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What sort of marriages do homosexual people want?

OPINION | John Sandeman

Friday, 29 June 2012

What sort of marriages do homosexual people want?

Behind the heat of the political campaigns for and against gay marriage lie some more subtle issues.  This applies to the Christian opposition to the change, but there are also debates within gay communities.

A panel of homosexual authors at the 2012 Sydney Writers’ festival expressed some radical ideas about marriage. The topic was “Why get married when you could be happy?” and the panel, facilitated by Annette Shun Wah, included:

  • Jeanette Winterson, a best selling British Author;
  • Benjamin Law, Australian writer;
  • Masha Gessen, Russian author and journalist; and
  • Dennis Altman, director of the Institute for Human Security at La Trobe University.

Eternity can’t venture an opinion as to how representative these voices are in the gay community. But they are distinguished and significant voices which contradict the bland assurances that heterosexual marriages won’t be affected if gay marriage is introduced in Australia.

Early in the Sydney Writers Festival discussion, Masha Gessen expressed the ambivalence of the panel towards marriage.

Masha Gessen: “It’s a no-brainer that we should have the right to marriage but equally I think that it is a no brainer that the institute of marriage should not exist.” (cheers from the audience)

“That causes my brain some trouble. Part of the reason that it causes me trouble is that fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we are going to do with marriage when we get there.”

“Because we lie that the institution of marriage is not going to change. It’s going to change and it should change. And again it should not exist. I don’t like taking part in creating fictions about my life. That’s not what I had in mind when I came out thirty years ago. I have three kids who have five parents, more or less.”

Shun Wah asked: “People in civil unions in Australia enjoy the same legal rights as people who are married so is it largely a symbolic battle?”

Dennis Altman: “Yes I think it is largely a symbolic battle but I want to make a couple of points:

Firstly I should say I signed the petition because I do not want Cardinal Pell to control the laws in Australia. (Cheers) Okay that is the easy applause line. What worries me about this debate is there always seems to be the assumption that somehow magically we all have long-term relationships.

One of the things that for me was important about coming out as gay was that we came into a community that accepted a whole range of different relationships, different possibilities, and the fact that lots of people are not in primary relationships or that they are in primary relationships which really are quite different to those of the heterosexual norm.

And the constant emphasis on same sex marriage as the goal, the language of this is the civil rights issue of our time, it seems to me further marginalises and sends very dangerous signals to people who are not in long-term relationships and who may not want to be.”

After an interchange with Jeanette Winterson on whether there are more important issues:

Altman argues “As I said at the beginning I would like to see the law changed, okay? I would like to see that very unpleasant line in the marriage act where a celebrant is required to say “marriage is between a man and a woman” removed and then I would like to see the entire Marriage Act repealed.

Shun Wah: This is a topic about marriage: it is not really about sex.

Altman: I am fascinated by how reluctant the people who argue vehemently for same sex marriage are to talk about sex. The original concept of marriage in the western world of course was based heavily on the idea of monogamy really so that the man could be guaranteed that the children were his.

Now I am going to speak now as a gay man: one of the things about gay male culture is that it is not a monogamous culture. All the evidence we have suggests that monogamy is a myth. There are many longstanding gay relationships. There are virtually no longstanding monogamous gay relationships. I happen to think that this is a good thing. I happen to think that this puts sex in a much better perspective than the concept that we are being fed.

But I do get very anxious when I am told that people want to have a marriage that is exactly the same as the ones that their heterosexual sisters and brothers have. What their heterosexual sisters and brothers are signing up for – whatever they do in practice – is a belief in life-long monogamy.

There is a level of hypocrisy in that – that is built into the marriage ceremony. That, I do not want to see replicated.

Winterson: Are you saying that the hypocrisy is built into the religious ceremony or in the concept of marriage altogether?

Altman: I would love to have the people who are out there arguing for same sex marriage say “lets be clear: marriage is about primary emotional commitment to another person and it doesn’t mean I won’t **** around.

Winterson: You are right about the gay male culture not being monogamous and why should it be, and the whole troubling question of monogamy. Whether it is natural … I think what you expose is something which is very uncomfortable for the male heterosexual or homosexual. Heterosexual men would prefer to screw around if they could, I think, mainly.

Gessen: And so would many heterosexual women.

Winterson: I think there is a difference. One of the things I worry about is that we are going to have an over-masculinised culture, in that we are always going to take the values of the male as the dominant values.

I am not sure that women necessarily feel this way. Which is not about anti sex or less sex but I think it is about a deepening, rather than endlessly separating, love and sex.

That is a much bigger argument about whether these separations are actually good for us as human beings. It might be good for our libido, it might be good for our self-esteem, but whether they are good for us as human beings I don’t know….

Shun Wah:  If we change marriage so it is not monogamous, 80 per cent of television and movies will have to change their plots.

Altman: There is always the second series.

Winterson: In the gay male community, having sex with someone who is not your partner is not a signal that anything is wrong with your primary relationship. But very often it is a signal of that both in the heterosexual community and wider. It’s not about desire, it’s about a breakdown of intimacy or some wish not to put the work in there.

Look, if we all had sex with someone else tonight it would be much more exciting than if we went home and had sex with our partner, probably. But that does not mean it is a good idea.

I often worry about the way the gay male culture segues into the general obsession in the general culture, that says “don’t have any ties just go out there and have a good time”.

Benjamin Law:  Thinking of one couple I know, they are Australian, they spend most of their time overseas but often they’re apart from each other. This gay male couple has built up rules for each other. They are married – I think they got married in the UK. If you go past a certain amount of time apart it is assumed things will happen. But they don’t talk about them. And you don’t get emotionally involved.

Those are the ground rules. One of the biggest advocates for gay marriage in the States is Dan Savage who is very much for gay marriage but is not a huge fan of monogamy.

I think those different options need to be discussed. And maybe homosexuals can teach heterosexuals about that as well.

Editors note: It should be clear that this transcript represents secular gay opinion. Gay activists within the churches such as Tobias Haller in the United States, and Anthony Venn Brown in Australia argue for monogamy.

“It is very true that a number of ‘secular gays’ promote a much looser picture than most of us in the church are seeking to uphold,” writes Haller.

“Much, I observe, as is the case with heterosexuals! The position in the Episcopal Church is clearly geared towards monogamy and fidelity. From my perspective, without that we are not talking about ‘marriage’ but something else entirely.”

Local gay activist Anthony Venn-Brown says, “Some gays don’t want marriage. Some gays want to change marriage. Some gays want to get married. Yep, there is everything…. I want equality of choice.”

Whether the “secular” gay vision of marriage, or the “religious” gay vision of marriage will be the more dominant in the gay communities in Australia is unknown.

If the secular view is the more widespread, it could be that there would be pressure for marriages that are primarily emotional commitments but not monogamous to be included in society’s view of marriage.

In this way the commonly expressed view that legalising gay marriages will not affect heterosexual marriage would turn out not to be true.

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