20 Feb 2013

Keep Family Values Out Of Marriage Equality

By Luke Gahan
A conservative moral approach is pervading the campaign for marriage quality in Australia. It's a worrying shift - not least because not everyone wants a conventional family life, writes Luke Gahan
The movement for same-sex marriage has taken a turn to the right and Australian advocates are embracing an emerging conservative family values discourse in their effort to achieve marriage equality Down Under.

While I continue to believe in marriage equality, I am deeply worried about the shift within the movement towards conservative family values. Morality based arguments position marriage equality as a tool to moralise and mainstream same-sex sexuality. Whether or not they intend to, conservative proponents of marriage equality continue to position one way of life against another — implying that one is good and the other is bad. Statements in support of marriage equality that evoke family values continue to stigmatise anyone who does not, or cannot comply with the conservative ideal of family.

Family values were used in the past as an argument against same-sex marriage — not just by the religious right but also by left-wing gay liberationists who oppose heteronormative family values. The campaign for marriage equality in Australia has largely remained about equality under the law and less about moral values. However, after conservative marriage equality victories in Britain and America and a potential shift to the right within Australian federal politics, marriage equality activists in Australia are toning down their left wing ideals and are becoming family values evangelists.

Australian Marriage Equality (AME) convenor Rodney Croome has welcomed the shift towards moral family values and has called on the Australian movement to focus less on "inequities" and "rights" and more on "commitment, family and abiding love".

While Croome suggests the debate must make this change in order to survive, by doing so the movement risks alienating and stigmatising many of the people who have supported the campaign over the past 10 years.

This shift towards a discourse of conservative family values within the same-sex marriage movement began in the United States and has slowly found its way to Australia. While it is great to see conservatives supporting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights, their support has tended to favour only LGBT people who are able — or indeed want — to live up to conservative moral standards of living.

Before the Australian marriage debate had even begun, Republican Columnist David Brooks wrote in the New York Times in 2003 that:

"We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity."

Brooks' article "The Power of Marriage" launched the conservative argument for same-sex marriage, suggesting that anybody who had several sexual partners in a year was "committing spiritual suicide". It is an argument echoed among conservative Australians who support marriage equality.

Melbourne Baptist Minister and same-sex marriage supporter, Reverend Nettleton, argued in his 2009 Senate submission (pdf) that the denial of same-sex marriage had created a disproportionate level of "sexual promiscuity" amongst same-sex attracted people. According to Nettleton, marriage equality was of benefit to society because it would "diminish the attractions of sexual promiscuity and infidelity" and would foster "a culture of sexual fidelity among homosexual people".

The flaw in Nettleton's argument is not just his use of the socially constructed concept of promiscuity, it is also found within his assumption that this "culture" is one that "homosexual people" want or need saving from.

Likewise, conservative marriage advocate Rodney Croome argues that marriage will provide children within same-sex relationships with a greater sense of "stability and validation". His claim goes against 30 years of research (pdf) showing that children of same-sex parented families do equally as well socially, educationally, physically and emotionally.

Both Croome and British Prime Minister David Cameron  argue that marriage will provide same-sex couples with "greater commitment". Are the thousands of Australian couples who live in de facto relationships — including our own Prime Minister — some how less committed because they choose not to marry?

Conveniently, their argument overlooks the high divorce rate in both Britain and Australia, and completely ignores data from the United States showing that nearly half of all marriages — whether same-sex or opposite-sex — end in divorce.

Croome's biggest leap of faith is his claim that a majority of LGBT people aspire for "conventional family and married life". This claim goes against Australian research (pdf) that has shown same-sex families to be diverse and non-conventional. It also ignores the growing number of LGBT people who not only question the concept of marriage, but are also questioning the need for marriage equality.

As a sociologist, I am particularly concerned by Croome's claim that family and marriage are about "for better and for worse". This statement eerily echoes statements by Republicans in the USA who support the introduction of "covenant marriages" — a type of marriage that makes "for better and for worse" the norm and divorce difficult. Does this shift to the right amongst same-sex marriage advocates mean that they also support covenant marriages and an end to no fault divorce? Do they believe people should stay within abusive marriages because it is for better and for worse?

The conservative arguments for marriage equality confirm the fears of the radical feminists and gay liberationists. Marriage, and increasingly same-sex marriage, is about moral enforcement.

Same-sex marriage campaigns increasingly promote images of mainstream, conventional and responsibly centrist gays as a way to win over middle Australia.  Within this discourse, same-sex couples and families are positioned as no different to heterosexual couples and families, and the dominant heterosexual nuclear family model is left uncontested.

