‘How the world can change. It can change like that, thanks to one little word: “married”.’
So sang Fraulein Schneider in the stage version of Cabaret, but what if the story was transposed to modern Britain and Schneider became a lesbian? She then might sing that the world can change ‘thanks to four little words: “in a civil partnership”’.
Somehow, though, it doesn't have the same ring. The row over same-sex marriage in Britain is very much about that one little word, though the focus is not on the word’s power to change the world but on the world’s power to change the word.
Most religious bodies seem united in their insistence that marriage can only ever designate a legal union between a penis-owner and a vagina-bearer, except when they themselves stretch the term to include mystic attachments between nuns and a first-century preacher not believed to have a body anymore.
The Marriage Day address recently read in Scotland's Catholic churches even claimed that the exclusively heterosexual definition was the ‘universally accepted’ one, which might make us wonder why there’s such a row about it. We might try to end the row by reassuring religious conservatives that, if marriage can only ever mean what they say it does, then they cannot have anything to worry about, but I doubt if that would do the trick, since they seem to have no end of reasons on their side. Here are some of the most popular, along with my responses.
1 ‘Civil partnerships already provide homosexuals with all the legal benefits of marriage and confer all the same legal responsibilities, so that same-sex marriage is not necessary.’
Users of this argument are describing civil partnerships as identical to civil marriages, which essentially they are in the UK, except for the term used, the combination of genitals, and some minor differences in bureaucratic procedure which are irrelevant once the deal is done.
Oddly, they never reach the logical conclusion: that since the two are legally equivalent, there is no good reason to give them different legal names. The non-difference of gender can hardly be a good reason, since we do not usually apply different legal terms to acts and arrangements between two people of the same sex that apply to those between a man and a woman. The word ‘murder’ applies as much to a man killing a man as to a man killing a woman, and ‘rape’, ‘robbery’, ‘joint ownership’, ‘employment’, ‘compensation’ and ‘bequeathal’ are similarly comprehensive.
When we further consider that having different terms obliges registry offices to print, store and use different forms, the distinction between ‘marriage’ and ‘civil partnership’ seems like a pointless bureaucratic untidiness, so why not just tidy them into the same drawer?
The reason gay unions were not simply called ‘marriages’ from the start was to postpone the argument we're having now, by creating a soothing illusion that gays were being invited to party in a separate room rather than gate-crash the heterosexual do. The trick worked, which makes me wonder whether the suffragettes might have got women enfranchised a bit sooner if, instead of demanding ‘the vote’, they'd merely asked for a ‘Woman’s Electoral Preference Notification’. This would have had the same value as a man's vote and been counted in the same election, but would have been cast at a separate polling station and printed on pink paper. Once men had got used to that, and realized that it hadn’t destroyed democracy, it could have been rebranded, with only a little more controversy, as a vote.
2 ‘Marriage is a unique term with a special meaning…’
This line is from the Barbara Cartland School of rhetoric. As we have seen, marriage is a word you can put in romantic songs, whereas civil partnership is just too stuffily legalistic. ‘Love and civil partnership / Love and civil partnership / Go together like ... err ... a ciggie and a gardener's lip?’ Forget it!
Even people who have little time for religion can get sentimental over the word ‘marriage’ and feel uneasy about redefinition, especially if they never ask themselves why a word they consider so special, so valuable, so rich in meaning, should not for that very reason be made more widely available. If it’s such a prized word, is it not understandable that gays might prize it equally, and selfish to stop them enjoying it? Gays can be romantic too: I have known several who were and one who still is.
But then it’s not just about romance; it’s even more to do with sacredness. Church leaders protest that a legal rejigging will damage the word’s sacred significance, which is odd; because it should be obvious to them above all that sacred significances don’t depend on legal definitions. The fact that there is no legal definition of ‘God’ does not stop church people from reveling in the word’s perceived sacredness at all hours, and if the government, in an impish mood and with time on its hands, were to create a legal definition of ‘God’, that would not threaten other definitions unless they also passed a law banning other definitions.
Since the government is not planning to ban alternative, non-legal meanings of ‘marriage’, we can all continue to use it in any special sense we fancy. Gay marriage opponent Cardinal Keith O’Brien can use it to mean ‘heterosexual union’ or even ‘folding occasional table’ if he wants to.
