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Some say that allowing same-sex marriage redefines marriage for everyone. It will make the definition of marriage hazy, consequently undermining a crucial social and cultural institution.

(I use that weasel word “some” quite deliberately: “Traditionalists” sounds like an insult; “opponents of same-sex marriage” makes them sound “anti”; “Christian” and “conservative” wouldn’t reflect the diversity of people with this opinion. So it will need to be “some.”)

Others say allowing same-sex marriage is a matter of equality. Gay men and women have just as much right to choose their life partners, and they have every right to call it marriage.

Here’s where I stand: I believe “marriage” as an institution is big enough to accommodate all of us, gay and straight. I don’t think legalizing same-sex marriage “redefines” marriage in the way some think it does. I see same-sex marriage not as a redefinition, but as a broadening and a reapplication of the existing institution of marriage. I don’t think gays look at marriage and think of ways to subvert it to suit some radically different purpose. (Some do, of course, but straights have always had that privilege.) Instead, gays look at marriage and recognize their own relationships — committed, monogamous relationships of a sexual and affectional nature; families with the potential to grow with the addition of children. We don’t say, “Here’s an institution I can twist to fit my lifestyle.” We say, “Here’s an institution that already fits.”

Will allowing men to marry men and women to marry women devalue marriage or lead to its decline? Why would it? No straight person is going to choose same-sex marriage. Marriage will not become, either suddenly or gradually, “gender-neutral,” for the very good reason that most people are and always will be heterosexual. Most people, knowing quite well their own sexual and romantic attractions and aspirations, will simply marry according to their sexual orientation. Unless sexual orientation comes down to a choice, the possibility of erstwhile straights deciding to gay-marry is very slim. Whatever happens, marriage will always be mostly heterosexual simply because people are mostly heterosexual.

Can the Institution of Marriage Survive ‘Redefinition’?

Those who oppose the introduction of same-sex marriage have strived to frame the debate not in terms of equality, but in terms of redefinition. By including same-sex couples in marriage, you “redefine marriage for the rest of us,” goes the argument. Critics of same-sex marriage point to the biological fact that only male and female can procreate as the defining characteristic of marriage. They also acknowledge that not all heterosexual married couples can or do have children, however. Infertility, age and conscious choice are all factors that lead to childless marriages. My question is why, if the institution of marriage can survive a handful of heterosexuals who, whether by decision or otherwise, remain childless — can it not survive a handful of homosexuals, many of whom actually do have children or plan to have children?

But if we agree there’s a redefinition involved, is there any evidence it will change much? Is it really so radical? My instinct, by comparison with a related cultural and social institution, is that the fuss over redefining marriage is a mountain out of a molehill. That institution is parenthood.

What is a mother? What is a father? What is parenthood? At first glance, most people would define these biologically: A mother is the female who gave birth to the child; a father is the male who provided the seed; parents are, well, parents. Isn’t it obvious?

Yet what appears to be very clear cut isn’t really so clearly defined. Alongside the concept of biological parenthood, which I think remains the primary idea we have in mind when we speak of mothers and fathers, we also have adoption. There’s a sense in which a man and a woman are an adoptive father and an adoptive mother, and their children are adopted sons and adopted daughters. Yet both culturally and legally, adoptive parents and their adopted children are accepted simply as “fathers,” “mothers,” “sons” and “daughters.”

Do biological parents feel that by sharing the cultural and legal status of mother/father/son/daughter with adoptive families, the institution of parenthood is undermined? Does this shared cultural and legal status blur the distinction between adoptive and biological parenthood? Does it threaten the uniqueness of biological parenthood? It appears, in fact, that adoptive parenthood and biological parenthood co-exist perfectly comfortably within the single cultural and legal institution of parenthood. No need for “real parents” to insist that adoptive parents make do with the status of “civil guardians,” or to cry that their unique biological role is undermined by applying those very important labels of “mum,” “dad,” “son” and “daughter” — and they carry with them dignity and social value — to adoptive parents. There are no complaints that by taking “fatherhood” and “motherhood” for themselves, adoptive parents are defining or redefining parenthood for everyone.

In adoption, we see that it is possible for two similar types of parenthood to exist without one undermining the other, and without the distinctions being lost. Everyone understands there’s a difference between biological parenthood and adoption. Using the same word for both doesn’t make us scientifically illiterate. Everyone still knows the birds and the bees; but everyone also understands that both biological parents and adoptive parents have a cultural and legal right to be considered parents.

What leaves me scratching my head is why so many assume that widening the institution of marriage to include same-sex couples will blur distinctions, threatening opposite-sex marriage and detracting from the uniqueness of biological parenthood. The argument has a veneer of logic, but we see in parenthood an institution that copes perfectly well with diversity within unity.

Marriage will not collapse. Unless swathes of people decide to become gay, male-female marriage and biological parenthood will always remain the “norm,” in the sense of the majority. Allowing gay men and women and their families to share in an institution that reflects exactly their lives and aspirations will not change that. Marriage is big enough for all of us.

4 Comments

Jacquie, June 15, 2012 Reply

I like your point of view, David. You put the case very well.

graham wood, June 15, 2012 Reply

David. Whether you deny it or not, SSM ‘marriage’ would redefine the word and concept.
You may like to consider the following, by David Holloway, and one of the finest comments I have seen on the current debate. I cannot improve on it, and the logic is IMO irrefutable:

“At the heart of the problem is a new understanding of the essential nature of marriage…..In Home Office, Equal civil marriage: a consultation, Theresa May and Lynne Featherstone write: “We recognise that the personal commitment made by same-sex couples when they enter into a civil partnership is no different to the commitment made by opposite sex couples when they enter into a marriage.”

This implies that “a personal commitment” is sufficient for defining the essentials of marriage. This could not be more wrong! But it goes back to the gay, same-sex marriage advocate, who was one of the first to define down marriage to include homosexual couples, Andrew Sullivan. He wrote: “In the contemporary West marriage has become a way in which the state recognises an emotional commitment by two people to each other for life. And within that definition, there is no public way, if one believes in equal rights under the law, in which it should legally be denied homosexuals [italics mine].”

But several things need to be said in contradiction. First, the new proposals of the Government and of Andrew Sullivan that want to exclude procreative sex from the definition of marriage, is like defining Nissan simply as a commercial business but not making cars essential to Nissan. And to exclude procreative sex, as is being argued, because some couples are childless, is like excluding winning medals as essential to the Olympic Games, because some athletes go home medalless.

Universally and fundamentally marriage is about socially approved sexual intercourse. That is why to “consummate” marriage is traditionally to have sexual intercourse (defined as penile-vaginal penetration). A failure of such consummation has been a ground for “nullity” – the denial that a marriage has taken place. So people do not assume that what is most distinctive of a newly-wed couple is that they are now “having an emotional commitment”, but that they are now “having sex” with one another and still for many, thank God, having it as a new experience.

True, given the permissiveness of current Western morals and education, others have not reserved sex for marriage and with damaging consequences. It is therefore understandable why there are those among the secular Western-educated elite who define marriage without any idea of sex. But in the interests of a minority, then to impose this definition on the majority with its damaging consequences is very wrong.

This homosexual minority together with heterosexual amoral elites have bought into, what John Haldane, professor of philosophy at St Andrews University, calls the argumentum ad consummationem.

It goes like this. “Major premise: sexual attraction and love are determinants of human happiness and should be consummated where sincerely felt. Minor premise: you cannot choose to whom you are sexually attracted, and you cannot choose with whom you fall in love. Conclusion: whether or not they are chosen, attraction and love should be consummated where
sincerely felt.”

And Haldane comments: “this simplistic syllogism (uncritical in its use of choice, love, sentiment, and sincerity) provides the rational foundation for a culture of often unrestrained, promiscuous, and unfaithful – yet indulgently sentimental – coupling. And it undergirds the push for same-sex marriage on both sides of the Atlantic.”

He is so right, especially when marriage is seen simply in terms of individualistic adult fulfilment. But marriage is important for bringing children into the world in a secure environment with a mother and father from whom they came and whom they can love and be loved by. This is for the good of the wider society.

Furthermore, we all need to remember that marriage is an institution. But an institution not only has a relatively stable pattern of rules and structures to meet social needs; it also takes on a life of its own and to some degree controls those active within it. So the great value of marriage as an institution is that it gives stabilising support to the married couple and also to the children of the marriage family. That is why we need to strengthen the institution of heterosexual, life-long monogamous marriage.

Instead it is being threatened by our “divorce culture” and, now, by its being defined down to the level of essentially non-procreative homosexual emotional relationships.

But we do not have social institutions to support purely private emotional attachments. Social institutions have a public and social good and the public and social good of marriage is child rearing. For this you need not just “party A” and “party B” (as a husband and wife are called in Massachusetts, the first US State to have gay-marriages). Rather, you need a “wife” and “mother” supported by a “husband” and “father” where responsible fatherhood has social support.

For a man to become a parent by impregnating a woman is instinctive; but to help a wife and mother look after the children is not instinctive but needs a husband and father who has institutional encouragement. And staying together for life needs institutional encouragement. All of this is in the interests of the children. So marriage is not there for the couple (or government) to shape. Rather it shapes the couple and helps them bond, giving security to the children.”
The fundamental error of both May and Featherstone and their ‘gay’ friends is to “redefine” the grounds for marriage as an “emotional commitment”, thus decoupling marriage from its esential purpose, namely procreation. Thus marriage CANNOT be divorced from its Biblical roots which is always definesd as exclusively heterosexual.
Much more could be said about the sheer level of confusion that SSM would create for children, but I notice that SSM advocates never touch on that vital element for a moment.
To close. One question: how do you define marriage?
Graham Wood

Dennis Richards, February 5, 2013 Reply

I am sorry but I cannot agree with the above. Firstly marriage can be defined by society how it likes. It was a financial and political union before the church got hold of it. Secondly if the object has to be procreation, then post-menopausal women and otherwise infertile people would be excluded from the institution. Thirdly, a couple can be generative without providing the actual gametes that give rise to the zygote, e.g. as in IVF. If Christians are so bothered by what people do in bed they should invent a cure for insomnia.

Rebecca Carter, February 17, 2013 Reply

The comment, above, that “marriage cannot be divorced from its Biblical roots” reveals an astonishingly narrow vision which ignores the vast spread of human history. The history of marriage among mankind predates reliable history and Christianity. There have been many types of marriage in various cultures and not all of them have involved lifelong agreements between a man and a woman. Unfortunately many of them have been more about instutionalising access to women than love or spirituality. As someone who was married for decades to an abusive man, I have reservations about the sanctity of marriage. Had I not been brainwashed into thinking of marriage in “Biblical” terms (ie for life), I might have escaped the abuse years ago. “Black and white thinking” makes some people feel safe but the truth often inhabits a large area of grey.

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