Consultation with constituents is officially on following Adam Bandt’s motion about “marriage equality”; never mind that it simply asks politicians to do their job. The discussion to be had, however, is not about “marriage equality” as such; if it were a simple matter of equality, the case would be clear cut. With respect, the discussion Mr Bandt is calling for is about marriage itself and whether the current legislative boundaries are just and reasonable.
In the speech introducing the motion Mr Bandt acknowledged the groups who “continue to speak out very loudly in favour of discrimination”. In framing the debate it terms of “discrimination”, Mr Bandt should himself have discriminated between discriminating for the sake of according meaning, and unjust discrimination.
The accusation of unjust discrimination is a serious one. It suggests that for thousands of years the laws recognising marriage (not the mention the societies who followed them) have been gravely flawed in failing to realise that marriage has nothing to do with the two people’s sexes at all. On the other hand, discriminating in the way in which we name things provides us with the great and necessary advantage of knowing exactly what it is that we are talking about. We discriminate against lawyers when we define doctors as those with certain medical degrees and say only they can perform surgery.
Mr Bandt and his compatriots are seeking for a pronouncement that two different things should be signified by the same word. The call for ‘equality’ emanates from the belief that a certain group in society has been deprived of a right. But in reality everyone is subject to the exact same restrictions when it comes to marriage – that is, everyone is entitled to marry, but marriage itself necessarily involves that a person be united with someone of the opposite sex. Inherent in the meaning of marriage is, yes, love, but love with particular characteristics; it is the unity of the species, the coming together of the two halves of humanity, man and woman.
Those who indignantly deny any essential differences between a heterosexual union and a homosexual relationship, without wanting to be graphic, simply need to look at the sexual act. Heterosexual intercourse is different, spatially, biologically, emotionally and, importantly, in effect. The physical compatibility of males and females means this union must be between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others; offering a principled basis for maintaining that marriage is the union of two and only two. Only this act has the ability to produce new life (and so inherently is able to found the emotional message “I want to have children with you”); other forms of sexual relationships simply can not.
While procreation is by no means the whole meaning or end of marriage, no one can deny it is an important part. After all, historically, marriage has always served the public purpose of attaching mothers and fathers to one another and to their children; forming the basic unit upon which society is built. While it’s common nowadays to have a friend, or a few, who were raised by parents of the same-sex, it is clear that they were not raised by their biological parents. Marriage has, for the most part, acted as a discriminator of who one’s parents are, who is rightfully responsible for a child. Just because modern technology means that a marital relationship is not practically necessary at a child’s conception, doesn’t mean that the importance of one biological parent is any less throughout a child’s development; one only needs to look at numerous stories of grief and loss amongst “donor-made” babies to realise this is so. Even homosexuality recognises the inherent differences between men and women (in generalising the preference of romantic relationships by sex) and by extension, definite differences between motherhood and fatherhood. Therefore, even in the case of adoption, where a child for some reason is unable to be cared for by its biological parents, the interests of the child knowing a mother and father are paramount. It is this equal right of all children, to the love of one’s mother and father, which has been so consistently ignored in the discourse about “all conquering love”.
Marriage is a distinctive institution, uniquely serving the social utility of linking mother and father to their child; if we generalise marriage to any loving relationship, legislators will inevitably have to find another way of making that link. Recognition of marriage has never been a merely private matter and so any alteration would have greater than private effects. The confusion that persists in messing with the boundaries of “old thinking” about the role of marriage becomes clear when considering numerous cases, now emerging, where (predominantly female) same-sex couples have elected to use gamete donors, only to have the (often homosexual) biological father, after the birth, demand the right to “parent” the child. Dividing marriage and the raising of children will only increase complications down the track for future governments and societies where there are increasing numbers of children with three (or more) “parents”. Where the unique nature of the heterosexual union is ignored and governments have to find other ways to define biologically linked families; “marriage” would become almost entirely meaningless.
As far as love is concerned, marriage is not about undervaluing homosexual love. It isn’t about trying to maintain variations in legal rights (these have, wherever possible, been accorded to same-sex partners). Marriage is the title given to a specific kind of relationship that wasn’t thought up or invented by the State in the first place. So while the role of the State certainly does include making sure there isn’t unjust discrimination against a person because of their sexual orientation, there is a significant and meaningful difference between their role in issuing driver’s licences and marriage licences. As a matter of governance and welfare they rightly decide upon what speed limits, at what age, for how long and who may receive a state driver’s license. When it comes to something that was there ‘pre-the-State’, that is written into our biology and echoed in the limitations and reality of our physical being, those in our parliament are merely administrators and guardians, not the boundary setters.
Love may be all conquering, but it is not grounds for dissolving the social value of marriage into a mush of indiscriminant colours; a rainbow is a rainbow because its many different colours are distinguished; merging the boundaries between these would not benefit anyone. Marriage is a public good. It serves the predominant role of connecting children to their parents; a purpose that flows from recognition of the fundamentally unique union of man and woman.
Amy Vierboom is completing her law degree at the University of Technology, Sydney. She worked as a legal researcher in privacy and e-commerce before taking up her current job doing research into marriage and family in Australia.