It seems that we are on the brink of change to the Marriage Act that will transform the lives of many. Not people in same-sex relationships, mind. Their lives won’t change much at all. The lives it will really change are those of advocates and commentators who won’t shut up about why the “right” to same-sex marriage is some crucial moral test of the national character.

Claims that such amendments to the Marriage Act are urgent and transformative and right are as copious as they are largely unconvincing. These range from the odd claim that such reform will reduce youth suicide to the Keeping Up With The Joneses one that “even Ireland and Alabama did it”. Claims that these amendments will devastate civic and juridical practice are even more vapid, and the ABC recently published two pieces that would likely have failed if submitted in first-year sociology. One, by the Reverend Dr Michael Jensen, took all of its illogic from a Helen Lovejoy reading of Genesis and worried that children could not be properly produced without the “sexed twoness” of a mummy and a daddy.

As if this Edenic shite were not enough, it was rapidly followed by some guy who frets that no one has considered the burden to the Family Law Courts. This former adviser in the Howard government must have ignored proposed changes to law as much as then-AG Philip Ruddock did when he failed to act on the Same Sex: Same Entitlements legislative advice that would offer, among other things, same-sex couples the right to use of these courts.

Since the Rudd government acceded where Howard’s wouldn’t to recommendations initially proposed by the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, those living in ongoing same-sex relationships have the same rights, and the same responsibilities, as anyone identified as living in a domestic partnership. This domestic partnership category, whose impact extends from the requirement to declare Centrelink income to the right to claim bereavement leave, is, following the suite of changes to all kinds of tedious law, no longer practically different to marriage. So proposed changes to the Marriage Act, itself pettily amended by the Coalition government in 2004 with the support of the opposition, won’t Change Lives as much as is popularly believed.

Although barely reported at the time of its passage — and of no apparent political interest to any of the straight, compassionate souls now so eager to be seen to support what they refuse to stop calling “gay marriage” — the Same Sex: Same Entitlements package was the most significant change to Commonwealth law for those with non-normative sexuality since Keating permitted no exemption to immigration for same-sex partners in 1995. Again, the under-reported result of arduous lobbying by queer people that received no mainstream support. Just like the 1991 parity changes to age of consent laws in NSW attracted little mainstream interest.  Just like the decriminalisation of homosexual activity, starting in South Australia in 1972 with thanks to Don Dunstan, was of minimal interest to “allies”.

There’s a reason that many prominent commentators and politicians are now eager to be counted among those who support “gay marriage”, despite the rights that many still presume it would deliver were passed into law unmet with mainstream support or applause. You could say, I suppose, that same-sex relationships are now so broadly accepted that this glorious moment of hope is one shared by the majority of Australians. Or you could, if you were someone in a same-sex relationship during the years that no one gave much of a toss about the boring-but-important legislative changes that took so effing long to pass, be a bit more cynical about what the putative “support” for homosexuality now means. And, by extension, what it will mean in the future for those who endure social discrimination.

Certainly, there are those who mean very well. The current campaign for a legal recognition, which is different from the legal equivalence that was meaningfully passed seven years ago, is probably very well-meant, most particularly from Millennials only just old enough to participate in any political battle. It seems conservative to oppose “gay marriage”, and it is easy to make the emotional calculation that the legal right to marry will produce better lives.

But, most particularly given the surfeit of conservative support for same-sex marriage, there is something else at play here. And it’s something that doesn’t augur well for the meaningful policy needed to truly transform the lives of those who do not perform a normative sexuality. It doesn’t mean that anyone will care about addressing the risk factors that find non-heterosexual people experiencing homelessness, physical violence and mental health concerns in disproportionate numbers. It means, at best, that people think that the right to marry will modify these risk factors, which is an unsupportable claim. Marriage, after all, does not protect women from violence. At worst, it means that people think that proposed legislation will revive the institution of marriage.

Well-regarded British sociologist Jeffrey Weeks has argued best and most openly in these terms. A known advocate for gay rights, he says that marriage itself will be an institution improved by queer participation. Today in Crikey, Father William Grimm says something similar, albeit from a concern for the health of Rome rather than that of progressivism. Grimm supports same-sex marriage for what it will offer Mother Church. Both thinkers, from different perspectives, are arguing for the revival of traditional institutions. And it’s these urges to both uphold the constraints of the past and to normalise relationships that gives me the irrits.

Personally, I wish legislation would pass quickly so that claims that it is nominal endorsement by the state, and not policy action by the state, that will Change Lives can cease. I don’t object to the idea of marriage so much as I do the implicit idea on both sides of this debate that legally enshrined marriage is a desirable state. The conversation about same-sex marriage has been one that has achieved little save for the handy outing of true stupidity of the “sexed twoness” type and the revelation that the left has become almost as neoliberal as neolibs.

The intellectual and social value of gay lib over its 50-year lifetime has been, at times although not exclusively, to show the very unpleasant effects of a normalising sexuality. What happens when a society codifies sexual acts and identities in its institutions is necessarily to create sexual acts and identities that fall outside the norm. When an ideal is produced, so is its opposite.  So the passionate fight for marriage, of a sort that can no longer offer any legal entitlements unavailable in current law, when it is won will produce a class of others.

Those who do not have the means, opportunity or inclination to marry will exist outside a new normalised convention. And one can say, as neoliberals are wont to do, that all this constitutes is a “choice”. But normalising ideals are not a choice. They are a form of power to which anyone who fails to meet their terms is cruelly subject. And in this case, marriage and inclusion is seen as a panacea for a wide range of complex social problems. But inclusion has never been the solution to exclusion. Rather, inclusion is exclusion’s necessary precedent.

After 150 years of mistreatment by the state and its juridical and mental institutions, many homosexual people, and their new “allies”, continue to believe that the state can save them. I tend to believe that the ardour for this recognition in law will found a new category of despised queer. I tend to believe that the need to reinvigorate marriage, an institution that began a fast decline the minute people were permitted no-fault escape from it, is deeply conservative.

And I believe that those many who insist that this is a moment of great solidarity whose expression will continue into the future as large numbers fight to have the material burden of homelessness and violence addressed is pants. The battle for true freedom to any social class is, as gay rights activists have found, tedious and unsexy and largely done with no assistance from “allies”. Unless, of course, they can expect something for themselves. In the case of “gay marriage”, that would be the affirming glee that comes from citizenship in a fundamentally anti-social democracy that allows it and a little affirmation that the way heterosexuals have organised the world for so long is great.

Same-sex marriage legislation must pass, if only to stop this meaningless debate about the things that constitute social change and the idea that a state endorsement of a particular practice is not the same thing as a right.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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