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Why Be Married When You Could Be Happy?

As part of the Sydney Writers' Festival, I went to see a panel discussion about whether marriage equality is a distraction from deeper, more complex issues that gay people face and whether it's absolutely necessary to legalise same sex marriage in Australia. Moderated by Annette Shun Wah, the speakers were: Dennis Altman, writer of political discourse and sexual liberation; Jeanette Winterson, acclaimed British author of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit; Benjamin Law, journalist and one of the great, articulate voices of my generation (and no, that is not an oxymoron); and Masha Gessen, Russian-American journalist and author. The panel was called "Why Be Married When You Could Be Happy?", a reference to Jeanette Winterson's latest memoir "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" which in turn was a line that her Pentecostal mother said to her when Jeanette came out as a lesbian at age 16.

As all of the panellists are prominent queer writers, it was a no-brainer that they all agreed that same sex marriage should be legalised as it symbolises equal rights and acceptance. Most of them stated that while marriage isn't personally for them (Benjamin: I would rather get hit by a bus set on fire than get married) they do think LGBT people should have the right to. After briefly outlining that historically, marriage was an economic arrangement to settle property, there was discussion on whether marriage should be something to aspire to as it implies traditional conventions on lifelong monogamy and Masha Gessen argued that institutionalised marriage should not exist in the form as we know it (she has a fascinating model of a family unit which is so confusing I won't even attempt to explain it). Dennis Altman went a step further in his condemnation of marriage, and thinks it marginalises people who don't wish to engage in long term relationships. I looked up one of his articles and his views are summarised as thus:

Is there a danger that homosexuals are parodying an outmoded institution by seeking inclusion in the romantic myth of marriage?... Feminists have long criticised marriage as the institutional basis for male supremacy and restrictive notions of monogamy, and sexual radicals have long denounced marriage as a declining and oppressive institution. The notion of marriage implies a long term commitment to both sexual and emotional commitment. Yet the two are not necessarily synonymous, and most gay men, at least, accept a whole range of sexual adventuring as co-existing with long term partnerships. There seems something hypocritical in the rush to embrace marriage vows, which were designed to restrain any idea that commitment was to be measured entirely by sexual fidelity.

One audience member pointed out that this was a stereotype of gay men but it did lead on to the more controversial topics of polygamy and polyamory. It's interesting because the argument that many religious groups use is that by allowing same-sex marriage, it would open the floodgates to other immoral practices like paedophilia and polygamy. Benjamin quipped "God forbid, I should want the right to marry my fridge!"

Masha Gessen explained a little known fact that same-sex divorce in America is actually a lot more complicated than getting the rights to marry. She separated from her first partner 6 years ago after they married in Massachusetts but since she lives most of the year in Russia, she is legally unable to divorce, even though she has a new family with her current partner. Here's an explanation on the issue, which I think is utterly preposterous.

For you infographic-lovers, here's a wonderful one by the Guardian that someone on the panel mentioned outlining the different same-sex rights allowed in the US. It's a rainbow!! :D

I like Benjamin Law's optimistic view:
In Australia, same sex marriage is inevitable. 80 percent of young Australians between 18 and 24 want to see it happen. (Old people eventually die.)



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 20th, 2012 08:49 am (UTC)
So what do YOU think? :-P
May. 20th, 2012 11:49 am (UTC)
Haha I was going to write my own opinion but the post was getting long enough. :)

Being a child of divorced parents, I obviously have cynical views towards marriage. Sometimes a committed relationship might be perfect for a stage in two peoples lives but as we all know, people change and can steer towards different values and needs and I don't always think it's in everybody's best interests to stay together for the sake of it. (Nor do I think that couples should walk away because of a couple of arguments, for that matter.) I disagree when people like Dennis Altman say that monogamy is a myth because couples who are happily devoted to one partner for a lifetime DO exist but to me it's extremely unrealistic to enforce that ideal upon everybody and judge those who have relationship breakdowns. And it's also unfair to think there's something wrong with someone who is single and getting older, and that marital bliss is the measure of one's happiness.

I have an open mind when it comes to polygamy and polyamory. The former is usually associated with the oppression of women serving the one man, but I've watched and read interviews where all parties involved have mutual respect for each other and seem to run a family quite happily. It's obviously not for everybody but it works for some people and I don't think it should be immediately dismissed as immoral behaviour... unless it's the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints where they brainwash and rape teenage girls and send away all the males so that the men in power can be treated as kings...

I find polyamory pretty fascinating and I do believe it's possible for people to have the capacity to be in love with two people at once.

What are your thoughts? Do you think you and Jenny would have a completely different relationship if you weren't married?

