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Conservative confusion on gay marriage

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In theory, gay marriage is an issue on which the three major streams of Western political thought, social democracy, liberalism, and conservatism, could take different intellectual paths to the the same policy conclusion: that the law ought to allow it.

In Australia, social democratic voices have been loudest in gay marriage’s favour. Social democrats worry about inequality. As the Australian Marriage Equality website puts it:

Instead of sending a message that all Australians are to be treated fairly and equally, regardless of their sexual orientation, the message currently being sent by our federal law is that it is acceptable to exclude lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons from a central social institution and that our relationships are inferior.

In a comment on Jason’s libertarian test post, Steve Edney concisely put the liberal case for gay marriage:

We can talk gay marriage though. Surely letting consenting adults make whatever contracts they like between themselves is more fundamental than whether the government owns even a single public piece of land.

Liberals are less status-conscious than social democrats. What others think is much less important than two people, of whatever gender, simply having the freedom to form the relationships that suit them.

As Andrew Sullivan has long argued, there is also a conservative case for gay marriage:

Legalizing gay marriage would offer homosexuals the same deal society now offers heterosexuals: general social approval and specific legal advantages in exchange for a deeper and harder-to-extract-yourself-from commitment to another human being. Like straight marriage, it would foster social cohesion, emotional security, and economic prudence. Since there’s no reason gays should not be allowed to adopt or be foster parents, it could also help nurture children. … If these arguments sound socially conservative, that’s no accident. It’s one of the richest ironies of our society’s blind spot toward gays that essentially conservative social goals should have the appearance of being so radical.

But while there is clearly intellectual room within conservatism for gay marriage, political space has been much harder to find. President Bush’s constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage and rally the support of conservatives failed in the US Senate last week. The Howard Government is likely to have more luck in the Australian Senate with its quashing of the ACT’s civil union laws.

In The Australian this morning, conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen explained why she doesn’t support gay marriage (though she does support Tasmanian laws giving same-sex couples some rights). After having a go at the social democratic view, she gets to the core conservative concern:

Are same-sex relationships different from traditional marriages? Of course they are. The procreation and nurturing of children in a marriage is a central building block of society. Which is why the state has an interest in keeping married couples together rather than allowing parties to end the relationship in a huffy moment by shooting off a letter to a bureaucrat.[as they can under the ACT law-AN] … let’s face it, the push for gay marriage is the precursor to gay adoption. In Spain, where gay marriage and gay adoption have been sanctioned by the state, the idea of a child having a mother and a father is about to be relegated to the past. …It is an experiment premised on the rights of adults to have a child, not those of a child to have a father and a mother.

But surely it is with children that the conservative case against gay marriage falls over. Children already live with gay parents. In the Private Lives survey of Australian gays and lesbians, 4% of gay men and 16% of lesbians lived with children. If the state has an interest in protecting the stability of relationships where kids are involved, why does this only apply to kids whose carers are straight? As things stand, there is no need to shoot off a letter to a bureaucrat. A partner in a gay relationship can just walk out, legal obligation-free if they are not the natural parent because the law is not keeping them to their moral obligations. Normally conservatives – with good reason – worry about the consequences of kids being raised single-parent families. But they are indifferent to the interests of kids with gay parents. So much for family values.

Perhaps conservatives could argue that while ideally these kids should get the protection of law, gay marriage would ultimately lead to many more such children living in gay households. Personally, I doubt disastrous consequences would flow if this occurred – or at least no more commonly than from the ineffectual parenting of many heterosexuals. But it is not even clear that this is the inevitable result of a change in the law. Of the lesbians in the survey, of those who had been pregnant the vast majority became so via a heterosexual relationship – something they may well have avoided entirely if attitudes toward lesbianism had been more positive. Conservative attidues, at least in the past, may have increased the number of children who ended up living in gay households.

And do we really want the state to get into the business of pre-emptively deciding who is and is not fit to be a parent? After all, if we are concerned about bad parenting, there are far more obvious places to start than the gay community.

The conservative instinct to defend the family is a sound one. It’s a pity that they don’t follow the logic of their own case, and realise that gay marriage is both an endorsement of the institution of marriage generally and a desirable protection for the kids who, through no fault of their own, end up with a gay parent. They should join with social democrats and liberals in supporting the same policy for different reasons.


Written by Admin

June 14, 2006 at 8:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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