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Get Your Feet Off My Neck, Bigot

Posted: 14/06/2012 00:08

The gay marriage question was back from holiday yesterday as a flock of bishops, blind to the embarrassing irony of their Church's birth in divorce, hurried to the market for a controlling share in the sanctity of marriage. Calm your tits, boys, no-one's trying (hard, yet) to disestablish you. Call me Katharine of Aragon, but the politicking of the lords spiritual is just a distraction from a deeper point about marriage. What's actually disquieting about the issue for me, rather than what the white-knuckle clutching of the episcopal pearls would have us believe, is the way everyone wants to sign up to marriage. Being a wife has usually meant leading a life pinched by a litany of oppressions - this an institution people want a stake in? What is there to cherish? You want to consent to a government scheme of regulating a deeply private matter between individuals? You want to owe someone an abridgement of your expectations and your possibilities? How unromantic! How ridiculous to give yourself a legal status only in relation to a second person. How strange! How straight!

Perhaps marriage between two people of the same sex would usher in a more egalitarian arrangement than what has historically been the case. It remains astonishing, however, that the kinship that two people establish with one another is considered deficient without at best a certificate, and possibly a change of name and surrender of independence at worst. For this reason, I've been preaching to anyone who cares to listen, or who doesn't have a choice, a radical remedy to the inequality in 'kinship solutions' available to people on the basis of their partner's genitals: abolish marriage. Oh. I thought there was more to it then that. There really isn't. As the comedian Doug Stanhope says: "if you want tax breaks, incorporate. The government should only look at you as an individual." You could pay for a religious blessing if you wanted to, and I suppose afterwards you could say you're married, but that's between you and your god(s).

That, my plan A, won't happen. So here's plan B - the best argument I or anyone can marshal in favour of gay marriage. Separate is not equal: I get my analogues from the USA, and I look across the Atlantic for the best explanation of the current situation, and for the reason why anything less than total equality is untenable. The following is taken from a speech made at Harvard University by the retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter - you need to know that the case of Plessy v Ferguson in 1896 made a guarantee of separate but equal facilities for the black population of the USA, and that that was overturned as unconstitutional, violative of the right to equal protection, by the case of Brown v Board of Education in 1954.

"[...] the members of the Court in Plessy remembered the day when human slavery was the law in much of the land. To that generation, the formal equality of an identical railroad car meant progress. But the generation in power in 1954 looked at enforced separation without the revolting background of slavery to make it look unexceptional by contrast. As a consequence, the judges of 1954 found a meaning in segregating the races by law that the majority of their predecessors in 1896 did not see. That meaning is not captured by descriptions of physically identical schools or physically identical railroad cars. [...] And when the judges in 1954 read the record of enforced segregation it carried only one possible meaning: It expressed a judgment of inherent inferiority on the part of the minority race."

When civil partnerships were introduced, that was progress - a more or less formal equality. Against a backdrop of nothing but marginalisation, that was something. Now it's not enough. The meaning of an entitlement to a civil partnership, and not to marriage, is inferiority and deficiency. Perhaps no marital institution for couples not containing one man and one woman would be better than a barefaced admission that gay love just isn't quite the real deal. The world has changed, but there isn't a appetite for legislative recognition of this that's discernible through 'consultation'. Racism and sexism are not yet forgotten evils, despite consistent findings that no-one has a right to either outside of the mind. As the feminist Sarah Moore Grimke said in 1838, about the oppression of women, "I seek no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright." There will always be people with an interest in keeping their feet on the necks of others (mostly self-interest), but there's no compelling reason for the state to sponsor inequality while it construes itself as the provider.

Marriage as it is popularly conceived is a package of obligations and governmental intrusions that limits human choices. Some people want this particular symbol of their commitment and because of who they are they can't have it. That isn't fair. As long as marriage is a package available to a majority and denied to a minority on the basis of an immutable classification - you are straight, you are not - there is a 'judgement of inherent inferiority on the part of the minority'. Not being straight is as immutable as not being white. A legislative remedy is required with an urgency that the glacial pace of consultation cannot satisfy. I used to think that 'equality NOW' was a bit hasty given that no-one's being locked up for being gay, but the presumption of inferiority implicit in even these relatively liveable times is unsettling. It could be worse, and it has been, but now it really is time to take the next step and declare statutory indifference to the genitals of the people signing the register. That, dearly beloved, is romance.

 

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