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Same sex marriage might just strengthen an institution

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I’ve just read of the US Supreme Court’s historic decision upholding a constitutional basis for same sex marriage. The inability to sleep is a terrible curse.

Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinions always delight for their beetroot-faced fulminations. But Clarence Thomas’s reasoning that 1, governments don’t bestow or remove dignity and therefore 2, slaves didn’t have their dignity or humanity removed just because the government supported slavery and therefore 3, no one’s liberty or dignity is lost because of state bans on gay marriage, was an absolute cracker. Come on Clarrie, you just don’t think it’s right for lesbians to rent a tux and get hitched. That’s fine. And you may have a constitutional argument. Or even an aesthetic one, because hired formal wear is hideous. But don’t hide behind mental gymnastics that are 1, best done alone in private, 2, excuse the inexcusable actions of government and 3, debase the real sufferings of the past. Especially when you are doing your darndest to look dignified in black robes, sitting on a polished bench bestowed by the government.

Anyway, it appears sooner or later, for better or worse, Australia too will say “I do” to marriage equality. That is, once the major parties finish squabbling over who gets to be matron of honour.

I can understand why people have their concerns.

When this debate started in earnest some years ago I too felt trepidation. To give one example, it’s important people’s religious beliefs are respected. But as people of faith spoke up in support of marriage equality, I realised we must be careful not to privilege the views of the Church over the views of the Christians.

There’s not one religious viewpoint. In any event the state, which has limited business in people’s personal lives, has no business picking and choosing between those who love their Leviticus and those who’ve moved on. Especially not as a justification for the state defining and confining marriage.

Marriage to me very powerfully felt like someone else’s institution. And why wouldn’t it? It is. Outsiders do feel, well, outside. And no one wants to think they have a pale imitation of what the “in” crowd are up to.

None of this will convince people who oppose gay marriage that any good will come of it. From my perspective, bigotry underpins too many arguments against it. But it’s a mistake and ungenerous to dismiss all concerns as being in that vein. Change worries people – that doesn’t make them bad.

But I don’t believe the world will end if a couple of gays down the street get married. No more than it would if the nice young straight couple across the road get a divorce. There may though be a recovery in the formal hire industry, because gay or straight, some people can’t help themselves went it comes to a rented tux.

For most of its history marriage for women has not been a partnership of legal equals. It is now. Marriage isn’t what it used to be and we are better for it.

Gay marriage, same sex marriage, marriage equality, equal love or equal disappointment, whatever the name, when and if it comes, it will be one of those changes that’s both radical and yet also not.

People are asking to be a part of an institution. At its very core and essence that’s conservative. It puzzles me why marriage equality is characterised as “progressive”. I guess those who are against it see the term as a pejorative, while those who are for it wear it as a cameo brooch of honour. Strange really, when during the ’70s and ’80s so called progressive opinion demanded the oppressive institution of marriage be smashed.

Gay marriage isn’t inevitable, but there’s an idea behind it that is inexorable. Ever since we decided it’s quite nice to live in societies where we are all equal before the law there’s been a struggle to live out that creed.

As Lincoln said while folks were fighting over whether some good ol’ boys down South had the right to own Clarence Thomas’s forebears, “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. Still, we’ve done our best over the years to close the nicest rooms in the house to men without land, to women, to people with disabilities, to people with too many vowels in their surnames , or too many consonants, and to gays. Sometimes the doors have been opened gently, sometimes a brave generation has needed to kick those doors in. But always the house remained standing.

I can’t think of one institution that hasn’t been strengthened by becoming inclusive. Not the judiciary, not parliament, not business, not the military. And not marriage, which has already been transformed enormously. Same sex marriage will be a change, but so was treating the sexes the same. That was a huge change. For most of its history marriage for women has not been a partnership of legal equals. It is now. Marriage isn’t what it used to be and we are better for it.

Time lends perspective. In 1955, the same year co-incidentally current US Chief Justice John Roberts was born, Rosa Parks stood up for herself by sitting down on a segregated bus. She was black and lived in Alabama.

Rosa Parks didn’t change the purpose of a bus. It remains to this day a vehicle in which there’s a good chance of sitting next to someone you don’t want to and not get to where you are going on time. Rosa Parks changed the notion that the colour of her skin precluded her from a seat, while entitling others. The colour of her skin, her beautiful skin. The skin that contained Rosa Parks through this world, as it does us all, being used to limit her chances in it. How odd and sad it looks from this distance.

I don’t know if I’ll get married. Hell, I’m not even sure I’ll be asked. And I know never to ask a question myself if I’m not sure I’ll like the answer. I do know that I don’t like the idea of paying three times the going rate for questionable finger food, just because the word “wedding” was mentioned when booking the venue. I think I’ll look shall we say, chunky, in a tux. I’m not having that.

After 18 years together I know what I have. I never ever thought I’d be this lucky. I don’t need public recognition of that. Neither, I suspect, do many people, whatever the cut of their jib. But I think, on balance, inclusion can make us happier than exclusion. It doesn’t seem to have hurt so far.

Simon Royal is an Adelaide journalist.

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