Why same sex marriage could change marriage for everyone

The real fight about same sex marriage is about to begin, says gay activist Simon Copland, a columnist with the Sydney Star Observer. He is not talking about the fight to legalise same sex marriage. That is a fight he regards as already won – change is only a matter of time.

The “real fight” that Copland says will start soon, in a piece published by SBS, is to change marriage.

Copland, who is in a polyamorous relationship, says, “We are once again about to see a great battle over sex, marriage and economics. A battle about sexual freedom, economic subjugation and the dominance of marriage as a relationship norm.”

The “relationship norms” Copland wants to break down are monogamy and parenting.

He points to divorce rates to suggest that Australian society has rejected lifetime monogamy: “While monogamous marriage still works for many, our society is increasingly questioning whether it should remain as the only option.”

In fact, government surveys show that 97 per cent of Australians favour fidelity in relationships, and while this does not correlate to the Christian ideal as it allows for serial monogamy, it would suggest that society is more conservative than those who take Copland’s views.

Copland raises a fascinating question about the possible impact of gay marriage on gays themselves. “For years now the more promiscuous in the queer community have been told that gays and lesbians need to access marriage so we can ‘queer it up’. The best way to break down these traditions, we’ve been told, is from the inside. But is that really true” he writes. 

“Many marriage equality campaigns have reinforced these conservative traditions. We’ve seen inspirational campaign videos eschewing the linear monogamous tale of marriage, arguments that same-sex marriages are important for the well being of children and activists who have actively rejected the possibility of legal rights for polyamorous relationships in the future.”

Copland is clearly concerned that the gay marriage campaign has promoted a more conservative view of marriage than he supports.

Will legalising gay marriage encourage gay relationships towards something more like traditional marriage? Monogamy? Relationships centred around children?

Or will gays manage to “queer up” marriage?

Copland asks: “The question is where will the newlywed gays and lesbians stand?”

A broader question is what effect “same sex marriage” will have on “marriage” in general. Gay activists like Dennis Altman (a long time Australian activist and author) and Masha Gessen (internationally renowned author) have an ambivalence towards gay marriage. At a Sydney Writers Festival event in 2012 Gessen expressed it this way: “It’s a no-brainer that we should have the right to marriage but equally I think that it is a no brainer that the institute of marriage should not exist.” Like Copland, they believe that their relationships are different to the heterosexual norm.

“One of the things about gay male culture is that it is not a monogamous culture. All the evidence we have suggests that monogamy is a myth. There are many longstanding gay relationships. There are virtually no longstanding monogamous gay relationships,” said Altman.

It is clear there is a vision for gay marriage that involves changing the institution to suit established gay lifestyles. At present, as the battle to legalise same sex marriage gets fiercer, it is possibly a muted voice. 

It is necessary to take into account the thought expressed by the Australian-born British activist Peter Tatchell that there is not one homosexuality, there are homosexualities. In other words the gay community is diverse, and it should be pointed out in fairness that many (but not all) of those campaigning to change not just society’s view but to shift the Christian perspective on same sex marriage will argue for a monogamous version.

Eternity does not know how much support each of the competing visions of same sex marriage has in the gay community, and what effect same sex marriage will have on marriage overall. But it should be noted that the argument, often put by same sex marriage supporters that a change in the definition of marriage won’t affect anybody’s marriage is not necessarily true.

If Copland’s radical vision of gay marriage gains traction, and the link between marriage and monogamy is loosened, then every marriage is affected.