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Posts tagged ‘marriage equality’

The next step in marriage reform

Passing same-sex marriage into law should be a stepping stone, not the endgame. We’re still nowhere near marriage equality.

Celebrations, online and offline, erupted when New Zealand legalised gay marriage Wednesday night. Emotions clearly run high on this topic (though I’ve never understood why). The parties, tweets and parades all sing the same tune: we’re proud to live in a country, any two people, regardless of sexuality, can get married. That raises the question: Why only two?

In this sense at least, the conservatives were right. True marriage equality has still not been achieved. Equality demands that all people be treated the same. But we still deny marriage to people who to be romantically involved with multiple people or close relatives. If marriage is a “human right”, as proponents claim, why do we continue to refuse it to some?

One counter-argument is obvious: polygamists can still marry someone, just only one person; incestuous lovers can just find someone else. This misses the point. After all, gays, too, could just marry someone to whom they’re not attracted. “Equality” of a rudimentary sort did exist before same-sex marriage: everyone had the same rights, namely, to marry someone of the opposite sex. The real point is that we shouldn’t judge people, or deny them rights, based on whom they love. If it happens to be someone of the same sex, fine. If it happens to involve five people, that’s their marriage, not ours.

Equality for all, not just couples…
It would appear, then, that true marriage equality effectively demands open slather. Anyone (provided they can and do consent) should be able to marry anyone, when or as they please. Anything less than that would still be discriminating against some people. But this is, at face value, a rather absurd outcome. To have no legal restrictions at all probably renders it meaningless.

That raises the question conservatives have been rightly asking, but failing to answer satisfactorily: What is the meaning of marriage? I will not dive into such a deep question here. But as I’ve previously written, submitter Graeme Pirie had a worthy answer: the state needn’t care. It can issue “relationship certificates” without defining “marriage”. People can give marriage their own definition and rituals.

Mr Pirie’s submission didn’t touch on polygamy, but it would be easy enough to extend. Unfortunately, that takes us in a full circle. If there are no legal restrictions on state-recognised relationships, then why does the state recognise relationships?

The most obvious answer is in property law, especially in divorce or inheritance. We allow couples to adopt children jointly. When applying to immigrate, having a New Zealand-resident partner helps (though “partner” here is much looser than marriage-equivalents). We place some restrictions on partners too: in disclosure of interest provisions, your partner’s interests count as yours too. There are more: my search for the word “spouse” in public legislative acts got 129 hits.

…or better still, not just lovers?
Those rights feel nice, but it must be said that they too are a violation of equality. It’s true that anyone can enter a relationship, but that misses the point for the same reason that “they can marry someone appropriate” misses the point with gays, polygamy and incest. We shouldn’t be differentiating between people on whom they love—or don’t, as the case may be.

At this point, marriage advocates (gay-loving or otherwise) will say two things. The first is that marriage is important: it founds a basic social unit and provides a stable environment for kids. If that’s the case, people will do it anyway.

The second observation is that people want the rights and responsibilities of relationships. For rights granted by the state, such as immigration, it’s discriminatory to treat them favourably just because they have a partner. It’s similarly unclear why joint adoption should be restricted to romantically involved couples. As for obligations to others, like disclosure of interest, these simply reflect that partners have an interest in each other. Partners aren’t unique in that regard; the principle behind such rules (you’re interested if you have a close association with someone) should be used instead.

That leaves rights and obligations the parties have to each other, e.g. relating to property. There’s nothing stopping them getting them by private contract. The parties would then be free to choose how they want their relationship to be governed. The details need not be the business of the government.

As any marriage equality advocate must have pointed out when defending gay marriage, true equality isn’t just about people having the same legal rights on paper. It’s about respecting how different people achieve self-fulfilment. It’s about being blind to the identity of one’s partner. All I’m saying is that the law should also be blind to how many partners they have and whether they have a partner at all. The only way to do that is for the state not to recognise relationships at all.

When and only when that day comes, we’ll have true marriage equality. For now, marriage still discriminates. Marriage equality proponents should not rest now; there is much more to do. Either that, or they should pick a different label.