Edited at 2012-05-20 11:56 am (UTC)
May. 20th, 2012 10:35 pm (UTC)
Well, my circumstances betray my thoughts about marriage - if I wasn't in favour I wouldn't have done it. As a long term commitment though, I've seen too many people fall out of love to not be at least a little jaded. Even those who are, looking from the outside in, supposedly happily married might still be sleeping separately behind closed doors. I've noticed Asians in particular tend to keep it together just to save face, even if they hate each others guts. In my life I have only rarely come across old people (70+) who are happily married, and can't think of any off the top of my head. I've also been shocked at friends who have divorced when I never would have guessed in a million years that it would have happen to them.

That said, Jenny and I still believe we can be different - maybe it's just the delusions of youth, that we'll be different and can make it work where others have failed. But it's important for us to believe that. We don't expect our relationship to be easy, and we're continually discussing what we need to do to identify early signs that our relationship might be heading towards failure. Communication is the obvious one. Continually sharing new experienes, so that we'll always have something to communicate about, is a slightly less obvious one. We're committed to finding more.

I dismiss polygamy outright for reasons I may or may not have time to get into later.

Venturing into the somewhat dangerous territory of polyamory (and only under the assumption that it's highly unlikely Jenny will ever read this), I absolutely, utterly believe that it's possible to fall in love more than once. The question is whether you allow yourself to. Marriage is a contract where you promise that you will not, but it is a contiual, conscious struggle - sometimes very difficult - not just something you flick off like a switch. Jenny and I have often discussed my biological impulse as a man to "check out other girls". She understands and accepts this, but it's purely my responsibility to ensure that I never act on these impulses, and the danger is whether one day I'll somehow be able to rationalise having an affair. I'm sure I'm not the only male to have wondered whether I'm fighting against my nature. I don't know of any generally acceptable way for committed couples to handle this - one example I know of: a Christian(!) couple watches porn together as their way of dealing with it. It's not something we would do for good reason, but it'd take a whole other essay to explain why (and it's not simply because "porn = bad, mmmmkay?")

Wow, I really could go on forever about this.

In short: gay marriage - no problems. Marriage is a contract that outlines various socio-economic responsibilities and resulting benefits between two people and nothing to do with how the plumbing works, so the church can get stuffed.
May. 21st, 2012 12:53 pm (UTC)
Hey thanks for being so honest! I'm sure you already know this but I guess what makes it such a tricky issue for women is that when guys have "wandering eyes", it really cuts into the insecurities of their girlfriends/wives and it's easy to doubt one's attractiveness/youth/sexuality when that happens. I'm curious though about what your reaction would be if Jen was the one checking out other guys, or if she was getting attention from men?

I've always said for years that my ideal "marriage" (if I were to choose to come to that) would be to live in separate houses, budget permitting. Maybe not at the beginning, but say a couple of years into the relationship. Sometimes the space apart can just deepen the appreciation more, instead of taking the other for granted. People have pointed out that it shows a lack or fear of intimacy but I think there's also a real danger in depending too much on another person. I'm always critical of relationships where the couple become so insular that they don't have separate identities anymore, and when they break up it's usually cathartic.

May. 22nd, 2012 04:30 am (UTC)
The problem for men is that it's a biological impulse accompanied by a *ahem* firmly *ahem* involuntary response. When I am exercising an effort to maintain mastery over it - by not looking at other women - it is out of love and respect for Jenny. As far as I'm aware there is no gender-reversed version of this - when Jenny says that another guy is "hot" it doesn't automatically imply any desire on her part to have "intimate relations" with him. (I wonder if these attributes still hold for LGBT, but I don't see why not...)

Other people checking either of us out is equally unwelcome for both of us.

As far as insular couples go, the problem "co-dependency" (a bit of info I borrowed from Jenny's counselling course). We should absolutely strive to maintain healthy, separate identities where each of us is a separate, fully-functioning person by ourselves. The flip side is that we also need to spend enough quality time together to develop and nurture the relationship. In your "ideal marriage", your time together might be brief, but of very high quality, so I don't see anything wrong with that. In my experience though, there's an undeniable correlation between time and money - going away on holidays is very high quality time for us (the shared experience is intellectually stimulating and culturally enriching), but we couldn't afford to do that more than once every year or two, so we couldn't feasibly maintain our relationship that way. So the challenge for us is to try and avoid that inward spiral where we collide in a big bang at the end, by having separate friends, hobbies, etc. in addition to the things that we enjoy doing together.

If I were to listen purely to my instincts, I'd say marriage is all a big sham designed to thwart the male biological imperative to propagate the species willy-nilly (obviously more willy than nilly). There's a big long riff here on the question of how society would raise children if marriage didn't exist - particularly in modern society with large, loosely knit communities (compared to the closely-knit communities/family units of the past, who didn't have access to transportation and telecommunications). Probably not something I should get too much into seeing as my lunch break was supposed to have finished a while ago :-P
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )