In Julia Gillard’s first interview since she was deposed as Prime Minister a young boy stood up and asked the question many wanted an answer to – “how come you didn’t let gay people get married?”
The response probably surprised many. Gillard, reflecting on her time as a feminist activist in uni said:
“We weren’t talking about gay marriage as women, as feminists.”
“We were critiquing marriage, and if someone had said to me as a 20-year-old, ‘What about you get into a white dress to symbolise virginity and you get your father to walk you down an aisle and give you away to a man who is waiting at the end of the aisle,’ I would have looked with puzzlement like, ‘What on earth would I do that for?’”
“I think that marriage in our society could play its traditional role and we could come up with other institutions which value partnerships, value love, value lifetime commitment.
“I have a valuable lifetime commitment and haven’t felt the need at any point to make that into a marriage.
“So I know that’s a really different reasoning than most people come at these issues, but that’s my reasoning.”
Cue the outrage. All across social media people screamed “sure, you can critique marriage, but that doesn’t mean you should continue to discriminate against gay people.” “You shouldn’t deny people of their choice to get married.”
To be fair Gillard’s statement potentially stinks of political opportunism. After spending years sucking up to homophobes in the ALP as a way to keep her power base, Gillard has now gone in front of a progressive audience and tried to find a progressive out for her opposition to the reform.
But let’s pretend for a minute the view Gillard presented last night has been her consistent position. Because if we do we can see a very coherent and logical progressive argument against same-sex marriage.
Last night, Gillard took a feminist critique to marriage. You can get examples of the feminist critiques here,here, here, and here (for a starting point). Simply put, feminists argue that marriage is a system based in the patriarchy, built in the oppression of women. Gillard mentioned the white dress and the father giving the daughter away. Sexist symbolism is mixed throughout the ceremony and the system – with many churches still preaching that women must obey their husbands once they get married. Originally this was enshrined with legal discrimination and although most of this discrimination is now gone, many feminists still argue that with its sexist history and symbolism, marriage should still be abolished and instead replaced with new, non-patriarchal systems in its place.
Fine, I hear people say, but if people (and importantly women in this case) want to choose to get married, who are we to stop them? It is here where a queer-critique of same-sex marriage is valuable.
Because whilst we may argue that people should be able to ‘choose to get married’, that choice is not necessarily an active one. Marriage is not just one choice out of many in our society – it is the only acceptable choice when it comes to forming our relationships. Marriage is an expectation that is placed onto us from a young age. It is the only way we are told we can lead a normal and happy life.
And in doing so marriage presents a very limited choice. It is the choice of being in a monogamous two-person relationship and one that is very limited in its design and shape. Our social standards (whether enshrined in the law or not) place significant restrictions on how marriages work – we must live together, be committed to and only have eyes for each other, and we must, to put it honestly, have boring sex with each other. And of course in no circumstances can we can’t talk about that sex!
And it is here where same-sex marriage is problematic. Because if there is one community which has the opportunity to directly challenge many of these assumptions about marriage it is the queer community. Without the capacity to access marriage queers have for a long time been at the forefront of exploring new ideas of relationships and sexualities. We’ve been able to explore the ideas of polyamory, s&m culture, saunas and other public sex venues as well as a range of other forms of relationships and sexual experiences. And without the social pressures of marriage we’ve been able to do all of this a little bit more out in the open. These things happen in the straight community, but often behind closed doors, and certainly with limited open and public discussion.
Same-sex marriage however could change all of that. First it will strengthen the institution of marriage. By bringing more people into the tent, same-sex marriage builds the strength of the institution, making it more difficult to tear it, and it’s patriarchal history, down. This is why so many conservative politicians are now jumping on the marriage bandwagon.
And in doing so it also changes the queer community. We can see this now – queers who are fighting for same-sex marriage are also fighting for the values of monogamy and ‘true love’, as if we are now part of the straight community. As we enter the world of marriage the expectations of marriage are being placed onto us, leaving us weaker in our ability to critique marriage and explore the options beyond it.
Did Julia Gillard’s critique extend this far last night? Well, no, obviously not. But to simply decry a feminist/queer opposition to same-sex marriage as illogical and discriminatory is not worthy of this debate. Same-sex marriage has the capacity to not only strengthen a historically patriarchal institution, but in doing so severely limit the choices and opportunities available to the queer community – potentially much more so than the restriction of marriage does. And if that’s the case, Gillard’s critique is one worth listening too.