Image credit: Dominion Post

On relationship certificates and sarriage

Despite the ridicule, two of the “quirkier” submissions on marriage equality drive straight to the heart of the issue.

Whereas most submitters have argued for and against marriage equality, two have gained a small amount of attention for proposing new solutions altogether. Graeme Pirie advocates for the state just to issue “relationship certificates” instead of marriage licences, and Russell Morrison proposes a new term “sarriage” for same-sex unions. The solutions can seem outlandish at first, but should get credit for being honest attempts to reconcile the differences between the two sides of the debate.

What’s in a name?
What Messrs Pirie and Morrison implicitly observe is that the debate lies only over the use of a single word. The debate is not about tangible rights (such as property and dependants), other than the legislated right to use the term “marriage”. Their solutions seek to sidestep the issue completely, while upholding equality in the tangible rights.

Mr Morrison’s solution is to use a new name, “sarriage”, for same-sex unions. Mr Pirie’s solution is to have the state duck out of the celebratory side, and just issue certificates to couples who want their relationships recognised.

Mr Morrison makes an admirable attempt to satisfy everyone, but he misses the liberals’ main point: that the existence of a different term sanctioned by the state constitutes discrimination. His idea would have made sense if his new word had instead applied to everyone, with “marriage” removed from the statute books. Then he reaches his objective: the proponents get their use of a single term, and opponents get their definition left untouched.

That is, in effect, what Mr Pirie proposed, but his new word is just an existing one: “relationship”. Mr Pirie says that all of the associated religious and cultural rituals “need not be any business of the state”. The state has a “legitimate interest in recording these contracts” (to manage those tangible rights), but this can be achieved without defining words like “marriage”.

So why not?
It appears that select committee members were not so keen. The NZ Herald reports that “committee members said [Mr Pirie’s submission] was an interesting idea, but would not resolve the argument that marriage was a union between a man and woman.”  This misses the point: Mr Pirie’s solution is that the state need not, and should not, concern itself with this argument in the first place.

The most passionate advocates on either side would probably balk at this, feeling that it renders their cause irrelevant. Yet it need not. Other people can engage in discussion on the definition of “marriage” without state attention; the issues involved are fascinating. But there’s no administrative reason why the state should care about what is really just semantics.

The question Mr Pirie’s solution raises is: When groups differ over the most correct use of a word, is it for the state to legislate an answer? Phrased like that, the instinctive response is obviously “no”. But both sides would probably argue that the state must intervene in order to protect the welfare of its citizens, and if that means legislating the meaning of a word, so be it.

Who would win?
To bear out that claim, it’s worth imagining what would happen if the state kept out of marriage and only issued relationship certificates.

Organisations would pretty much be free to, or not to, marry any couple they wanted. (We assume polygamy would remain criminal.) Churches opposed to same-sex marriage would be free not to solemnise them, and individuals would be free to refuse to call them “marriage”. Organisations and people who support gay “marriage” would be free to carry them out. Just like straight couples, it would all be without state backing. All couples, though, would have their “relationship” recognised by the state.

In a nutshell, just like how proponents envisage the situation with state-enforced marriage equality. Most advocates say they wouldn’t force churches to perform same-sex marriages. The desire to defend the theoretical ban on denying the validity of a marriage has been lukewarm at best. All they want is the right for same-sex couples to call themselves “married”. In practice, a Relationships Act would look like a victory for the liberals.

The difference is that gay spouses would not be able to point to statute books to show sceptics that they are “married”. This might diminish rhetorical force a little. Straight couples lose that privilege too, but being uncontested, that’s of little practical effect. A key liberal concern of the status quo is that, by using different terms, the state implies homosexual inferiority. The state can hardly be accused of this when it avoids the topic. It could be accused of not proactively combatting it, but a few words in the statute books aren’t about to sway someone from their religious convictions.

It seems more a loss for conservatives, who have to put up with others calling “married” whomever they want. Conservatives want the state not to redefine marriage. They get that: if the state doesn’t define “marriage”, it certainly doesn’t redefine it. But if the conservative reasoning is that marriage, as the foundation of the family, needs to be “protected” for all, then even allowing other uses of the term would tread on the same concerns.

