France and gay marriage

Earlier this week, the long and fractious debate in France about “mariage pour tous” finally came to an end when the new law was ratified. Gay civil marriage in that country will soon be permitted. It’s been a tough ride. French society is pretty much split down the middle on the issue, and although support has grown over time, at least a third of French citizens are vehemently opposed.

France has for some time had the equivalent of British civil partnerships (called the civil solidarity pact, about as French a name for an institution as it’s possible to imagine), with the major difference that these arrangements are also open to straight couples. But marriage is a special institution in France, bringing with it a raft of rights and privileges, especially over money and property, that are not available to civil unions.

But above all, French marriage is about children. When I got married in France, notwithstanding that neither I nor my partner had the slightest intention of bringing any children into the world, and quite possibly not the means, either, most of the ceremony was about bringing children up, and the responsibilities of parenthood. The marriage certificate is contained in a dinky little book entitled “le livre de la famille” with special pages in which we could enter the details of our sprogs. To be honest, it reminded me of nothing more than the service history you get in the book that comes with a new car. Have a child, get your log-book stamped.

So in France, marriage is to do with children, and this is what has caused so much heartache and controversy. The right of gay couples to live together in legal union is not really at issue. What is at issue is that marriage brings with it the legal right to adopt children, and to seek “artificial” means to conceive them. I put that word in inverted commas because its meaning has become pejorative, but I mean it here in its original and literal sense: that artifice has to be used because the usual biological mechanism is not available.

As those who’ve read my blog before will know, I’m a supporter of gay marriage. In a secular society, it is no argument to say that God forbids or disapproves of gay relationships, even if He does, which I very much doubt. France has long celebrated and jealously guarded its secular constitution. All marriages in France are secular, and the church has no part to play in the legal process of marrying. For sure couples can, and often do, rush smartly from the mairie to the church, car horns blaring, to have their secular marriage blessed by the curé.

So in France there isn’t the problem that’s created in England by the fact of the established church, with its priests as authorized as secular registrars to perform the legals at a marriage. I’ve argued here before that if we could have a fully secularised version of marriage, then the arguments of the church in particular, and Christians in general, that gay marriage is an oxymoron, would fall away. In effect, I’ve been arguing that the position in Britain should be the same as that which already pertains in France. I believed that this clear separation between the secular and the sacred would make gay marriage an uncontroversial issue. Well, I’ve rarely been so wrong. The opponents of gay marriage in France have been involved in violent protest (albeit violence that has been disowned by moderate opponents) and if anything emotions run higher there than here.

No, it’s not gay relationships that are really at issue: it’s all about children. And I fear this is a much more thorny question. It’s easy to dismiss the opponents of the legal recognition of gay relationships as simply homophobic. Many of them are sincerely of the view that God’s disapproval is the basic issue, and that active gay relationships are sinful and that’s all there is to it. Regardless of their sincerity, this fundamentally religious objection to gay marriage is illegitimate in a society where only a small minority are actively religious. Even as a person of faith myself, I can see that this argument is irrefutable.

But the issue of children is more difficult. If someone argues that adoption by same sex couples, or the artificial conception of children for the benefit of same sex couples, is wrong because it’s against some God-given rule, then that is easily dismissed in the same way as the argument against gay marriage in principle. But that’s not what a lot of French society is arguing. The argument is about whether it’s in the best interests of children to be brought up in a same-sex family. Even more fundamentally, it’s about whether it’s right to procure children specifically in order to satisfy the wishes of same sex couples to have offspring. You do not have to be homophobic to ask that question. I have the same problem with surrogacy in general, as much for heterosexual couples as for homosexual ones. My concern is about the use of children to satisfy the desires of adults, when those children have no possibility of choice in the matter.

It’s a great pity that all these things have got so mixed up and intertwined. It’s unhelpful to try and unpick these difficult and complex matters by the use of name-calling. Because I have serious concerns about the issues of children and family life, that does not make me a homophobe. I am crystal clear that people of the same sex should be able to get married. I am not remotely as clear that this should automatically include the right to adoption or surrogacy. Maybe it should. But I’ll not be dragooned into agreeing that that’s the case merely on pain of being insulted.

Once more unto the breach for gay marriage

Do please forgive me if I’m boring you, because I know I’ve written on this subject twice before. To be honest, even I don’t think that gay marriage is up there with environmental degradation and nuclear proliferation in the pantheon of things we should be most urgently fretting about, but the issue does seem to have an extraordinary ability to part people on all sides from any sense of proportion, or indeed, of any sense of sense.

For those who believe simply that gay marriage is an abomination in the eyes of Almighty God, and then leave it at that, I have some respect even if no scintilla of agreement. But the opponents of gay marriage seem far too embarrassed just to leave it at that, and instead feel constrained to make up all sorts of other spurious and, frankly, scaremongering additional objections. None of them, it seems to me, stand up to scrutiny.