Conservative marriage equality advocates demand the acceptance and full assimilation of heteronormative ideals and structures to promote the acceptable image of "nuclear same-sex families". The subsequent fallout from this is the marginalization and stigmatising of LGBT people who are unable to fit the conventional family and married life that Croome believes all LGBT people desire.

Images of divorced same-sex couples and separated same-sex parented families confront marriage equality campaigners. It is an image of reality that they would prefer was kept from sight. But this invisibility comes at a cost. Separated same-sex couples and families may face more isolation and less social and societal support for their grief after dissolution.

In my doctoral research on separated same-sex parented families, participants have told me of their difficulties at being separated gay parents. These difficulties are not necessary experienced within the wider community, instead they have felt stigmatised within their own LGBT communities.

Many of the same-sex parented families in my study were perceived as "role models" for their community. When they separated they felt isolated and invisible. When Judy separated, her friends told her that she could not separate because her family was a role model. Similarly, Audrey found it difficult to attend lesbian parenting events as a single mother and Ruth found it difficult to talk to other lesbian women about her separation.

Increasingly, Australians are choosing their own way to live, free from religious and historical constructs. Conservative arguments for marriage equality promote the nuclear family — whether same-sex or opposite-sex — and stigmatises anyone who does not comply as imperfect or second rate.

The campaign for same-sex marriage has the power to be inclusive and to celebrate diversity. Continuing down the road of conservative family values will only lead to greater inequality and marginalisation of our diverse families.

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Joe Politico
Posted Wednesday, February 20, 2013 - 15:27

This paragraph:

"This shift towards a discourse of conservative family values within the same-sex marriage movement began in the United States and has slowly found its way to Australia. While it is great to see conservatives supporting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights, their support has tended to favour only LGBT people who are able — or indeed want — to live up to conservative moral standards of living. "

I think equally applies to conservative attitudes towards heterosexual marriage.

Perhaps there's an important distinction to be drawn between the battle for gay marriage - for the rights it confers; and marriage for the sake of ones religious beliefs and perhaps an affirmation of certain social values.

Personally I support the former and have no interest or concern for the latter. Belonging on the inside of a religious-right clique or earning acceptance from one has never been on my priority list.

People have been getting together and declaring their commitment for much longer than the Church has been around and it doesn't require a church or the approval of social conservatives to be in a committed relationship.

If the campaign for same-sex marriage succeeds, does the basis of its success really matter?

Unless perhaps potential marriage prospects are going to be vetted by the thought police in order to be assured of their religious and social purity?

Posted Wednesday, February 20, 2013 - 15:54

As a conservative who supports marriage equality, I find a lot of this article confusing.

Regardless of the side of the political spectrum, the marriage equality campaigners have said that marriage is something which is good. This makes sense, otherwise why would marriage equality campaigners be trying to give the homosexual community to something which was rubbish?

'No!' says Gahan, 'Marriage is rubbish and promotes a conservative value system.'

The response to Gahan is then: 'Why do you want to allow marriage for homosexual couples?'

It's not a silly response. Perhaps Gahan thinks the concept of marriage should be wiped away. In his Libertopia, groups of two or more could form contractual arrangements similar to the legal provisions currently absorbed within the concept of marriage. But then he wouldn't be having the same conversation that the rest of us were having: the one that says families are great and marriage is more than a property contract.

Sure, open up this conversation about whether marriage is something worth preserving in law, but don't pretend that we're still having the marriage equality discussion. Further, don't pretend that this is a case of Big Bad Conservatives coming in and wrecking the party for everybody else.

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 09:57

As a queer activist who doesn't support AME or Luke Gahan's vision of "marriage equality", I think Mark Fletcher points out a meaningful contradiction in Gahan's position.

The question that people like Gahan need to consider is: do you want to strengthen or weaken marriage's cultural and normative power, the way marriage, as an institution, structures our society and our relationships?

Croome and AME are straight-forward: they want to strengthen and promote marriage. They believe that legalising gay marriage will do this, hence their campaign. Gahan, on the other hand, seems to imply that legalising gay marriage can somehow occur independently of marriage's normative role in our society, that it can avoid either strengthening *or* weakening marriage. That is wishful, liberal, individualistic thinking that I am surprised to see espoused by a sociologist.

Marriage is a discriminatory, exclusive, institution. If marriage wasn't discriminatory, if it didn't differentiate between relationships, labelling some better than others, then it would have no social function.

Mark Fletcher says that the conversation that "the rest of us" are having says that "families are great and marriage is more than a property contract". Sorry Mark, that's not the conversation everyone is having. Some people are having a conversation about how to make society less discriminatory and less destructive. And if those goals require the abolition of marriage and the traditional family unit, as I believe they do, then so be it.

