No dog licence for gay couples

By | February 17, 2008

A friend was filling out the application form at her local gym when she noticed that generous discounts were being offered to “couples”. She’s a thrifty type, and resolutely single, and bristled at the better deal available to her smug married friends.
A few days later she was back at the gym with one of her single girlfriends, whose name was entered on the form under the section marked “partner”. The girls defiantly handed over the joint application with a cheque, almost hoping that their implied status as lesbian lovers might be challenged.
Instead the application was received with such grace that they briefly regretted their fraud. That thought was shortlived as they focused on the unfairness of the financial benefits bestowed upon couples. Why should they have to pay more because they are single? Is singledom so deviant that penalties have to be imposed to persuade them out of spinsterhood?
They spread the word and now anarchy reigns. The place is over-run with discounted couples and the management must be wondering why theirs is the gym du jour for lipstick lesbians. The benefit for “normal” couples has disappeared, since any two people can claim the cheaper membership once they organise a joint direct debit. The deal is a joke, and the gym might as well abolish it.

We are not all individuals, whatever the crowd in Monty Python’s Life of Brian may say (in unison). We start out as members of families, which we eventually leave to form new families. Throughout all societies, this process has two aspects. First, people have an irrepressible desire to stand up in front of their friends and family and formally declare their commitment to each other. No-one really has to get married these days, yet it is as popular as ever.

Marriage rates are almost similar to those of the 1950s. The only reason many people need a divorce is so they can remarry – the supposed triumph of hope over experience.
The second feature of marriage is that by extraordinary consensus across all societies, people want their union formally recognised by civil authorities. Marriage confers significant protection on the parties, be it automatic ownership of the family home, inheritance rights and custody of children. Most countries recognise that a formally recognised family unit is a stabilising force in society.

In free and liberal societies – call them permissive if you wish people still like getting married. One third of births today are outside marriage and I’ve been at several weddings where the couple’s children were in attendance. The order of events might be reversed, but the institution is still attractive even when not strictly necessary.
Despite the solidity of that institution, conservatives fret that marriage is under attack. From whom, and where, I can never quite gather. Those who feel that marriage needs defending lost the war on divorce but have found a new battle-ground – same-sex marriage.
There is general agreement that same-sex couples face considerable injustice. Though a homosexual couple can live together for 40 years, they face unfair financial hardship when one partner dies, since they are legally strangers without inheritance rights. That’s just one scenario which has convinced most compassionate people that something has to be done to make life easier for same-sex couples. The tax system aside, same-sex couples want to marry for the same reasons as straight ones – to have their deeply committed relationship formally recognised.
Irish law acknowledges equality for homosexuals as individuals. We’ve set up an Equality Authority to enforce equal rights and an Equality Tribunal to which homosexuals can complain if they suffer discrimination. While the state wants homosexuals to be equal as individuals, for some reason it is hostile to equality once those individuals become a couple. It’s simply not a tenable position and changes are afoot.
But what changes, exactly? There are really only two reasons to deny gay people marriage. The first is the “ick factor” – the inability of those who consider themselves “normal” to get their heads around two men or two women walking down an aisle. Ick.
The second is the fear of annoying highly articulate and organised conservatives. Brian Lenihan, the justice minister, has predicted that a referendum on gay marriage would be divisive. Because we don’t actually need a referendum, his warning seemed a subtle threat to homosexuals not to stir up the right wingers.
To save us a row, and because we feel a bit icky about which is the bride and which the groom, gay couples are being offered a “civil partnership”. It wouldn’t be a marriage as such, more a mechanism by which cohabiting, same-sex couples could register their relationship and then avail of tax benefits. Senator David Norris, who so bravely fought for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, has called the proposal nothing more than a dog licence for gays.
The government obviously feels that the dog licence route will be less trouble than allowing same-sex couples a proper marriage. Perhaps they hope it will keep the gays quiet without upsetting the conservatives too much.
The logic of this position escapes me. If civil partnership is made available to same-sex couples, it’s an inevitability that other kinds of couples will have to be allowed register their partnerships too. That means that straight couples could become civil partners, even though they also have the option of getting married.
In the UK a case has emerged in which a cohabiting brother and sister wish to become civil partners in order to alleviate the burden of inheritance tax. My spinster friend and her gym partner could also chose to become civil partners, if the management suddenly get stroppy. The benefits conferred upon properly married couples would, like the gym discount, become meaningless as all forms of partnership would be recognised.
So conservatives shouldn’t agree to a half-baked civil partnership concession. Those who wish to defend the institution of marriage should instead argue that gay couples be entitled to nothing less than full marriage equality. Spain, which has a Catholic heritage as strong as ours, recently introduced gay marriage for these reasons. Marriage should be all or nothing. Since something must be done for same-sex couples then it has to be all – a proper marriage – not the dog licence.
Norris is joining a new campaign, MarriagEquality, which launches tomorrow. I’m looking forward to watching opponents explain why homosexuals are entitled to equality before the law in everything except marriage. Watch them try not to say “Ick”.

