Next spring, Ireland will finally hold a referendum to decide on marriage equality for same-sex couples. For many, this represents the culmination of decades of hard work and advocacy by fearless campaigners fighting for the basic rights of the LGBT+ community. The exclusion of same sex couples from the institution of marriage has been seen, correctly, as the result of prejudice from the privileged elite – and this referendum is viewed by many as a chance to set that straight.
But what effects will this push for marriage equality have on the institution of marriage in the long term, and how will it affect queer relationships?
In order to maintain control over the sexual and romantic freedoms of citizens, states have set up marriage in such a way so as to privilege those who conform to a specific and unthreatening way of forming relationships. So, if you are a straight couple who are in a monogamous relationship, you are legitimate in the eyes of the state and are therefore able to get married. The benefits of being married are lucrative – married couples can avail of tax breaks, have automatic inheritance rights and can adopt a child together.
A common soundbite in the push for marriage equality is that same sex couples deserve to have the same benefits as straight couples. And indeed, they do. However, this is damaging as it contributes to the further legitimisation of marriage in the eyes of citizens. The idea that tax breaks, inheritance rights and adoption rights should be tied to marriage becomes stronger.
Many people view marriage as a coercive tool of the state and so choose not to buy into it.
This is damaging to two groups of people. The first is people who still fall outside what the state deems to be a legitimate relationship. So, for example, people who are involved in polygamous or open relationships are left even further behind. Secondly, it is damaging to people who just don’t want to get married. This may be for practical reasons – they may worry about the stress that comes with getting married, or the possibility of divorce and the societal stigma that still exists around marriage failure. It could also be for ideological reasons – many people view marriage as a coercive tool of the state and so choose not to buy into it. These people are now put into a position where they are further disadvantaged in society compared to their more “normal” peers.
Another rallying cry about marriage equality is that marriage is fundamentally about love, and so denying same-sex couples the right to marry is denying them the ability to profess their love for one another in the same way that straight couples can. This view is again symptomatic of the elite class trying to maintain control of what “love” and “romance” mean.
I am by no means vilifying those who choose to get married, merely saying that benefits will come if we separate love from marriage and realise that we can love our partner or partners fully without subscribing to marriage
Not only did states tie the institution of marriage to material gain, they succeeded in giving it an emotional cache too. So, the couples who are married and are hence the most legitimate in the eyes of the state are also the couples who are seen by society as the most committed and the most loving. We grow up with the belief that getting married is the only way we can cement our love for our partner – all other ways of living are seen as inherently lesser. If I decide that I want to get married to my boyfriend to show how much I love him, it is because I have been exposed to the heteronormative idea that marriage is the fullest, most complete way that I can love him. Even as divorce rates climb higher, marriage is still seen as the “end goal” or the “ideal” for most couples. The state has given same sex couples an emotional stake in buying into the institution of marriage, which as discussed before is harmful for many people. I am by no means vilifying those who choose to get married, merely saying that benefits will come if we separate love from marriage and realise that we can love our partner or partners fully without subscribing to marriage – which has, after all, been used to repress us for years.
The campaign for marriage equality has been well-organised, passionate and, as a gay man who struggled for years with my sexuality, inspiring. What we need to think about in the long term is what it means for the LGBT+ movement when we so readily buy into the institutions that have been used for decades to exclude and oppress us.
Illustration: Naoise Dolan