Why gay marriage is a very bad idea

The gay-marriage juggernaut has nothing to do with liberty, and everything to do with providing the elite with a new moral mission.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Gay marriage: what the hell is that all about? Anyone who asks himself the simple question of how gay marriage came to be a massive talking point in both America and Europe will surely conclude that it is the most surreal political issue of our age. There is no mass campaign for it; historically, gays haven’t been interested in getting married; and according to a recent opinion poll, while 45 per cent of Britons support gay marriage, 78 per cent think that making it legal should not be a parliamentary priority. And yet somehow, seemingly without logic or reason, gay marriage has become the issue of 2012 and is now more hotly debated in commentary circles than just about any other thing on Earth.

Nothing in the gay-marriage debate adds up. Nothing. For example, gay-marriage rights are presented as a radical rallying cry on a par with the struggles for women’s suffrage or black civil rights, and yet they’re enthusiastically backed by such superbly un-radical institutions as The Times, Goldman Sachs and David Cameron. Politicians say they must do ‘the right thing’ on gay marriage, just as earlier politicians eventually did the right thing on giving women the vote, neglecting to mention that there has been absolutely no sustained public agitation, no leaping in front of the Queen’s horse, for the right of gays to get hitched. Self-selected gay spokespeople present this effort as the logical conclusion to their 60-odd years of campaigning for equality, overlooking the fact that a great many gay activists once saw marriage and the family as problems, and demanded recognition of their right to live outside of those institutions.

As I say, nothing in this debate makes sense. This is such a relatively overnight concern, and is so unrooted in political campaigning or historical substance, that it would make as much sense if, tomorrow, every politician and commentator in the land suddenly started talking about how important it is to give women the right to live in treehouses. After all, there are probably some women who want to live in treehouses, and the public might well support their right to do so while also arguing that making it happen should not be a parliamentary priority, so why don’t Cameron and the commentariat make a big deal of that?

Given its surreality, it is remarkable that so many intelligent people are taking the gay-marriage issue at face value, seriously saying ‘Yes, I fully support the enactment of this long-traduced historic right’. What they should be doing is asking why gay marriage is an issue at all and untangling how it came to be a defining battleground in the modern Culture Wars. Because it strikes me that what is happening here is that, under the cover of ‘expanding equality’, we are really witnessing the instinctive consolidation of a new class, of a new political set, which, lacking the familiar moral signposts of the past, has magicked up a non-issue through which it might define itself and its values.

The reason the gay-marriage issue can feel like it came from nowhere, and is now everywhere, is because it is an entirely top-down, elite-driven thing. The true driving force behind it is not any real or publicly manifested hunger amongst homosexual couples to get wed, far less a broader public appetite for the reform of the institution of marriage; rather it is the need of the political and media class for an issue through which to signify its values and advertise its superiority. Gay marriage is not a real issue – it is a cultural signifier, like wearing a pink ribbon to show you care about breast cancer.

For all the attempts to situate the gay-marriage campaign in the history of progressive leaps forward, where it is discussed in the same breath as votes for women or rights for ethnic minorities, it is the differences between gay marriage and those historic events that are most striking. The proposed overhaul of marriage, as set out in the Lib-Con government’s consultation on the issue, is not a response to any properly independent challenge to the status quo. It is not a democratic reform, begrudgingly enacted in response to a democratic demand; it is better understood as voluntary elite tinkering with a traditional institution in the hope of presenting the elite as both daring and caring. It is really not on to doll up such a cynical political exercise in the old language of radical progressive politics.

One of the most striking things about gay marriage is the disparity between mass feeling for the issue (which is best described as weak to non-existent) and elite passion for it (which is intense). All sorts of elite institutions, from political parties to massive corporations, are lining up to back the gay-marriage ’cause’, clearly having sensed that it is the issue through which their kind can now make a display of their sanctity. So not only are old-world, conservative media institutions such as The Times and right-wing parties like the Conservatives declaring their support for gay marriage, so is the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein. He has become a spokesman for one of America’s largest gay-rights group, appearing in its adverts to say ‘I support marriage equality’.

