Marriage equality should be a priority for campaigners

Sat, Jun 16, 2012, 01:00

It is understandable that gay rights activists would seek the right to marriage on principle

GAY MARRIAGE is, for newspapers, the gift that keeps on giving. Every day brings some new development. This week, Lord Maginnis, reliable unionist blowhard, triggered a fight with Mike Nesbitt, his less medieval party leader, by describing the business as “unnatural”.

“Does that mean that every deviant practice has to be accommodated?” Ken continued. “Will the next thing be that we legislate for some sort of bestiality?”

Across the Irish Sea, the Church of England – often seen as the jam-making, peacenik wing of Christianity – announced that same-sex marriage offered the biggest threat to its institution in 500 years. A report in the Independent noted the hierarchy is even raising the “spectre of disestablishment”. What next? The spectre of universal suffrage?

The semi-official opposition to same-sex marriage is beginning to sound a little testy. This is not altogether surprising. Over the last 15 years, an enormous – and largely unexpected – shift in attitudes to homosexuality has taken place.

Consider President Barack Obama’s recent decision to support marriage equality.

Such a move would have been inconceivable as recently as 10 years ago. To advocate gay marriage in the 1970s or 1980s would, for a mainstream politician, have seemed as politically suicidal as advocating the legalisation of heroin. Few pundits believe Obama’s move will significantly affect the result of the November elections.

Very good. It took a while, but the gay rights agitations of the 1960s seem finally to have made an impact on the mainstream. Full marriage equality may not be with us for a spell yet, however, the fact the changes are being seriously discussed indicates quite how far we have come.

Now we reach the rusty fulcrum of today’s argument. How and why did marriage become such an important issue for the gay community? No, the question is wider. Why does the whole institution of marriage remain so stubbornly, unshakably indestructible? Forty years ago, a great many pundits – not all of them fools – felt the social changes triggered during the Age of Aquarius were going to propel western society into a class of Patchouli-scented anarchy.

Attitudes to homosexuality may not have shifted as much as one might have desired, but the women’s movement was gaining traction. People didn’t feel the need to dress like their grandparents the moment they hit 30 and marriage no longer seemed like the inevitable consequence of romantic love.

The traditional, bourgeois wedding – a dress that referenced pagan notions of virginity; men in Edwardian costumes; vulgar displays of culinary opulence – seemed doomed to go the way of wearing hats to church and dismissing the ladies after dinner.

It was, throughout the 1970s, still seen as a little risqué for unmarried couples to live together but, as time moved on, the post-hippie generation aged and the practice ceased to seem in any way remarkable.

Readers of my generation will remember their contemporaries – or perhaps themselves – getting married for the “sake of the parents”. The whole thing seemed appallingly silly and outdated. The expense was unjustifiable. The suffocating formality reflected nothing of the way we lived our domestic lives.

Still, it offered a nice day out for Auntie Edna. Suck up the wine, laugh at the speeches. Nobody will be doing this in 20 years.

Marriage seemed (still seems, to an extent) like an inherently conservative institution. One could, of course, easily understand why gay rights campaigners would campaign for equal marriage rights on principle.

The prohibition was just one more reflection of society’s intolerance towards minorities. The priorities though were to do with employment rights, resistance to harassment and fair representation in the media.

What decent radical would concern himself or herself with gaining access to such a cobwebby, middle-class tradition? Yes, marriage allowed certain legal privileges, but equality would arrive through the eventual abolition of that institution, rather than through its reformation.

Well, we know how that worked out. To the disgust and fury of bitter middle-aged malcontents such as your current correspondent, the next generation proved themselves fonder of marriage (or, at least, of weddings) than their grandparents ever were.

Nuptials have become more vulgar, more expensive and – whether carried out on a beach or in a hot-air balloon – more depressingly formal. You are instructed what to wear. You are instructed how to behave when the emerald doves are released.

What the hell happened to my sexual revolution? There is no need to fret. The important parts survived. Among those advances was the ongoing opening up of society to gay couples.

Twisted old leftists can dream of an alternative universe in which access to marriage has become a subsidiary issue, like gaining grazing rights on the village green or being permitted to wear a sword in public, but getting married still seems to be something most ordinary people want to do. So, yes, marriage equality should be a priority for campaigners. Ignore the dinosaurs on both sides.

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