That seems paternalistic. If the state redefined marriage, conservatives could say it is meddling with an institution that they conceive of in a certain way. The claim becomes toothless with Mr Pirie’s proposal. Their concern for others is kind, but in reality, the welfare-maximising “family” is different for different people. Those in non-traditional structures are, again, unlikely to have their practices swayed by the statute books. Meanwhile, conservatives could continue with their own definition, uphold and even promote the family in their own ways, and rest assured that the state won’t get in the way. A victory as good as one could expect.

It wouldn’t end the debate, of course. In the short term, without reference to an arbiter (the legislature), people would have to become more accepting of others’ opinions on marriage and family. That’s probably a good thing. In the long term, the semantics of that single word would evolve organically. For us to legislatively define the word, it needs somehow to protect citizens’ welfare. Compared to defining it wrong, this is obvious, but compared to not defining it, it rests on the question: would a statutory definition change minds? It is unclear how. Mr Pirie’s proposal deserves more attention.

Can you be simultaneously dismissive and respectful?

Green MP Kevin Hague says all submitters were treated with respect, but admitted that his “feelings” about a teenager’s anti-gay views “would have been obvious”. Do the two statements contradict?

A teenage submitter opposed to gay marriage wrote in a “personal account” that select committee members did not even given her “common courtesy”, accusing Green MP Kevin Hague of being “menacing” to submitters opposed to gay marriage and Labour MP Moana Mackey of “pulling faces”. Grace Carroll’s account seems exaggerated to me, and understandably so—presenting to a select committee is daunting, and it must have felt worse than it really was.

What is fascinating, though, is Mr Hague’s response. Mr Hague doesn’t say he was dismissive of Miss Carroll’s ideas, but it’s obvious that he didn’t even try to understand her perspective. An article on Stuff says he admitted expressing “exasperation”: “I find it offensive. Even more outrageous is her quoting Martin Luther King… I am certain that my feelings would have been made obvious at the time.” Mr Hague clearly saw the submission (which he would have read before the oral presentation) as a foregone conclusion.

Given what she said, it’s easy to see why Mr Hague was dismissive of Miss Carroll. Some may even feel he was justified in being so. But he also says that he “felt all submitters had been treated with respect”. This raises two questions:

1. Can you still be treating someone with respect if you don’t attempt to understand their perspective?

2. Should select committee members put aside their own biases while hearing submissions from the public?

What is respect?
These questions are not simple. As individuals we are all frequently dismissive of others’ opinions and have others be dismissive of ours—but that doesn’t constitute respect. In some cases, disrespect might be justified, particularly if someone is being especially difficult and intolerant. But justified disrespect is still disrespect.

So we take a step back. What does it mean to treat someone with respect?

Respect is one of those concepts we drum into children, but can’t really be explained. Dictionary definitions are approximations at best. One aspect, though, is to treat others how you would want to be treated.

We obviously want our opinions to be taken seriously. Or do we? Is it still a valid thought experiment if the person in question has opinions that are the polar opposite of yours? Even if it is, if you know that your audience strongly disagrees with you, you may not expect to be understood at all—just listened to.

A much lower bar is just not to humiliate them. (Miss Carroll says she was humiliated, but it’s hard to tell without having been there.) This means at least feigning a straight face, and refraining from rolling eyes. Most people would agree that refusing someone a chance to explain themselves by interrupting them mid-sentence (as Miss Carroll accuses Mr Hague of doing) constitutes disrespect. But what if you let them talk, and don’t listen?

The weight of public office
The select committee members are not merely individuals. They are holders of public office, charged with the task of making national legislative decisions. In theory, one might argue, they should approach this task with an open mind to the many views and information available, putting aside their personal biases to make a decision in the national interest, as objectively as they can.

But when we elect our legislators, we elect them exactly because of the opinions they express in their election campaigns. This puts a dagger through Miss Carroll’s argument that the committee “are supposed to represent the whole public”. The Greens (of which Mr Hague is one) were elected to represent those who voted for the Greens, many of whom would eagerly tear apart Miss Carroll without hesitation given the opportunity.