By the way Luke, I don't think David Brooks "launched the conservative argument for same-sex marriage". Have you read Andrew Sullivan's 1989 New Republic article, subtitled "A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage"? Queer theorists and activists have been fighting "gay-friendly" family-values rhetoric since well before 2003.

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 11:45

Marriage equality becomes a political object once it requires legislation...so its characteristics change to fit the context within which discourse will continue if it is to conclude in changed law, social values and new liberties.

This article can highlight a number of opposing and simultaneous occurrences and processes -1) it is natural political process to take an idea and get as much support for it as you can, this involves having others (preferably large, powerful groups!!) identify with your cause/values/needs and especially to avoid portraying a sense of threat/risk to social stability/solidarity, and 2) other groups who sense threat/conflict/loss for their own interests, values, security - will attempt to normalise the idea, they will add their interests into the mix to make the new idea more palatable and acceptable to wider society and thus less potent in causing social, cultural disruptions.

Article demonstrates that even within a minority group, the members struggle to accept "difference" where it doesn't match or harmonise with their own ideals of that minority group's characteristics and values...there are gay people out there who want conventional family values and some do not...will these groups become just as discriminatory and judgmental of each other as what mainstream religious groups and dominant family values can be towards them??!! Or will they have a deeper understanding of struggles of "difference" and "power" and therefore be more inclusive, less critical and moralistic? A next possible progression of this article's perspective, is in moralising gay marriage where gay couples who want a nuclear family are somehow less "gay" than those who don't?

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 20:53

@woulfe. Yes, I agree, what a profoundly confused article. And how many strawmen can one article construct. It would be useful to get Croome's response to what feels like a misrepresentation of his position. Do I think Croome is really advocating for covenant marriages and no-fault divorce - please. Hyperbolic rubbish, me thinks.

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 21:51

As a (straight) person who supports marriage equality but has no interest in marrying or having a life partner, I must admit to being disappointed by the increasing use of these kinds of “family values” arguments in the marriage equality debate.

I support marriage equality in part because I don’t want to marry myself (I know marriage isn’t the right thing for me and I shudder at the thought of being forced to marry against my will, and I imagine that people who know that marriage IS right for them but are currently being forced NOT to marry against their will, might feel a similar way); because I don’t think governments have any business telling people who they can and can’t marry; and because I think it is abhorrent and hideously heterosexist to posit opposite-sex relationships as superior to same-sex relationships. To me, arguing that same-sex marriage should be permitted because marriage is inherently “good” both for individuals and society seems to do the same thing – it posits marriage as superior to other relationships or ways of living.

I don’t think that marriage is intrinsically either “good” or “bad”. I think strong, supportive and nurturing relationships are a good thing, regardless of who they are between or whether they are formalised. For some people, marriage is an important way to build such relationships. For others, it isn’t – in fact, it can be inimical to it. I don’t think I should be made to feel that I have somehow failed, that the relationships I do have are weaker or less meaningful, that I am letting society down, or even that I am “abnormal”, simply because I don’t want to marry or have a life partner.

These kinds of exclusionary arguments have far too often been employed to vilify and marginalise same-sex attracted people. I don’t think it does anyone any favours to drag them into the marriage equality debate, even if it furthers the cause. Surely we can find a way to win the day on this one without denigrating people who don’t fit the mould.

Posted Friday, February 22, 2013 - 11:10

Both fightmumma and lmor9164: your comments exhibit the same kind of liberal naivety as Gahan. You both say, effectively, that "there are people who want marriage (gay, straight, etc) and people who don't, so we should just let the people who want to marry get married."

Have you given any thought to *why* marriage is so popular? Do you think some people were just born desiring marriage, while others were born knowing that marriage is not for them? Of course not. The preference for marriage is constructed. It is constructed by ideology, by discourse, by our laws and by our cultural norms. There is nothing natural about the desire to get married. It is something that has been imposed on us by our (misogynistic, heteronormative, gender-essentialist) social environments.

I regularly encounter progressive people who admit that marriage is a heteronormative, historically-misogynistic institution that hinders queer liberation, but at the same time argue that those who want marriage should be allowed to have it. It is a sign of how far neoliberal/individual-rights-based thinking has invaded our consciousnesses.

