Same-sex marriage has an unexpected foe

Michael Cook
12 November 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Just when you thought that all the arguments against same-sex marriage had been led to the starting gates, a new horse canters up. Writing in The Conversation, a op-ed site for academics, Annamarie Jagose, an internationally renowned expert in feminist studies, lesbian/gay studies and queer theory at the University of Sydney, argues that legalisation would be a disaster for gays and lesbians. "Why should marriage continue in the 21st century to be a primary mechanism for the distribution of social recognition and privilege?," she asks.

"In recognising some gay and lesbian relationships as marriages, same-sex marriage emphasises the continued illegitimacy of other sexual arrangements and the continued exclusion of other social actors. The legalisation of same-sex marriage has risky consequences that exceed the good intentions of many of those arguing for it."

Dr Jagose declares that the enemy is marriage itself. Why should gays and lesbians want to sign up for such an antiquated, repressive institution? Throughout the 20th century gays, lesbians and feminists have been working to shatter marriage. Why, she says contemptuously, do "the loving, caring, long-term gay and lesbian couples that are the shiny new poster boys and girls for same-sex marriage" want a piece of that rubbish?

Here is what she does not like about the "absurdly constrained and increasingly irrelevant" institution of marriage:

Marriage is exclusive. It binds the two partners and demands that they have relations only with each other. This is fanciful, she says.

Marriage is permanent, the partners vowing to commit themselves to each other "until death do us part". Nonsense, she says. A relationship should last "as long as both parties find satisfaction in it".

Marriage privileges one kind of relationship only. In traditional marriage, this is between a man and a woman. But even if it were extended to gay and lesbian couples, other relationships would still be excluded from the prestige, recognition and privileges of marriage.

Dr Jagose believes that no relationship deserves special privileges and that almost any "alternative intimacies" are valid: "Unmarried mothers, for instance; adulterers; the devotedly promiscuous; sex workers; the divorced; the bigamous and polygamous; those who are not strangers to the august traditions of the dirty weekend or the one-night stand; single people."

It's hard to find a clearer confirmation of the worst fears of opponents of same-sex marriage than Dr Jagose's memo to Australian gays and lesbians.

The most insightful critics have always said that the institution of marriage itself is under threat in the push for same-sex marriage. This has been heaped with savage ridicule by supporters of same-sex marriage: if you don't like gay marriage, don't marry one, say the placards at rallies.

The Australian Marriage Equality website declares that it is "offensive" to assert that same-sex marriage will tarnish traditional marriage. "To the contrary, we believe that elevating the status of same-sex relationships to those of different-sex relationships will, if anything, strengthen marriage as a social norm."

Clearly Annamarie Jagose had no hand in drafting the FAQ at Australian Marriage Equality.

It is more than likely that people outside LGBT circles think that everyone in the "gay community" is campaigning for same-sex marriage. Dr Jagose's article shows that they are badly mistaken. There is obviously a deep and unpublicised rift over the future of marriage. Does she represent a silent majority? A splinter group? A powerful cabal? No one knows. Her article suggests that the very existence of a "gay community" with a common agenda, goals and ideas is a myth.

But it is more than likely that with the legalisation of gay marriage, views like hers would enter the mainstream. Like the conformist faction of white-picket gays and lesbians whom she despises, her arguments are based on "equality". But not just for the white-picket brigade but for every deviant style of sexual expression. She would continue to lobby for widening the circle of relationships recognised by the state until it stretches to the breaking point.

There are tragic dimensions to Dr Jagose's analysis of marriage.

First, she believes that permanence and exclusivity are unrealistic and impossible: "Marriage, as it is legally defined, generates conditions for dishonesty, disavowal and sexual hypocrisy." It is better, she believes, to accept the gritty realities of sexual behaviour in the 21st century and to abandon "wishful thinking" about lives of virtue and fidelity. Lives in which sex has slipped its moorings from love are destined to be desperately sad.

And second, as one might expect from an academic whose latest book is Orgasmology (Duke University Press, 2013), not once does she mention the word "child" in her attack on marriage. But what else is sex for? I am not going to read her book to find out. But the omission is significant. It means that she inhabits a child-phobic barbarian kingdom of the mind far, far away from our family-friendly suburbs.

If the gates swing open to "the shiny new poster boys and girls" her barbarians will sweep in as well. And when they finish looting and burning, marriage will be a smouldering wreck.