That idea, at its extreme, effectively renders public submissions redundant. If we elect legislators on their opinions, then expect their opinions to rule, what is the point of allowing members of the public to try and change them? The real answer must lie somewhere in the middle. MPs were elected for their core values, so shouldn’t be afraid to stick to them. But they should also lend an ear to what the public has to say. Perhaps the answer is more nuanced: MPs should hear out arguments on the specifics of a policy, but can stop listening if it contradicts their core values.

Just listen
Personally, I think we should always hear out and try to understand contrary opinions even if we find them offensive or outrageous, but more because I think it leads to more informed opinions than because of respect.

The thing about respect is that its meaning depends on who you ask. So any attempt to discuss whether or not Mr Hague was treating “all submitters with respect”, as he claims, collapses to an argument of definition. He is allowed, of course, to find things offensive and to question sharply to tease things out when he thinks the logic doesn’t stack up. What is more questionable is whether he is still showing the respect he claims to be showing when, as a select committee member, as opposed to just disagreeing, he seems uninterested in trying to understand a submitter’s perspective.

Marriage equality: why the attention?

People have been unusually mobilised on marriage equality. What makes this issue different?

The political mobilisation brought about by the marriage equality bill is seldom seen. Social media has been buzzing, more than typical for political issues. We don’t yet know how many submissions were made to the committee, but Campaign for Marriage Equality alone claims to have received over 10,160 submissions via its website to pass on. That’s just one organisation, on one side. I would speculate that the total figure could double that.

For comparison, the Alcohol Reform Bill received 8,822 (including 7,175 form submissions following a template); the bill setting up state asset sales this April received 1,489; legalising prostitution 222; the ultra-fast broadband initiative (one of National’s main 2008 election policies) just 37. People who are normally content to be silent, or to rant only at the dinner table, have somehow been galvanised into action. Is there something about marriage equality that trumps every other issue of the day?

Impact? Not really
The frenzy is hard to explain in terms of importance. On any level, the practical impact of the bill is virtually zero. The marriage rights of heterosexuals aren’t affected. Those of homosexuals, who can already join in civil union with mostly equivalent rights, change only in name (though, arguably, this bill might legalise adoption for them).

Day-to-day lives will not really change. The impact is symbolic rather than consequential. While that doesn’t make the bill unimportant, it’s hard to see how it’s more important than policies that do affect everyday lives: national standards, income tax rates, the rights of defendants or the euro zone crisis, for example.  (While national standards and income tax legislation, passed under urgency, didn’t take public submissions, from what I’ve seen public discussion has been much more active on gay marriage.)  Importance does not correlate with attention.

The simple effect
The better explanation is that the issue is perceived to be simpler than education, justice or economic issues. It takes less work to have an informed opinion because, well, there’s not much to be informed about. Either you think gays should be able to marry, or you don’t. Maybe you’ll refer to equality or tradition, but there’s no real need for evidence-backed premises. No arguments about whether league tables distract schools from teaching, no need for analysis on whether the inquisitorial system is prone to bias against defendants, no complicated economic models weighing up the various effects of austerity.

Whether the issue is actually that simple is of course another question, as I’ve indirectly pointed out before. What matters is that that’s how it’s seen. People are less likely to publish their opinions (all submissions are public) if they’re not confident they can back them. People are less likely to be confident if they know that they don’t know much about the topic.

Assuming our perceptions of complexity are correct, is that a good or a bad thing? It’s good that we have a self-regulating filter to allow informed voices to naturally rise to the top. But the corollary is that people tend not to engage in policies that are more consequential but are seen as more complex. In reality, that’s most topics. Still, for those with little faith in the wisdom of the masses, it’s probably a good thing.

(Photo credit: 3 News)

On marriage equality

Marriage equality is great, but liberals should give conservative arguments more credit.

This post will probably offend you. I’m about to give both sides of the gay marriage debate a fair hearing. This means I think the topic is debatable—and it also means I think public discussion on it’s been a let-down.

