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”.