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Gay marriage – the mythical threat to traditional marriage August 3, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Liberalism v Conservativism, Society.
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Conservatives and religious fundamentalists have long argued that gay marriage would threaten traditional marriage. Now any reasonable person would find that claim to be ridiculous and baseless. It is simply not rational to suggest that gay marriage is in any way linked to divorce or the decline of marriage rates. All it takes is to ask a married person: if gay marriage had been legalized before you got your traditional marriage, would you have gotten a gay marriage instead? It seems that the only way gay marriage would threaten heterosexual marriage is if we assume that all men were really gay in secret.


But conservatives have also been known to make a slight variation of the above argument: gay marriage threatens traditional marriage because it deprives the term “marriage” of its fundamental meaning. But what really is the fundamental definition of marriage, and who are these conservatives to imply that there can only be one correct meaning for “marriage”, which conveniently happens to be theirs?


Legally speaking, a marriage is a partnership. It gives spouses certain rights and responsibilities, such as responsibilities for child care, tax deduction benefits, the power to make decisions about a partner’s medical care and legal rights to a partner’s estate and property upon his or her death. But above and beyond the legal aspect of this partnership, individuals and couples also attach their own meanings and symbolism to marriage. Depending on the people involved, marriage may mean anything from a sacred union, to a public proclamation of love and commitment, to a ritualized rite of passage, to an act of resigned compliance with social norms and expectations. Personal meanings and symbolisms are just that: personal. There is no reason why a same-sex marriage would have any effect on one’s own heterosexual marriage, or change one’s own definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.


The problem arises when people seek to impose their own definition of what a marriage is onto others. It takes a judgmental, self righteous person to suggest that other people’s definition of marriage has any bearing on his or her owns’. Take for example the all too common “functionalist” argument that gays shouldn’t get married because a marriage has the practical function of providing a stable and convenient environment for child rearing, and therefore gay marriage would be pointless. But by doing so, are they not implying that married couples who are childless (by choice or otherwise) do not meet their functional definition of a marriage, and therefore have a less meaningful relationship than couples who are married with children?


It is not reasonable to dismiss the emotional significance of a marriage simply because the couple is unable or unwilling to fulfill the practical functions of a marriage as prescribed by someone else. In fact, as a straight unmarried woman, I would be incredibly put off the notion of marriage if self righteous conservatives tried to impose their own definitions of marriage as an institution for procreation onto me.


Another (more troubling) example would be the argument that marriage is a religious institution and that gay marriage would be contrary to their religious values. Aside from the obviously false premise that marriage is a historically religious institution (It isn’t; marriage predates religion. It is a human institution adopted by religions), such an argument is also religion centric, unsuitable for a secular state and a secular contract. If one were to argue that gays shouldn’t take part in the holy, religious institution that is marriage, then shouldn’t one also argue against atheists, agnostics and freethinkers getting married? How about banning pagans, fornicators or divorcees from getting married too?


One crucial fact that proponents of such arguments ignore is that there are in effect two types of marriage: civil marriage and religious marriage. It is possible to have both; the civil marriage which is validated by signing a certificate of marriage, and a religious marriage conducted by a pastor in a religious ceremony. Religious marriages may make a couple married “in the eyes of god”, but only a civil marriage is recognized in the eyes of the state. A religious marriage is something people get on top of what is effectively a secular, legal contract, which is necessary if they wish to enjoy the rights and benefits of a legally married couple.


Religions have every right not to recognize gay marriages, but they have absolutely no right to dictate whether or not a secular, civil marriage between gays should be recognized by the state. As long as we live in a secular state, religious explanations have no place in arguments regarding legal contracts such as marriage. A secular government should not be involved in discussions about the sanctity or holiness of marriage, simply because it is only concerned with marriage as a legal contract.


If we unravel the nonsensical claims made by the defenders of traditional marriage, what we will find is a group of people too afraid to admit their true motives, that is, because of their own moral misgivings about gay marriage, they seek nothing more than to control other people’s lives. In other words, they are essentially arguing that “gay marriage shouldn’t be allowed because it goes against my values and is contrary to my definition of marriage.” Until conservatives can prove that allowing same-sex marriages actually causes harm to those outside the marriage, their protests remain as poorly disguised attempts to support discrimination based on sexual orientation, and as merely another means to control the minority by denying them something which is available to everyone else.



1. Lee Chee Wai - August 3, 2009

I think part of the problem is how overloaded the word “marriage” has become. As I understand it, far fewer people have issues with “civil union”.

All that needs to be done then is to have a legal framework to consider the application for all legal partnerships to be called a “civil union”, whether or not it is a traditional marriage or a partnership between 2 people. This should include divorce/separation etc. Of course, hardcore opponents will not allow even this to happen. These bigoted views would have to be slowly eliminated.

I’ve cringed many times before listening to the words uttered in the exchange of vows at my friends’ weddings … that the wife’s duty is to serve the husband. I do not recall any exchange of vows that involved the union of two equal individuals.