The truth is, there are at least some conservatives who have done a decent job of questioning the logic for gay marriage. Liberals are often too dismissive of them. They are right that the arguments, on reflection, don’t quite stack up. But they are wrong to dismiss them as irrelevant or laughable.

Polygamy and incest
The most common objection to legalising gay marriage is that wouldn’t actually achieve marriage equality: polygamy, incest and minors would still be prohibited.

This should not be hard for liberals to answer. Some just say that they would support legalising polygamy and incest. Others draw a distinction by saying that they, unlike gay marriage (but like minors, presumed incapable of consent), carry harms or risks.

But the comparison is not irrelevant, as some liberals claim. The principle used in support of marriage equality has to be consistent for all cases: you can’t just use it only when it’s convenient. Given that the bill legalises none of those things, it’s a fair question to ask.

Nor does it matter if the comparison is insulting. It is not their claim that gays are comparable to polygamy and incest in every respect. It is merely that the principle used—equality—should apply to everything. If you think incest should be treated differently, you have to explain why that overrides equality. It’s not enough just to assert “it’s not the same”.

An arbitrary definition?
That leads into the next challenge. Liberals point out, rightly, that it is not for the state to be arbitrarily limiting the definition of marriage. But conservatives, rightly, counter that restricting marriage to groups of two is still arbitrary. So now everyone’s definition is arbitrary. What gives?

There is no “correct” definition, per se. But there might be a least arbitrary definition.  The two least arbitrary lines are everyone (i.e. consenting groups of any size and composition) and no-one (i.e. the state does not administer marriage). No-one seems to like the latter. As for the former, many liberals don’t hold this line so for the sake of the argument let’s assume it’s also unpalatable—we’ll return to it later—and say we’re trying to find a line in between.

The conservative definition goes like this: marriage is the founding of a family. It then follows that spouses should in principle be capable of adding to that family.

I say “in principle” deliberately. In practice, everyone (including polygamists) could adopt (assuming we allowed it)—but since we ruled out “everyone”, that’s not very helpful. The next arbitrary line, according to conservatives, is groups with members necessary and sufficient, in the ordinary case, to naturally add to a family.

The “necessary and sufficient” part (i.e. one man and one woman) makes sense if you have to draw a line somewhere. The “naturally” part has several logical leaps, most strikingly the appeal to nature fallacy, but it still makes it less arbitrary.

What about the “ordinary case” part? A common liberal objection is that the “nature” part would rule out infertiles. This misses the point: malfunctions aren’t intrinsic to the nature of the physiological composition of the couple.

The line that conservatives propose has problems. Indeed, all lines other than “everyone” and “no-one” suffer from a degree of arbitrariness. But their definition isn’t ludicrous: it’s less arbitrary in the sense that there is an external idea behind it (founding a family). Drawing the line at all groups of two has no such backing.

How liberals should address these challenges
That doesn’t mean that conservatives have the upper hand. It just means that liberals need to do more than scoff at those objections. Some liberals have been engaging well with conservatives, but far too many just label them crazy.

The easiest path is just to meet their challenge: to support marriage for all consenting groups. This should, at a minimum, include polygamy. It should probably include incest (where consensual) too. This satisfies the “less arbitrary line” I talked about earlier. Support for the bill then relies on getting closer to that ideal than the status quo. The more gutsy liberals do this. For some it’s a bit much.

The other route is to explain why those other cases should be ruled out. The case against incest normally holds that there is always a power imbalance between family members that undermines the consent. There’s probably some case against polygamy via the mechanics of romantic relationships, though I’m not sure how it works. One needs to be careful on this route. Showing a harm isn’t necessarily enough to override the right to marriage (people can consent to harms). Either the harm has to be intrinsic and cross some consistent line, or it needs to contradict some other consistent principle.

What liberals shouldn’t do is criticise conservatives for attempting to assert a definition. Once the state recognises marriage, it has to define it—you can’t avoid that. And a definition can’t (in a logical sense) be “wrong”. It can just be better or worse. Therein lies the debate.

It’s easy to get emotional about issues like this. But conservatives are right to point out that gay marriage isn’t a no-brainer. More liberals should be prepared to explore the logic with them. They’ll find it a better strategy for swinging opponents around.