The iron fist in the velvet glove of gay marriage

Under the radical cover of being pro-gay, the state is expanding its sovereignty over all of our private lives and most intimate relationships.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Following the publication yesterday of the Lib-Con government’s proposals for introducing gay marriage, there has been a frenetic debate about whether religious freedom will be harmed by allowing homosexuals to get hitched. The government has given assurances that religious institutions will not be forced to carry out same-sex weddings (and has actually banned the Church of England from doing so), yet still the eye of this stormy debate has focused on whether religious groups’ rights to uphold and celebrate only traditional marriage will be dented by the government’s fervent promotion of same-sex marriage.

What a massive red herring. What an enormous distraction from the real authoritarian instinct motoring the Conservative Party’s and others’ conversion to the cause of gay marriage. The central problem with the gay marriage agenda is not that at some point in the future an unwilling man of the cloth might be strongarmed into giving his blessing to a gay union, but rather that it allows the state to do something that was traditionally considered beyond its purview: to redefine the meaning of marriage and, by extension, the meaning of the marital home, the family, and our most intimate relationships. Some have sought to depict the drive for gay marriage as a continuation of the struggle for civil rights that exploded in the mid-twentieth century; it’s better understood as a continuation, and intensification, of the modern state’s desire to get a foot in the door of our private lives and to assume sovereignty over our relationships.

From the get-go, the depiction of the campaign for gay marriage as a liberty-tinged movement for greater equality was questionable to say the least. For a start, grassroots public protesting for the right of homosexuals to marry was notable by its absence. Instead, this has been a movement led by lawyers and professional activists, backed by the CEOs of hedge-fund corporations and newspapers of record such as The Times, and it has actively sought to insulate itself from engagement with the prejudicial public. As one gay writer has observed, gay-marriage advocates are obsessed with protecting homosexuals and their allegedly fragile rights from ‘the tyranny of the majority’, and have thus come to believe that ‘the courts are the place to go for the redress of grievances’ (1). A Tory-supporting columnist for the Telegraph counselled PM David Cameron to ignore ‘majoritarian opinion’ – which apparently doesn’t appreciate how important gay marriage is – and press ahead with his equal-marriage plans on the basis that ‘a government enacts civilising measures because they are the right thing to do, not because they are mentioned frequently in focus groups’. Here, as across the pro-gay marriage spectrum, a distinction is made between the ‘civilised’ elites who know the historic import of gay marriage and the public, with its tyrannical passions, who do not.

Moreover, gay marriage was elevated to the top of the political agenda by a party that doesn’t even know how to spell the words liberty or choice: the Tories. It was hilarious to watch various commentators yesterday denounce those ‘out of touch Tories’ who are considering opposing gay marriage; these people have a problematic ‘attitude to gay people’, we were told, revealing that their party is behind the times and ‘doesn’t reflect the reality of the world’. What this outburst of Tory-bashing candidly refused to mention is that the issue of gay marriage is almost entirely a Tory invention; certainly it was propelled to the forefront of political life by Cameron and other party bigwigs, including Boris Johnson and John Major. Far from emerging from a civil rights-like, bottom-up demand for equality, the idea of gay marriage has been constructed by Tory leaders in association with what the Guardian described as ‘campaign groups, family lawyers and sex experts’ (whatever they might be). Yesterday’s commentariat railing against the relatively small number of Tories who have a problem with gay marriage was a see-through attempt to prop up the flailing notion that gay marriage is a radical or leftish demand, when in truth it is fundamentally a Tory initiative, drawn up far from the madding crowd by ‘experts’ who apparently understand matters of family and sex better than the rest of us.

The elitist nature of the gay-marriage campaign can also be seen in the way it is treated as something that shouldn’t be publicly debated, an issue on which no dissent can be brooked. As a Guardian editorial put it yesterday, gay marriage is ‘beyond argument’. There is no ‘countervailing argument’, it said, echoing other observers who have decreed that ‘there are some subjects that should be discussed in shades of grey, with acknowledgement of subtleties and cultural differences – same-sex marriage is not one of them’. Some argue that debating gay marriage is ‘futile’ because the idea that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry has become ‘utterly conventional’ – except to a tiny few who ‘aren’t wholly onboard as the train of change comes whistling through’. Gay marriage backers talk about the ‘inevitability’ of gay marriage; it’s a ‘social juggernaut’, they say. This suggests that what is really being hammered out here is not a political, social policy, open to discussion, but rather a new convention, and an ‘utterly conventional’ one at that, which you reject at your peril because no ‘cultural differences’ are permitted. Those who remain stubbornly unconventional in relation to gay marriage are branded dinosaurs, bigots, ‘knuckle-draggers’.