2. laïcité - August 3, 2009

I totally understand, Chee Wai. Even as a straight person I would much rather have a civil union – it doesn’t have all the ugly connotations of ownership and whatnot. But we can’t deny that even if a civil union and a marriage were to have all the same legal benefits, the word “marriage” as almost an air of grandeur to it. It carries cultural and social value. (Think: this is my partner vs this is my husband/wife)

There is no good reason why we should give “marriage” and its perceived superiority to a civil union, to religions, simply because the religious conservatives wish to make a big fuss over claiming what was originally secular in the first place. As an atheist, I do see why I should be made to get a “civil union” instead of a “marriage” simply because the religionists have hijacked the term “marriage”.

Perhaps it should be the other way round. Invent a term for religious marriage and let religions have jurisdiction over dictating who is and isn’t fit enought to be religious-married.

3. Yarnspnr - August 3, 2009

Okay, first of all you must realize who/what it is you’re dealing with. Religious fundamentalists are who they are and say the things they say because of their strong beliefs. Beliefs that have been passed down from father to son and so on for ages. It is doubtful that any of them even know from whom their beliefs started. (Usually the make a claim that some deity told someone who told someone and so on. You don’t change the minds of people with strong beliefs by ranting at them. All you end up with is two radios facing each other with their volume turned way up. The result is that neither can hear the other.

The only way to change people like this is to educate them. And that won’t happen until they meet someone they trust. Then, maybe, that person can change their views on what is actually factual. It’s a rough row to hoe. Remember, these same people believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old, that a woman talked to a snake, that there was a flood that covered the entire world, and so on.

But when you deal with them, get them to agree that neither of you will scream, yell, shout names, etc. This does neither of you any good. Speak to them with facts, not beliefs. Find out where their beliefs come from (for instance, if they say the Bible, find out which chapter. Find out who they believe who wrote that chapter. Then ask for positive proof that what they believe is fact. Good Luck.

The attacks on gay marriage will end because the Supreme Court will eventually say it’s unconstitutional to disallow it. Then that will be that. It takes time. Remember, the push for interracial marriage started in 1957 but didn’t take hold until 1967.

4. jennifertimes - August 3, 2009


I agree with all of that.
I have simply fleshed out some of my views in the first blog post I have made.
Check it out.

5. xtrocious - August 4, 2009

A very well written piece :)

A similar argument can be said for gay sex – why should what consensual adult males do behind their closed doors be a concern to one and sundry?

Again, we find that it is largely personal (religious) – against someone’s values and norms blah blah blah…

6. laïcité - August 4, 2009

xtrocious, yes i agree, it seems so simple and obvious to us that fundies keep making the same religion based arguments over and over again. But sometimes i wonder if Yarnspnr is right and it really is impossible to get through to fundamentalists with arguments concerning liberalism, tolerance etc.

Is it even reasonable to expect such people – people who believe that they have the monopoly on Truth, people who believe that their god and their religion is above the state, people who see things in strict black and white, good and evil, virtue and sin – to even understand the concepts of secularism and liberalism?

7. Yarnspnr - August 5, 2009

Well, laïcité, in answer all you need do is look at the Amish. I lived in the middle of them for many years. They still wear buttons on their clothing, no snaps or zippers. They don’t own cars. When they have to move their crops to market they get others to drive it. They have no tractors, use only horse drawn plows, have no electricity in their homes. This is all because of their beliefs. You’d think as generations pass, this religion would have died out by now. They lose some children each year to progress, but many stay in their communities and the Amish are as strong as they were 200 years ago. They remain plain. So the answer is when you’re dealing with strong, heart felt and traditional beliefs, little progress can be made even when the facts are on your side. Remember, we live in a nation where 45% of the people still believe in creationism. It’s difficult to reach these individuals because most discussions turn into idealistic arguments. Once people get their backs up, it’s over. But also, once people DO change they rarely go back.

8. Donaldson Tan - August 8, 2009

Our laws proclaim marriage as a secular institution in Singapore. Priests can ordain marriage because they derive their authority to do so from the Government, not divine authority. The Government allows registered priests to ordain marriage because local communities in Singapore want it to be so. There is no such thing as the recognition of divine authority for marriages in Singapore.

9. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup: Week 32 - August 8, 2009

[…] Issues – Laïcité: Gay marriage – the mythical threat to traditional marriage – Sam’s thoughts: Being Straight Singaporean and Grateful – Used Brains For Sale: Sayoni […]

10. AF - August 12, 2009

Well said. An excellent post describing the ridiculous claims of religious conservatives on this and so many other issues. They have a perfect right to believe whatever they wish, but they have NO right whatsoever to tell others in a secular society how they should behave if the behaviour doesn’t transgress the laws of that secular society.

On a lighter note – a description of marriage? The contract that two people (of any sex or sexes) can enter into at a secular or religious ceremony and by which those people, who were probably in love and may have lived happily together for years, screw it all up and agree to argue pointlessly about almost everything for the rest of their lives.

To put it another way: THAT is what the conservatives don’t like! The thought that the institution they deemed as so important that they threw away their former happiness for it is perhaps not quite so special as they once believed.

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