The intervention of Goldman Sachs makes no sense, other than as part of a process of strange and instinctive elite reformulation around this issue. Gay marriage has become the great cleanser of discredited or at-sea institutions, so that even a hated investment bank sees value in signing up for it. What we have here is effectively the formation of a new clique through a handpicked issue. At a time when traditional political dividing lines count for little, and when the old taken-for-granted morality has withered, there is an instinctive feel-around for something, anything, through which moral seriousness and cultural superiority can once again be asserted. And in recent years, gay marriage has become the prime platform for such elite preening.

So it is striking that one Tory-supporting writer argued that it doesn’t matter that the public isn’t massively excited about gay marriage, because ‘true statesmanship does not wait upon referendal permission – a government enacts civilising measures because they are the right thing to do’. Here, an explicit contrast is made between elite sensitivity and mass indifference to apparently important cultural matters. Gay marriage is clearly looked upon as an opportunity to demonstrate ‘true statesmanship’ at a time when other opportunities to do so are few and far between for our aloof rulers.

The transformation of gay marriage into a barometer of moral decency explains why the debate about it is so shot through with censoriousness and condemnation. That is another striking difference between the old genuinely democratic reformers and today’s gay-marriage supporters – where the proper reformers were in favour of openness and debate, the gay-marriage lobby seems far more keen to stifle dissent. As a writer for the Guardian put it, ‘There are some subjects that should be discussed in shades of grey, with acknowledgement of subtleties and cultural differences. Same-sex marriage is not one of those. There is a right answer.’ This is clearly not a political issue as we would once have understood it, where different views clash and compete for support; rather it is more akin to a new religious stricture, where the aim is to distinguish between those who are Good (the elite enthusiasts for gay marriage) and those who Bad (the people who oppose or can’t get excited about it).

Some people will say: so what if the campaign for gay marriage is a bit off and snobbish? At least there will be the byproduct of greater equality, actual ‘marriage rights’, for gay people. But even in its own terms, gay marriage is a bad idea, for many reasons. Primarily because, while it is presented to us as a wonderfully generous act of cultural elevation (of gay couples), it is more importantly a thoughtless act of cultural devaluation (of traditional marriage). An institution entered into by millions of people for quite specific reasons – often, though not always, for the purpose of procreation – is being casually demoted, with the Lib-Con government even proposing that the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ no longer be used in official documents. The overnight Orwellian airbrushing of two such longstanding titles from public records demonstrates the extent to which the elite is willing to ride roughshod over traditional identities in pursuit of its own new identity as gay-friendly and moral.

Now, perhaps you think the institution of marriage should be devalued, that it is stuffy and conservative and in need of an overhaul. Fine. Then argue for that, openly and honestly. But no one benefits from the charade of gay marriage. The fact is that marriage is not simply about co-habitation or partnership; it is not even simply about having an intense relationship. It has historically been about much more – about creating a unit, with its own rules, that is recognised by the state and society as a distinctive union often entered into for the purpose of raising a new generation. Yes, some couples enter into it for other reasons – for companionship, larks, a party or whatever – but we are not talking about individuals’ motives here; we are talking about the meaning of an institution. Collapsing together every human relationship, so that everything from gay love to a Christian couple who want to have five kids is homogenised under the term ‘marriage’, benefits no one. It doesn’t benefit gay couples, whose ‘marriage’ will have little historic depth or meaning, and it doesn’t benefit currently married couples, some of whom may feel a corrosion of their identity.

spiked absolutely supports the right of people to live their lives as they see fit, within or without ‘respectable’ institutions such as marriage and the family, and free from any state interference. But the gay-marriage campaign has nothing to do with liberty and equality. Rather this is a cynical campaign of opportunistic moral grandstanding on the part of the cultural elite, which will end with gays being fobbed off with a pretty meaningless form of ‘marriage’ and married couples simultaneously finding the ancient institution they have signed up to being further drained of meaning. Just say ‘I don’t’ to gay marriage.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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