Same-sex marriage postscript

The new marriage law is a good idea. It gives same-sex couples equal access to an important institution, makes it less likely for homosexual people to feel deviant and unwanted, and is a step towards a fairer society.

It is also a done deal, which raises the question why one might choose to write about it at all. The answer is that, rainbows and fireworks apart, the workings and potential consequences of the law are still unresolved in the minds of many. I spoke to a number of people these past few days who told me that same-sex relationships were no skin off their noses and that they were largely happy for gay people, but also that there were things about the Act that they found troubling.

The first was the terminology matter. Much has been made of the Act’s gender-neutral wording at the expense of terms like ‘mother’ and ‘father’. David Agius fretted in Parliament that Mother’s Day would soon be replaced with ‘Person Who Gave Birth To Me Day’. The idea is that the fundamentals have been sacrificed at the altar of the gay nod.

This concern is very easily dispatched. It is wrong to assume that people will suddenly take to using legal terminology in their everyday lives. Who would ask for a ‘sharp and pointed instrument’ at a restaurant? How many of us peruse the Marriage Act and consult with a lawyer before decorating a cake for a child’s birthday? The problem with Agius’s point is that it was based on a straw-man caricature, as arguments that appeal to ‘common sense’ tend to be.

Another objection that has been raised is that, inasmuch as it gives full sanction to unions that are biologically sterile, the new law robs marriage of its reproductive rationale.

It is true that its coupling with (biolo­gical and social) reproduction is an important part of marriage. It is also true, however, that marriage has always accommodated unions that are biologically sterile. People who are past their reproductive age, or who are barren, can still get married. There are two reasons why this is deemed acceptable.

First, the fact that marriage accommodates unions that are biologically sterile does nothing to those unions that aren’t. If a woman chose to get married at 80, the result would not hurt or change in any way the reproductive rationale of marriage generally.

There is no evidence that children who are adopted by same-sex couples have a higher chance of ending up with scrambled minds

Second, people get married for all sorts of reasons. They might wish to sanction things like love, companionship, property considerations, and such. There is no evidence to suggest that these reasons do not apply to couples that are biologically sterile. Marriage as a kind of stud farm is a greatly impoverished place.

Still, one of the points of same-sex marriage is that it brings children into the equation. It makes it possible for homosexuals to have children (by adoption or other means) as married couples, rather than as individuals. Judging by what I heard last week, this seems to be the sticking point.

Weighing in on the homoparentalité debate, French anthropologist Maurice Godelier wrote that gay parenthood “makes adoption a founding principle of descent fully equal with biological reproduction and completely excludes sexual relations from the criteria for founding a family”. A radical change in human kinship relations, then.

Yes and no. While it would be stupid to ignore the facts of life, so to say, it is equally myopic to imagine that things like descent, filiation and parenthood are the straightforward result of biology. We know from general experience that children and parents are as much socially as they are biologically made. Besides, the link between the two is not always clear.

The anthropological record heaves with examples, from our own as well as less familiar societies, of fully functional types of parenthood whose links to genetic material are fuzzy at best. There is nothing ‘unnatural’ about them – on the contrary, they are part of what make us a species that has culture and society, as opposed to mere sperm and ova.

In this sense, it may be useful to think of the new marriage law not as some radical departure or as the result of (retrograde, to some) social evolution, but rather as one of very many historical excursions into kinship and parenthood. Carobs will be carobs and oranges oranges, but what we think, do and say about them will forever be the subject of an unfinished book.

The key point here is that what seems different, and perhaps bizarre to some, is not necessarily dysfunctional. For example, there is no evidence that children who are adopted by same-sex couples have a higher chance of ending up with scrambled minds.

There is, on the other hand, plenty of evidence that shows that children who are born the ‘natural’ way may be dealt good or not-so-good hands – which is why I find arguments from the natural state of things rather tiresome.

The resistance to same-sex marriage, and especially to same-sex parenthood, founders the minute it hits the reef of hard evidence and anthropologically informed argument. I think the main reason why so many people are sceptical is plain and simple homophobia of the ‘I have many gay friends’ type. It is at moments like this that the legacy of centuries of intolerance becomes so hard to discard.

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