Why are we so afraid to say to people (gay, straight, whatever) that: "your desire to get married is no different to your desire to buy Coca Cola (or the desire of 18th-century Americans to own slaves); it has been imparted on you by the norms of the society you live in"? The desire to get married and the desire not to get married are *not* equally valid. One represents surrender to a discriminatory and harmful ideology, the other challenges that ideology.

lmor9164, you might like to think that marriage is neither intrinsically "good" nor intrinsically "bad", but insofar as marriage consists of the state differentiating between relationships, sorting them into categories, it remains discriminatory and harmful. If marriage wasn't seen as desirable, if there wasn't a widely-perceived cultural norm in favour of getting married, if marriage wasn't generally understood to be the pinnacle of a healthy relationship, then marriage would be meaningless. It would fulfill no role in society and could be abolished.

Posted Friday, February 22, 2013 - 13:05

mypreferredusername - no you are making the mistake of filtering out all ideas based on the approach of an intellectual, ideological argument...you can't neglect some data, or elements and then draw conclusions from ONLY the data and elements that you choose to validate - and believe your argument is accurate to real life. You also cannot adopt an either-or, two-dimensional attitude to a topic that is multi-dimensional - otherwise you over-simplify the issue and conclude with unrealistic and impractical knowledge.

For example - your whole argument uses a Marxist, feminist-based ideology of conflict and power hierarchies in only a single direction, making no account for other correlational forces/directions or human individual, community, sub-culture or cultural agency and progress/fragmentation/mutation etc (ie social change).

In practice your approach therefore does not take into account people who have taken the time to consider their lives and make informed decisions based on their personal intimate, private milieu, values, status, unique experiences etc - thus deciding to have a life partner or not. In each case, each choice, it is not a foregone conclusion that either scenario is a "power over" social condition (thus making it a concern re social justice, individuality etc).

You do not consider at all other cultures or religions which also place values and standards on social behaviour and familial relationships or obligations. Societies need order, the species continues to survive, people pass on their gene pools...logic and evolutionary psychology dictates that we prefer to live in social groups (as do many many other species)...groups require order, organisation, roles, children, elderly etc...the variations are great in how this could manifest into ethnicities, cultures, sub-cultures, cities, families etc and the interrelationships/interconnectedness of these.

As soon as you state a preference - your values, beliefs, own cultural variables place you in the same category of "power over" and ideology/values being superior or inferior to someone else's....with its own element of "misogynist"-like traits.

I originally deleted some paras I had typed - these were about challenging this assumption that marriage has a high degree of power, values etc attached to it..so much so that it can be claimed as a powerful social institution controlling us and influencing private choices, status, social processes - I reject this idea - maybe once it was true, but our society is not structured or controlled in this manner anymore. Marriages are not as common, people marry later in life, more defacto relationships, more single parent families, 50% divorce rates...I suggest that our capitalist, consumerist,
multi/international corporatist, bureaucratic economic dominance of society exerts a greater controlling, value-laden, structuralist-agency role than traditional social structures/processes...even more powerful in influencing and controlling private values/decisions and social organisation.

Posted Friday, February 22, 2013 - 14:06

fightmumma- "In practice your approach therefore does not take into account people who have taken the time to consider their lives and make informed decisions ... etc"

Too right it doesn't. The existence of such people is the very foundation of neoliberal ideology. The idea that anyone is capable of "consider[ing] their lives and mak[ing] an informed decision" is a complete fiction, a fiction that functions so as to justify oppression and discrimination around the world. I would have said that my approach is more poststructuralist than Marxist-feminist, but either way, I don't see how the deliberate exclusion from my analysis of a myth central to neoliberalism could be a flaw.

And evolutionary psychology? Come on. Not even a majority of academic psychologists buy that stuff. It rarely consists of more than simplistic rationalisations for the status quo. There's a reason evo-psych has been much more successful at breaking through to popular culture than, say, social psychology: evo-psych tells us that existing inequalities are natural; social psych tells us that existing inequalities are not natural and could be fixed.

As for the notion that marriage does not have much cultural force any more: have you watched a TV advertisement or read a magazine lately? We are bombarded with visions of happy couples, fun weddings, honeymoons, etc. The fact that the idealised image of marriage does not map to reality (high divorce rate, etc) is what makes the image so powerful and harmful. It's no different in this way to the idealised visions of "male" and "female": no individual perfectly satisfies the stereotypes, so everyone feels inadequate. Maybe there are some inner-city suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney where couples who have been together more than 3-4 years aren't commonly asked when or whether they plan to get married, but in the rest of Australia most people are still subject to social pressure to get married. The fact that marriage rates are down just means that marriage's ideology is having a more harmful effect (or at least that it is harmful in a different way).