16 thoughts on “No dog licence for gay couples

  1. Dan Sullivan

    On the first point gyms really don’t care about, they operate on the basis that the vast majority of people who sign up don’t end up using the facilities much at all so roping in another cash cow even with a discount means they are going to be up on the deal.

    On the substantive point I’m inclined to believe that the state should get out of the marriage business altogether and treat all those involved as contractees and let them sign up for whatever they want. What is currently a civil or registry office marriage as it stands would be available to all adults but provided there is a reasonable contract termination system then I’m throwing it open to all. Group contracts, time defined relationships, you must wear red stockings on alternating Saturdays, whatever ya fancy. Those involved are adults it is up to them to think about things before signing on the dotted line. The state should not be involved in the enforcement of what goes on in human relationships. If you want to be in a relationship with someone for 5 years and a day, with an option to renew then be my guest. Sure it’s not marriage but it is a mutually agreed contract. If you want God to recognise your relationship use a church.

    What I simply can’t stand are those people (not same-sex) who are living together who want the rights and benefits of being married and making a commitment but can’t be bothered to sign a piece of paper to get or to take on any responsibilities in order to get them. Feck ’em.

  2. Stephen

    Just for the record, Enda Kenny has said on a number of occasions that he is utterly opposed to same-sex marriage. Yet another issue on which you and Fine Gael differ, Sarah, and yet another reason why I can’t understand why you support that party.

  3. Joe

    @Stephen Fine Gael has been proposing civil partnerships since 2002 that would lump same-sex couples in with brothers and sisters etc.

    I’m more of the opinion that same-sex couples should get the same rights as civil marriage (even if it isn’t called marriage). There are already provisions in family and tax law for brothers and sisters to inherit property and it’s only a distraction to mix the two issues. They may seem similar at first but ask yourself this – can you be married and in a civil partnership at the same time?

  4. Dan Sullivan

    Stephen, another case of blaming the folks who aren’t in government for government inaction. Way to get them off the hook!

  5. Rob Hickey

    ‘Couples have more rights then me’, ‘why do I have to pay more tax’ blah blah blah.

    Couples have had it too good for too long in this country. Why do couples get TWO votes when I only get one?

    Thank God there are others out there like me, fighting the singlest cause.

  6. Sarah Post author

    “spinster friend” – you have to picture my sardonic smile as I write that…

  7. Pete

    Ask yourself – why does marriage have a legal element?
    Why isn’t it just a private arrangement?
    Why are married people treated differently for all sorts of legal and tax purposes?
    Why is the State involved at all?
    Why is marriage nominally “until death do us part”, rather than just a short fixed-term arrangement as Dan suggested?

    The answer is one word. Children.

