munster and some parts of Leinster outside Dublin than it is in other provinces, and there's a statistically significant difference between men and women on the issue, with 59 per cent of men and 70 per cent of women being in favour of the change. 

But support for the move remains solidly in the mid-60s across the country and across party political opinion. The only big difference is between the over-65s (of whom only 36 per cent are in favour and 44 per cent against) and the under-24s (of whom 79 per cent are in favour and only 11 per cent against).

Whatever about the issue, it shows that those who intend to campaign against gay marriage have a fight on their hands.

Of course, polls can change. At the start of the recent children's referendum campaign, figures suggested the number who intended voting against it was so negligible as to be practically in the margin of error. By the time the polls closed, 42 per cent of voters had been persuaded to say No. 

But while proponents of that particular constitutional amendment also tried to caricature their opponents as Catholic rednecks who didn't care about children's rights, campaigners on the No side were able to reach beyond the cliches and reconfigure the debate as a dialogue about the proper role and manifold failings of the State. 

Abortion lends itself to this sort of broader debate too. It's hard to see how that could be replicated in any campaign against gay marriage.

Even those who are sympathetic to arguments about the breakdown of the family and its negative effect on children's well-being and general social cohesion – and the evidence for that is pretty much irrefutable at this stage – struggle to see how this could be made worse by allowing gay couples to marry, or even where the connection is between the two. 

Family dysfunction and its social consequences are primarily the fault and responsibility of straight people. Asking gay people to accept that they can't get married because that would symbolically change the nature of marriage itself, and thereby trigger unintended negative consequences, is like sending them out to fight on a battlefield which straight couples have already deserted. 

Mum and Dad are the ones who already treat marriage lightly, and seem increasingly to regard divorce and separation as mere occupational hazards along the way; they're the ones putting their own children second.

If the liberal agenda has triumphed on the issue of gay marriage, as this poll seems to suggest it has, then maybe it has done so because most straight people recognise they would be behaving hypocritically to deny to gay people the same freedoms that they already possess and, indeed, misuse. Especially when there has been such a sea change in the definition of marriage. 

Opponents of gay marriage want to put children at the heart of what marriage means, and to stand up for the important differences between the role and nature of women and mothers on the one hand and men and fathers on the other hand. 

That remains a fight worth having, but most of us seem unconvinced that this is organically connected to the issue of gay people getting married at all. Surely many who support gay marriage also recognise that differences between male and female are real and do matter?

Still, the 23 per cent of respondents in this poll who are against State recognition of same-sex marriage, and the 13 per cent of Don't Knows, remains a significant constituency, which should be allowed to make its case without the usual insults and slanders generally tossed at those who defend traditional values. 

It is not necessarily homophobic to be opposed to same-sex marriage, any more than it is misogynistic to oppose female-only quotas. 

The debate should be interesting, if nothing else.

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