How rational is a brave new era of marriage equality, really?

Carolyn Moynihan – Sunday Star Times 17 March 2013
There is no more reason for the state to bless the romantic relationships of couples who cannot unite sexually than there is for it to bless the affection of two sisters.

If two lesbians can marry, why not two sisters?

Louisa Wall’s marriage definition bill, passed by two-thirds of MPs after its second reading debate on Wednesday night, is meant to ensure our marriage law is ‘‘not applied in a discriminatory manner’’.

The bill ‘‘will make it clear that a marriage is a union of two people regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity,’’ says the preamble. ‘‘It will ensure that all people, regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity will have the opportunity to marry if they so choose.’’

That sounds about as inclusive as you can get, doesn’t it? But even this version of marriage law discriminates against certain classes of people. I cannot, for example, marry my sister.

A schedule to the bill excludes me from marrying a sibling, a grandparent, parent, child, grandchild and a list of in-laws. This list of prohibited degrees of marriage is carried over from the Marriage Act 1955 – purged, of course, of brother, sister, mother, father and all terms which imply that the human race is either male or female.

But why could I not, in the new era of marriage equality, marry my sister?

What is the difference between us and two lesbians who present themselves to a marriage celebrant? Neither couple can produce a child, so the customary reason for ‘‘siblings’’ (brother and sister) not being able to marry or even have a sexual relationship (a genetically impaired child) is irrelevant.

Advocates of this law change insist that marriage is all about love, commitment and stability. I believe the relationship between me and my sister meets that description.

We love each other and have lived together for over 20 years. We are committed to each other and care for each other, jointly own our home, have wills favouring each other. We have cared for dependent relatives and also, at one stage, an unrelated young girl. Neither of us has her own children but we are still capable of raising a child, should we feel so inclined.

What part of Wall’s definition of marriage as ‘‘a union of two people regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity’’ does not fit us? Perhaps it is the ‘‘union’’ bit.

What does marital union mean in an era of same-sex love? Does it have to involve sexual attraction?

It is necessary to say at this point that my sister and I have no sexual interest in each other. It is conceivable that sisters might but we do not. Is our sisterly love therefore less worthy of public recognition in the form of a marriage certificate than the love of two lesbians who are romantically involved?

Remember, my sister and I have a loving, committed, stable relationship in which we share our lives and goods – equal, I am sure, in those respects to any settled lesbian couple.

So what is the public interest in the romantic desire and sexual activity of two women? I suggest there is none.

Marriage is associated with romance because romance is the kind of desire that aims at bodily union, with its potential to beget children. Partners of the same sex cannot achieve such a union no matter what they do. Strictly speaking, therefore, they cannot achieve sexual union at all.

They can have sexual encounters in which they give each other pleasure and, no doubt, produce a feeling of being more united, but this is quite a different thing from the organic union that a man and a woman achieve in sexual intercourse, particularly when it results in the conception of a new human being. It is that organic, conjugal union that defines marriage, and its potential to generate children that creates the state interest in marriage.

The state needs marriages to produce children and to ensure that they grow up into decent, law-abiding citizens. It is all too evident in New Zealand’s poverty and abuse data how disastrous it is for children and society when marriage culture breaks down.

If the good of existing children were the main issue in recognising same-sex relationships there might be reason to revise existing laws regarding adoption and civil unions, but it is not. We have been told repeatedly that this bill is about the good of samesex couples, with or without children, about their right to have their love equally recognised by New Zealand society.

At best, this is a purely sentimental claim. It is not rational. There is no more reason for the state to bless the romantic relationships of couples who cannot unite sexually than there is for it to bless the affection of two sisters. In a sane world marriage law would discriminate against both.

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