Peter Tatchell was on Matt Cooper today along with someone from Fianna Fail when they discussed the subject of same sex unions. Having just come back from the happy occasion of Ben and Meri’s wedding I had some thoughts about it.
I’m basically in favour of extending the institution of marriage to same sex couples, except that I don’t think the institution needs to be called ‘marriage’. There seems to me to be a fair amount of fighting specifically about the name, but what’s in a name? (Yes, I know that names can be important e.g. whether one says ‘the six counties’ / ‘the north of Ireland’ as opposed to ‘Northern Ireland’ for instance). But it seems to me that when the debate turns to the name itself rather than the institution, it transforms into a debate about the different groups. One group doesn’t want to be associated with same sex couples, so they don’t want them to have access to ‘marriage’. Another group wants to have access to the same institutions and statuses as everybody else. They want to be just like them and want the label to validate that. And there are as many other groups as there are stances on this question…
So what is my stance? It seems important to me to think about what marriage is for (that is, what the role and function of the institution is in society). I think marriage is the best place to raise children, but I also think homosexual couples should be allowed to raise children. But more importantly, just because marriage is the best place to raise children doesn’t mean raising children exhausts the purpose of marriage. Childless marriages can be just as valuable to husband and wife as childful ones. And in any case, even if childful marriages were better in some measure, other things being equal, than childless ones, having and raising children wouldn’t constitute the whole point and purpose of marriage. Childless marriages are good enough, other things being equal, by any reasonable measure of goodness.
It becomes a citizens’ rights issue, it seems to me because marital status is keyed to so many other socially relevant statuses (or they are keyed to it). I’m thinking about pension entitlements and the issue of who is a patient’s next-of-kin, and of immigration status and that sort of thing. Given the way marital status is so embedded in a complex network of other legal statuses, to exclude same sex couples from marriage is de facto to refuse to recognise that same sex couples have long term committed and loving relationships on which those legal statuses bear. So, not recognising same sex unions in some way, and giving them the same legal place in that complex network of statuses as marriage would de facto be prejudice against homosexuals. It would be society not according them the same rights and treatment as it gives others. This would be particularly cheeky given all the taxes childless homosexuals couples pay to support the having and raising of children by others (maternity leave, child benefit, schools etc. etc.)
so, in my opinion, the introduction of civil partnerships legislation in Britain and Ireland is a rare case where the governments got it right.