In fact the issue over the word might be resolved if we all agreed to use ‘marriage’ to mean ‘folding occasional table’ and then thought of a new word to signify both heterosexual and homosexual unions: ‘bunksnaft’ for example. The new word would not have any precious romantic or sacred connotations to be spoiled, and couples who wanted their ‘bunksnaft’ to be romantic or sacred would have to make an effort and behave so lovingly towards each other as to invest the word with the desired lovely connotations, since it did not come with them automatically included.
3 ‘Marriage is a heterosexual thing.’
Yes, if only heterosexuals have it. Voting was a male thing once, and that was held up as an argument against women’s suffrage. This kind of argument-by-definition is no good when what is being argued over IS the definition, and it can be translated as ‘They shouldn’t have it because they DON’T have it.’
4 ‘Marriage has always been defined as a union between one man and one woman.’
This is the good old standby known as the appeal to tradition – social custom must never change. We are asked to ignore the fact that our society has a long tradition of changes in social custom, since changes in the past are usually changes for the better, whereas future changes threaten to undermine civilization, or at least make some bishops sad.
5 ‘Gay marriage would threaten traditional marriage.’
On hearing this one, all you sometimes have to say is ‘How?’ The only imaginable response that isn't surreal is ‘Because it would decrease respect for marriage and put people off it’, which raises the question of whether individuals should consider marriage if their respect for it depends on gays being excluded.
No one wants to hear those dreaded words: ‘I'm sorry darling, but I just can’t take our marriage seriously anymore now that gays can do it. I want a divorce. The children can go back to the adoption agency. There’s been little point in having them around either since gays were allowed to adopt.’
6 ‘If gay marriage goes through, what's to stop people being legally allowed to marry animals; marry chairs; marry thin air; marry the universe…’
Animals generally can’t say ‘I do’ and sign the register, though a highly trained parrot might just make it. Consent and legal purpose are equally lacking in the other examples.
The slippery slope argument is also used to raise fears of legalized polygamy, though that long-standing tradition is portrayed, without a whiff of disapproval from God, in the Old Testament, which makes nonsense of the claim that the churches are defending a changeless tradition based on one man and one woman.
Use of the slippery slope often signals that the opposition is running out of arguments and has had to start arguing against some imagined future proposal rather than the one it has failed to discredit. A currently fashionable slopeism is the fear that if gay marriages become reality, priests and other clerics will be forced to conduct them.
This idea is admittedly so tempting that they’d do better not to put it into our heads, as I might even ‘convert’ to Catholicism for a chance of having my same-sex marriage conducted by Cardinal O’Brien, if only to see the look on his face.
The reality, however, is that church participation in Scotland would be entirely voluntary.
The feebleness of all the arguments against same-sex marriage might partly explain why the churches’ outcry over little more than a word is at least as vociferous as their previous failed struggles against partial decriminalization, equal age of consent, civil partnerships, gay adoption and the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Equality Act, in which far more was materially at stake for gays.
If your script is poor, it is tempting to overdo the performance. It could also be that, as with dwindling food stocks in a famine, the less that remains to be fought over, the more valuable the remainder becomes.
Both sides are aware that the battle for gay legal equality is in its endgame, and the change from ‘civil partnership’ to ‘marriage’, though legally slight in itself, would clinch it for good. Endgames can be aggressive even when the outcome seems predictable. The third reason for what might seem a disproportionate strop is that, for the first time, more is at stake for church leaders than for gays.
‘Marriage’ might be just ‘one little word’, but priests etc put huge value on words, which are their stock in trade. ‘Civil union’ has never been part of their stock, but ‘marriage’ always has been, and at one time they were the only people who sold it.
Even when registry offices took some of the custom, they offered the same basic product minus the religious coating, so the churches could still feel that they offered more and that theirs’ was the original. Now that the registry offices look set to offer an enhanced rather than reduced product, the churches feel that the marriage patent has been stolen from them.
Worse still, the support of all major parties for same-sex marriage means there is little churches can do about it, so they look weaker and more humiliated than ever, the gap between church and state wider, and their God still more ineffectual. No wonder they are cross.
This is a remarkable time to be homosexual in Britain. We should be proud of ourselves for having taken on the once-mighty churches and won, and the lower the opposition estimate the gay percentage of the population; the prouder we should be for punching above our weight. (This is not of course to deny the vital role of our heterosexual supporters.)
At the same time we should beware of complacency and remember that the battle in Britain has been just one in an ongoing world war. Every time we see a photo of a happy same-sex couple being legally united, we should think of another same-sex couple, united in death as they hang from cranes in Iran. One battle over should give us more time for others.