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Is there any case against same-sex marriage?

I support the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. I have never heard anything to change my mind, but it’s not for a lack of listening. As a matter of fact, I have developed a keen ear for anti-SSM arguments, but each one is either unintelligible to me, or has a short, obvious retort with no counter-retort that I know of. Sometimes I think the arguers must have misspoken, and I try to guess what they meant to say, but that doesn’t help either.

In this post I shall step through every anti-SSM argument I’ve heard, plus a few that I’ve imagined, and I’ll explain why each of them leaves me unconvinced. I’m putting the full sweep into one post so as to make the following further point: If you anti-SSM people have any arguments that aren’t listed here, or if you can put any of these ones more persuasively than I have, or if you have counter-retorts to any of my retorts, then so far none of those things have made it through the airwaves; you’ll have to try harder. And if you don’t have anything like that, then forever hold your peace.

1. “My scriptures say it’s wrong”

Your Bible, or Koran or what-have-you, says a lot of things. Some you take literally; others you classify as “figurative” or “written for a certain time”. So, when you find something against same-sex marriage, then you (or your religious leaders) have a choice about how to take it. Why do you choose to take these passages literally — unless you are already against same-sex marriage for some other reason?

And if you do take them literally, you have a further choice: you could prohibit same-sex marriage inside your religion (like the way Catholics prohibit the eating of meat on Fridays in Lent), or you could try to prohibit it for the whole nation. Why do you always go for the nation?

2. “Every child should have a mother and a father”

This is the part where one side taps a clipboard and says “The stats are the stats: on average, children raised with one parent of each sex have better life outcomes according to metrics X, Y, and Z”, while the other side says “You’re insulting my family and I demand an apology.” And I say: take it outside. This is the same-sex marriage debate. The same-sex parenting debate is down the hall, third door on the left.

Or in other words: if you think that same-sex parenting is suboptimal, or even if you think it’s so terrible that it should be banned, I don’t need to debate that with you today. Today I’m questioning why any of it should count against same-sex marriage.

3. “It’s on a slippery slope to bestiality”

Surely you’ve misspoken. Same-sex marriage is a ceremony and a legal arrangement; bestiality is a category of sex act; so how are the two even related? You must have meant to say either (a) “Homosexual acts are on a slippery slope to bestiality” or (b) “Same-sex marriage is on a slippery slope to human-animal marriage.” Let’s take those in turn. Yep, I’m really going to do this.

Regarding (a): homosexual acts have been legal for a long time, and going on for a much longer time, so if either of those circumstances was going to trigger a surge in bestiality it would have happened by now. But anyway, (a) is off-topic. Today’s topic is marriage.

Which brings us to (b). Is there actually a constituency for human-animal marriage? Are there studies on that? If I had to imagine the constituency, it would be elderly eccentrics with cats, and I’d probably be more worried about them buying the cat a private jet than marrying it; but perhaps that’s not the sort of case you were imagining. Methinks we’re in an evidence-free zone now.

4. “It’s on a slippery slope to polygamy and polyandry”

I’ve seen this one a few times, and those who put it forward always cite as evidence some advocate of polygamy, who has latched himself onto the movement for same-sex marriage and cried “Me too”. What’s going on here? An advocate of polygamy has claimed there’s a slippery slope from same-sex marriage to polygamy, and we’re supposed to agree with him? Why?

We are under no compulsion to accept this slippery slope. Supporting same-sex marriage does not render us too stupid to think of arguments against polygamy, nor polyandry. I am a supporter of same-sex marriage, so allow me to demonstrate. Ahem. Polygamy is bad for women because they have to share a man and it’s bad for men because many of them end up alone. Vice versa for polyandry. Done.

5. “It’s an attack on marriage”

What sort of attack? What are the weapons? Where are the casualties? Or to put it plainly: if you are a husband and wife, and the same-sex couple next door ties the knot, precisely how is this going to harm you two?

As far as I know, this question has never been answered, which makes the “attack on marriage” line so untenable that I would like to dismiss it as an isolated brain-snap. But here’s the thing: it’s not isolated. Anti-SSM people keep saying it, and when they talk amongst themselves they show all signs of understanding one another. Yet they won’t decode it, which is why it has no chance of persuading the rest of us.

6. “I never liked marriage anyway”

If you’re only speaking for yourself, then you’re entitled to your preference, but of course it isn’t relevant to our discussion of what should be legal or illegal. To make it relevant here, you need to say what’s wrong with marriage for other people.

One line of criticism is the feminist one: marriage is an unequal relationship, based on a concept of women as men’s property. All I’ll say about that is: if it’s true, it’s a problem with men’s attitude to women, not with women’s attitude to women or men’s attitude to men. So it is almost inconceivable that anyone would treat it as a point against same-sex marriage.

Or perhaps the criticism of marriage is a secularist one: marriage is religious business and the state should keep well out. Against this, there stand all the atheists and agnostics, both gay and straight, who want to get married and need the state to make it happen. It’s not for me to say why they want it: maybe it’s a residual affection for the trappings of religion (like many of us feel for stained glass and organ music); or maybe they feel the draw of civil marriage’s own tradition (itself over two centuries old); or maybe it’s something else; or maybe it’s just silly. Whatever is behind it, it’s clear that many atheists, regardless of orientation, want marriage very much, and I don’t see any secular reason to deny it to them.

7. “Marriage is between a man and a woman”

It’s not really an argument, is it? Of course it is the case that, in Australia today, marriage is between a man and a woman, but the question is whether that should change some time soon.

Sometimes it’s put this way: the word “marriage” means “the union of a man and a woman for life”, so any talk of same-sex marriage is a misuse of the word. Again, this doesn’t address the question of whether we should change our ways: in this case by changing the meaning we assign to the word “marriage”. Why not? Do you think it will somehow damage our ability to communicate? Will it, for example, be on par with the dreadful way some people now use the word “literally”, which has robbed us of any way to say what we mean when we literally mean “literally”? I can see the problem there, and I worry about it all the time, but I don’t see how changing the meaning of “marriage” could cause any similar confusion. So you’ll have to explain the difficulty; and when you’ve done that, explain why you think it’s more important than people’s happiness.

Or perhaps “Marriage is between a man and a woman” is getting at something slightly different: that marriage is a celebration of, indeed a glorification of, heterosexuality; therefore homosexual couples getting married would be like Hindus celebrating Christmas or Vietnamese celebrating St Patrick’s day. And the reply should be obvious: Hindus are welcome to celebrate Christmas and Vietnamese are welcome to celebrate St Patrick’s day, if that’s what they want to do. Why not?

8. “Not yet”

Finally, there are arguments that don’t oppose same-sex marriage for all time, but oppose it for the time being, until public opinion moves in its favour.

One argument runs this way: if we allow marriages that too many people are going to throw stones at, then social cohesion will suffer. And here’s another version: marriage is a three-way contract: there are the two getting married and the state marrying them. The state represents society, so if society doesn’t consent then its representative shouldn’t consent either.

These arguments might have been worth something once, but not now; the Australia of 2015 overwhelmingly supports same-sex marriage.

Instead of obstructing everyone else, the hold-outs should be changing their own minds, and the sooner the better — unless, of course, they have a good reason for holding out; but they don’t, do they?

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