It seems clear that the radical civil rights imagery cynically wheeled out by gay marriage advocates disguises that this is in truth a highly elitist, debate-allergic campaign. That is because, fundamentally, gay marriage speaks to, not any public thirst for the overhaul of marriage, but rather the narrow needs of some of the most elitist strata in our society. The benefit of the gay marriage issue for our rulers and betters is twofold. First, it allows them to pose as enlightened and cosmopolitan, as bravely willing to to enact ‘civilising measures’, in contrast with the bigots who make up the more traditional, religious or lumpen sections of society. As one observer said yesterday, gay marriage has become a ‘red line’ in politics, determining one’s goodness or badness. Supporting gay marriage has become a key cultural signifier, primarily of moral rectitude, among everyone from politicians to the media classes to bankers: that is, members of an elite who have increasingly few opportunities for moral posturing in these relativistic times. And second, and crucially, gay marriage satisfies the instinct of the authorities to meddle in marital and family life; it throws open to state intervention previously no-go zones, including the very meaning of our most intimate relationships.

Consider the Lib-Con consultation report: it represents, at root, an elite rewriting of the meaning of marriage. It elbows aside the central role marriage played for centuries – as an institution through which not only a couple but communities themselves managed the socialisation of children and intergenerational relationships – in favour of decreeing that marriage is simply and definitively ‘about two people who love each other making a formal commitment to each other’. The communal, social, generational import of marriage, its role as an institution which bound individuals into a broader community and even into process of history through their assumption of the responsibilities of procreation, has been demoted, replaced by the contemporary bourgeois view that marriage is simply about companionship, ‘two people’. What we’re witnessing here is the state determination that the role of marriage that has been carved out by numerous communities over immensely long periods of time, free of state guidance, no longer has any relevance or cultural worth, since now, by state decree, marriage is about ‘love and commitment’ rather than having the ‘distinguishing purpose [of] having and raising children’.

It is striking that the report doesn’t once mention the creation of families and that every one of its eight mentions of the world ‘children’ is in response to, and criticism of, groups that petitioned the government to recognise the importance of marriage as an institution for the bearing and socialisation of the next generation. ‘Procreation’, ‘reproduction’, even ‘community’ – none of these appear in this new state ruling on what marriage is (though it does twice mention the needs of the ‘transgender community’). What is happening here is a naked redefinition of marriage by the state, the diminution of the social, generational role played by marriage in communities, and its replacement by a highly individualised, companionship-based conception of marriage that speaks to the narrow needs of gay campaigners and the prejudices of modern bourgeois elites. In essence, all marriages are being redefined in order to massage the identity needs of small numbers of homosexuals who wish to define their relationships as marriages. The report makes great play of the fact that it isn’t true that officials will start referring to mothers and fathers as ‘Progenitor A’ and ‘Progenitor B’, as some critics claimed; but that assurance rings hollow indeed in a long report that doesn’t once mention mothers or fathers, or family or community. The state’s demotion of the role of marriage as a fundamentally social, generational institution is implicit, and powerful, requiring no need for the explicit ditching of words like ‘mother’ or ‘father’; they’re simply not used rather than rewritten.

There is something spectacularly disingenuous about this report. It continually seeks to assure us that the state is not overhauling marriage – ‘the administrative processes will remain the same for marriage’, it says, with words like ‘husband and wife’ still being used ‘for legal purposes’. Yet while the administrative aspects of marriage might remain intact, the moral meaning of this institution for great swathes of the population and for communities throughout history is being radically rewritten; the purpose of marriage, its definition, is being overhauled. It has in fact been long accepted that the state has the authority to oversee the ‘administration’ and legal aspects of marriage, to broker marriage; but it has never been accepted that the state can tell individuals, community and society itself what marriage should mean to us. Until now. Now, the state has colonised the very meaning of marriage, which is ‘about two people’.

The state’s determination to interfere in marriage and re-determine its content and import and relationships reveals what is really motoring the gay marriage issue – not a desire to complete the drive for civil rights that kicked off 50 years ago, but rather a thirst for further expanding state authority over our private lives and relationships. In this sense, the Tories’ seemingly strange interest in an issue like gay marriage is in fact entirely in keeping with their, and the broader political elite’s, powerful instinct to meddle in and micromanage the worlds of parenting, the home, family, domestic relationships and intergenerational interaction today. ‘Gay marriage’ is merely a radical gloss attached to the continuing encroachment of the state upon our private, intimate lives. If unquestioned, and unquestionable, conventions make you uncomfortable, especially those forged by the elite above the heads and the alleged prejudices of the public with the aim of increasing the power of the state over communities, then you too should be freaked out by gay marriage.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

(1) John D’Emilio, ‘Will the courts set us free?’, in The Politics of Same-Sex Marriage, University of Chicago Press, 2007

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Topics Politics


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