    Male/Female couples often produce children. Those children have to be cared for and supported, not for a short term, but for many, many years. If the couple who produced them don’t do it, the State has to. If the couple do do it, traditionally of them will be the breadwinner and the other one the childminder, leaving the childminder totally dependant on the breadwinner.

    So, the State has arranged the legal elements of marriage (and divorce) to try and provide a stable environment whereby children and childminders will be provided for, and not become a burden on the State.

    Same-sex couples will not produce children, therefore there is no reason for the State to be involved in their relationships.

    I’m familiar with the arguments about inheritance rights and so on for same-sex couples, but that’s not the State’s problem. I repeat – the only reason the State is involved in marriage at all is to protect children and those who care for them. No children – no State.

  8. Graham

    If the only reason the state should be involved in marriage is for the purpose of reproduction, then what about traditional couples who don’t, or indeed can’t, have children. Should there be a time constraint whereby a married couple must produce a child to still enjoy the benefits of marriage?

    I would previously have been in favour of civil partnerships, but as Sarah has rightly pointed out, it should be all or nothing. Civil partnerships would do more harm to marriage than allowing same sex couples to marry.

  9. Pete

    >Should there be a time constraint whereby a married couple must produce a child to still enjoy the benefits of marriage?

    No, because that would be incompatible with the “until death do us part” ethos of marriage.
    Also, traditionally, women gave up their job once they married (by law, in the case of the civil service), so they had to be provided for wether they had children or not.
    Also, the majority of married couples do have children, so providing lifelong marital benefits to the minority who do not is not a significant burden on the State.

    I realise that the the “traditional” conditions under which the laws of marriage evolved have changed considerably, and so there may be good reasons to change them. But that doesn’t change my belief that, without the possibility of children to be cared and provided for, there is no reason for the State to be involved.

    As an aside, same-sex female couples may soon be able to have (female) children. In a experiment a couple of years ago, it proved quite easy for one egg to fertilize another egg in a test tube, no sperm involved. Now that really will shake up the laws of marriage, and lots of other stuff!

  10. Niall

    I’ll agree to gay marriage the minute somebody makes a case for traditional legal conception of marriage. I’m sick and tired of people trying to forward their own social agendas through the law.

  11. Ray

    “So, the State has arranged the legal elements of marriage (and divorce) to try and provide a stable environment whereby children and childminders will be provided for, and not become a burden on the State.”

    Okay, fine. So when two people have a kid, the State can step in and offer supports for that relationship. If they don’t have any kids, the State stays out. Couples with kids get tax breaks, inheritance breaks, etc etc and blah de blah, couples without kids don’t. Hetero couples who can’t or won’t reproduce don’t get any special treatment, gay couples who have kids (through second marriages, adoption, IVF…) get all the support the state can offer.

    We can all agree on that, right?

  12. Pete

    Actually, that sounds pretty good, although there would be lots of details to iron out, like what happens if a couple have a child and the child dies? And what happens if someone has children with more than one partner? What happens if one parent dies and the other parent forms another relationship?
    But in principle, the idea of automatically regarding a couple as legally married once they have a child quite appeals to me, much better than spending a fortune just to wear uncomfortable clothes for a day.

  13. JC Skinner

    Civil unions offer all the same legal benefits as marriage to gay couples. The only debate here is whether or not gay unions can co-opt the term marriage for their unions.
    I feel that this is a landgrab of language, personally. And I think it is time that the gay marriage lobby quit being disingenuous about it.
    If civil unions offer the same legal benefits, and given that churches in general do not offer marriage services for gay couples, obviously this is little more than a provocative affront to religious conservatives.
    It’s time the gay marriage lobby explained this linguistic landgrab and quit trying to depict this in terms of equality. The equality is already underwritten in civil unions.

  14. Ray

    The problem is, marriage is a civil institution, not just a religious one. I didn’t get married in a church, but the state says I did get married. Why can’t my gay friends do the same?

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