Finally, why do you assume that the institution of marriage is not part of the capitalist, consumerist, etc. system you describe? Has it occurred to you that marriage is very big business? Economic forces haven't replaced marriage, they've co-opted it. Perhaps the central proponents of marriage have changed from parents and families to businesses and advertisers, but how does that make marriage less powerful or less normative?

Posted Friday, February 22, 2013 - 18:35

haha-mypreferredusername - oh for a glass of wine and face-to-face debate! Good concepts to bash around there, not sure I have the time to go into it when I have to type a mini essay every response!!

Don't mistake me, I DO understand what you are saying and I agree, but existing in some pure state free from, or immune to, all value influences...is the only time we would have an opportunity to live an existence as a "pure" self that isn't just a reactionary being from all the "stuff" that fills up social space?

Perhaps I meant "social" psychology rather than evol psych, but my point was that we have developed as a species with a specific social element and our brains have a large amount of space/parts devoted to processing social and emotional data (apparently we can determine when someone is lying from a very young age for example!!) (and I agree evol psych has limited applications ... myself favouring sociology, you won't get any arguments with me on that side of the debate!!!!).

About your fiction, I am the data to refute your claim...unless I am mistaken about the reality of "me"!!!! Having left a highly abusive, manipulative religious cult, including the whole marriage/family deal with a submissive female role thrown in for good measure - I most definitely have considered carefully and genuinely how I wish to live my life, my values, my beliefs and how I want to realise/actualise these throughout my life (Maslow's hierarchy of needs - so not just me either). I would put to you that anyone who has had to examine their life due to trauma, abuse, addictions, mental health, griefs, etc, will say they have actively re-assessed their values, priorities and expectations. I am all for human agency, I don't see how you can say this doesn't exist, when everywhere always their are people making choices that have both the consequences they planned and other ramifications they have not. Isn't it just as foolish to believe our social existence operates on similar lines as the natural sciences ... say the weather patterns? Otherwise wouldn't we all still be living in caves?!!

With the marriage as a strong force, yes I can see what you are saying, true. But my point is that the shift in marriage as a social structure with the express purpose of ordering society, particularly as this relates to gender, childrearing, material ordering/inheritance...is not the driving force/motivation behind marriage. There is a shift and yes, the significance of marriage is there still, still affecting people's tendencies to judge self/others to ascribe "successful person" from "unsuccessful" person which is dangerous because this leads to concepts of "deviancy" with all that that implies...

BUT - at some points historically this was not something we could make choices about...now we can...like me dumping that cult lifestyle, rejecting the acceptance of domestic and child abuse as "normal"...and finding a path closer to my "true self" (now don't start with the philosophy!!). So society becomes multilayered by the characteristic that there are people who cling to the "marriage ideal" along with its "nuclear family cousin"...and other forms such as my own single parent family can co-exist (admittedly, I sense rejection and exclusion from dominant groups for being a single parent however!!).

We also shouldn't be Eurocentric about this because there are many other cultures out there who also have gay members, so how do their cultures influence them into a conventional marriage relationship...especially where extended families and kinship obligations exist? Can your claims be applied in that context too?

Poststructuralist hey? yeah detected a bit of Foucault in there... "insurrection of subjugated knowledges" hey?!!! Yes, you certainly are examining the assumed meanings of the word/concept "marriage" and attempting to bring in more than the assumed/dominant meaning of it - but I feel like you are just doing an either-or with that rather than an "anything can happen" or "each viewers' perspective produces mutlilayered meanings" (which is what I would think a poststructuralist would do ie examine a deeper level of implications of word/label usage).

If a poststructuralist can examine on such an intricate, deep level - why can't anyone else?!! I would also suggest to you, that anyone who HAS re-assessed their lives often completely rejects the status quo, the traditional expectations of society upon their lives...and find their own path in life...which would be the opposite of your claim that people contemplating their lives somehow leads to reaffirming bias, prejudice and the dominant social values?

Posted Friday, February 22, 2013 - 18:45

mypreferredusername...bugger...still an essay!!
I forgot to mention, what you added about the economics of marriage (even family/children I suppose?), yes those are reinforcers of a dominant sociocultural value/expectation, but does it perpetuate or just profit from this aspect of society and human tendencies? ie does it have as active a driving force as you are claiming? I can see how mass media does in relation to body image disturbance as I have studied this in-depth...reinforcing an "ideal" body shape. It touches on a topic I am intrigued about - of the changing force of capitalism over the characteristics of material objects...for example...does the fact that people make money out of indigenous culture change the qualities of those objects...say dances, stories or boomerangs? So, does the commercialisation of social processes/structures somehow change their properties?

Just a thought...though I am assured by some that I think too much...and apparently it is not a "good" thing!!! (I always knew I was a deviant!!).