The debate we don’t need to have

It’s clear in 21st century Australia that marriage should be open to us all. What more is there to say?

Different forms of sexuality and gender are not separate entities but different points across a single spectrum.

Different forms of sexuality and gender are not separate entities but different points across a single spectrum.

Two distinct threads run through today’s debate about marriage: the social stability provided by long adult relationships, and the genders of the people involved.

Social stability was high on the agenda of a 1998 federal parliamentary committee that identified notable trends in marriage perceptions and experiences.

The committee found a rising preference among Australians for non-religious weddings. It also found that marriage was on the decline and that marital breakdown, divorce, step-families and single-parent families were all going up.

The idea that marriage might be something other than the lifelong union of a man and a woman wasn’t on the public agenda then. The committee’s 16 men and two women, chaired by then-backbench MP Kevin Andrews, didn’t canvass such a possibility.

The Marriage Act didn’t offer a definition until 2004, when John Howard added the words: “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”.

That used to be my view of marriage, until my own fell apart not long after the 1975 Family Law Act took effect. I found that this revolutionary law, which stopped the blame-game in divorce proceedings, could help both adults and children through stressful times.

That’s good, but as the Andrews report said, ensuring a right to divorce should not mean we don’t care about marriage: “When we recognise that many marriages end in separation, we should not abandon our aspiration for strong and healthy marital relationships.”

I remarried long ago and still believe that such legally-sanctioned relationships help to keep us all together. On this particular point I don’t think I’m too much removed from the teachings of many religious institutions.

But on the second thread of the marriage debate – gender – it would seem we part company.

Since my callow youth I’ve learned a lot about humanity’s rich diversity. I’ve enjoyed good friendships with people whose sexual preferences differ from my own orthodox heterosexuality.

I’ve also discovered that it no longer makes sense to define people in the way I understood as a child, when alternative perceptions of gender and sexual preference were hived off into boxes marked “wrong” or “illegal”, or not talked about at all.

Physiological and psychological studies have repeatedly confirmed* that the fundamentals of sexuality and gender are firmly in place at birth. Whatever the scriptures said, a person who is other than a heterosexual woman or man doesn’t choose to be so, any more than I chose to be “straight”.

Science has also confirmed that many species share with humans a propensity for multiple variants of sexuality and gender, and that all such traits, including heterosexuality, should be seen not as separate entities but as different points across a single spectrum.

For all these reasons we now ban discrimination against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or of indeterminate gender identity or sexual orientation. Anyone who says all such people can choose to be like the rest of us is simply wrong, both in law and in fact.

Lifelong relationships are as important to these people as they are to everyone else. In many cases they also want to rear children, and if their home life is stable there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.

They too want to contribute to social stability – just as Kevin Andrews envisaged for the rest of us in 1998. They want to be able to say they’re married because that’s the word that history has given to this solemn commitment.

Whatever its religious connotations, marriage in its essence is a social contract by which people commit publicly not just to each other but also to their community. No-one should be prohibited from making that commitment, or shuffled off into a secondary legal compartment, “civil union”.

Marriage is marriage, whoever is involved. Whatever our sexual preference or gender identity the idea belongs to us all, for better or worse. To the cynic who sees marriage as a life sentence I’d say why shouldn’t the burden be shared around?

This is a debate we do not need to have.

* For a discussion of this research, see the American Psychological Association’s website, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.

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