Free to Be All That We Are

To mark the Wheeler Centre’s Big Gay Week, Rodney Croome, campaign director of Australian Marriage Equality and an honourary lecturer in Sociology at the University of Tasmania, writes today and tomorrow on marriage and gay men.

Writing against gay marriage in The Australian Literary Review last month, gay academic Dennis Altman had more in common with conservative Christian advocates than he may like to believe. Both are responding negatively to the demand for same-sex marriage because they share the same illusion about what marriage is and who gay men are. In a recent opinion piece Altman described marriage as a single ‘model’, “predicated on particular gender relations, monogamy and the biological link between children and parents” and gay men as engaging in “a whole range of sexual adventuring” that make male same-sex relationships “different” to heterosexual ones.

These words could just as easily have been written by Baptist theologian, Bill Muehlenberg. I should know. He and I co-authored a book about same-sex marriage last year in which we had to respond to each other’s case in detail. For both Altman and Muehlenberg, marriage is still on the cultural pedestal it occupied when they were young, the pedestal whose footing reads “the only way to legitimise love, sex and children, the only way to order the interaction of men and women, the only course our lives should take”. They also both hold to the belief that gay men are natural libertines and that gay male relationships are therefore inherently different.

Of course, where Altman and people like Muehlenberg part ways is how they judge what they perceive to be true about marriage and homosexuality. As a conservative Christian, Muehlenberg wants to shore up marriage’s pedestal and thinks unrestrained sex is immoral. As a sexual liberationist Altman wants to knock marriage down and smash it to bits, and thinks sexual liberation is fundamental to happiness. But from that divergence of opinion arises another convergence; both dislike the idea of gays marrying (although, as a supporter of human rights and legal equality, Altman is not against it). So what exactly have Altman and Muehlenberg mis-judged about marriage and gay men?

Marriage is no longer the cultural monolith it once was. The legal recognition and social acceptance of de facto relationships, civil partnerships and non-conjugal relationships means marriage is now just another way, among others, of sharing one’s life with another person.

The acceptance of childlessness, gender equity and no-fault divorce means there is no longer just one model of marriage. The decision about how to conduct a marriage now firmly in the hands of the partners to that marriage. As Fairfax columnist, Adele Horin, recently observed,

Marriage is more than ever a love match between equals, a primarily personal relationship in which partners maintain a level of independence. They organise their partnership on the basis of personal inclination rather than gender roles, although no one says that battle is won; they value the right to decide whether to have children or not. Is it any wonder that gays and lesbians are saying “Hey, that describes us”?

The general acceptance of Julia Gillard’s childless, de facto relationship is an example of this change.

Muehlenberg might condemn it. Altman may hope it spells the end of the marriage. But most Australians see it for what it really is, two people choosing to do what is right for them. It is precisely this ethos of choice which is behind popular support for marriage equality, especially among the young.

Polls show significantly higher support for same-sex marriage among the under 40s – people I call the Family Law Act Generation because they grew up with cohabitation, divorce and childlessness as legitimate options, and with gender equity a given. It makes no sense to this generation that how and if to be married should be a choice for the majority but not for the minority. Both Altman and Muehlenberg might contend that in the absence of legal incentives and cultural pressure marriage will disappear. But statistics show that marriage rates are actually up, possibly because our greater freedom to marry makes marriage more attractive, not less.

Whatever the reason, the democratising of relationship law has seen traditional marriage shift from being the only legitimate relationship to just one among others. It doesn’t mean marriage is about to disappear any more than religious tolerance in Europe in the eighteenth century brought an end to faith.

When it comes to gay male relationships, the mistake critics like Muehlenberg and Altman make is to see them as sexually exceptional. There is no credible evidence for this, as shown during the landmark gay blood donation case before the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal in 2008.

The case hinged on the question of whether gay men have uniquely different sex lives. To prove its point that gay blood donation would be dangerous, the Red Cross presented a range of studies to prove gay men are more likely to have more sexual partners, less likely to be sexually monogamous in primary relationships, and more likely to engage in risky sexual activity, than other people. The Tribunal dismissed all these studies because they were designed specifically to look at behaviour that poses a high risk of HIV infection in small, unrepresentative samples drawn from gay events, bars and sex venues. Often these samples deliberately excluded men in monogamous relationships.

Researchers like Professor Glen Elder of Vermont University have similar concerns as the Tribunal. He believes, “We have produced a body of literature about homosexual lives that tends toward the ‘exceptional’”. When Elder looked at a broader range of same-sex couples who didn’t congregate in one place and agree to be studied – those registered from across the USA under Vermont’s civil union scheme – he found, “What’s most interesting about this analysis…is the banality of the results. Civil union households simply don’t differ that much from those of the general population”.

The second part of this article will be published tomorrow.

Helen Razer will be speaking Thursday lunchtime at the Wheeler Centre as part of the Lunchbox/Soapbox series. Her topic will be ‘Giving Up on Art’.

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