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.