So here’s a canter through some of the most often advanced additional reasons, beyond that of God’s personal displeasure, and why they make little or no sense.

  • That gay marriage will somehow make it impossible to bring children up properly in future. Aside from the rather obvious point that we don’t seem, as a society, to be doing a very good job of bringing up children properly now anyway, without gay marriage, this seems the strawriest of straw men. How exactly will the fact that some gay men and women are married impact on how I bring up my children in my heterosexual marriage? Will it be the embarrassment of having to explain these same-sex couples to my children during the supermarket run? If avoiding parental embarrassment were central to successful child-rearing, then sex education would disappear overnight. Insofar as this argument has any coherent basis, it generally seems to be something to do with making it more likely that the off-spring of unsuccessful heterosexual relationships will find themselves coerced into gay ones. Well, if that’s so bad, it happens now anyway. How will being coerced into a gay marriage be any more damaging than coercion into a gay civil partnership? The same argument applies to gay couples adopting. If it’s so wicked, why will it be more wicked if the couple is married?
  • That society is founded on marriage between a man and a woman, and to extend the concept to gay couples will knock society’s struts from under it. I happen to be a supporter of marriage (now – I haven’t always been) but if too few marriages are threatening society’s cohesion, I should have thought that adding more marriages would be a good thing. I fail entirely to see how permitting gay marriage would undermine heterosexual marriage. As a heterosexual married man, why would the sight of gay married men, for example, make me more likely to be unfaithful, or to abuse my wife? Were I to be tempted to gay unfaithfulness, then perhaps the knowledge that I was also threatening someone’s marriage might give me greater pause. Hang on, I’m starting to give this notion more credibility than it deserves. I’m not tempted to gay unfaithfulness largely because I’m not gay.
  • That it’s OK to have heterosexual marriage, and gay civil partnerships, but calling them all marriage will cause the heavens to fall. I rather doubt it. But the fear that it may do is based on an old misunderstanding – that equality between things is tantamount to saying that they are the same thing. That’s not true. To say that gay people and heterosexuals are equal in being married is not to suggest that gay relationships and heterosexual relationships have mysteriously become the same thing. A pound of carrots is equal to a pound of potatoes, but carrots are not potatoes. Gay and heterosexual marriages would be equal, but not the same.
  • That allowing gay marriage is simply a giving-in to selfish demands for the indulging and normalising of sexual perversion. This is the crux, actually. This is why the opponents of gay marriage are so vulnerable to the charge that they are simply homophobic. Once the legitimacy of gay sexual attraction is conceded, then all the other objections melt away. No less an authority on the subject of sexual desire than St Paul himself accepted that it is better to marry than to burn.

Thus there are only two real objections to gay marriage, and they are often merged together. God is implacably opposed to it, and/or homosexuality is a filthy perversion anyway. Either or both of those is an honest position to take. If you believe those things, say so and be damned. But don’t witter on about society, bringing up children, or changing what has always hitherto been understood as the nature of marriage. Just stick to your guns, and I’ll stick to mine.

Back to the thorny issue of gay marriage

I’ve cantered over this obstacle-strewn course before, and came out firmly in favour of gay marriage. So you might wonder why I’m not joining in the predictable chorus of “how awful” that’s erupted since Charles Moore’s Telegraph piece on David Cameron’s commitment to enabling gay marriages that he unveiled at the recent Tory party conference.

In part that’s simply because I rarely join in how awful choruses no matter what it is that’s so awful. I have a general distaste for this kind of intellectual collective bargaining, in which one’s condemnation or enthusiasm seems to have more to do with maintaining popularity amongst one’s friends, and proving one’s ideological purity, than it has to do with what one actually thinks, or with an argument one has personally constructed and been convinced by. And, because ideological purity (well, intellectual consistency, anyway), and the admiration of my friends, are no less important to me than to anyone else, I should of course point out that I am no natural soul-mate of Charles Moore. Nor should it be necessary to state that I don’t agree with him.

But rather than simply keep my membership of the liberal, gay-friendly elite intact by a blanket condemnation and general call for Mr Moore to be burnt at the stake as a heretic and enemy of the people, I thought I’d take the quaint and old-fashioned path of actually saying why I disagree with him, and where (I take my life in my hands) I in fact think he’s absolutely right. Those of a delicate constitution might like to take a moment to steady themselves, perhaps to take some deep but slow and calming breaths, as the shock of this last statement seeps in. Shall we proceed?

Charles Moore’s elegant arguments about the long and central history of marriage as between men and women, and civilisation’s dependence on that history for its health, are of course not that simple to make. This is more a projection backwards onto history than it is a derivation from history. But that is mostly an error of hyperbole. It is undoubtedly true that the recent cultural history of our society has made these very assumptions, and that to expand the concept of marriage to gay relationships is indeed a radical departure. In itself that is no argument at all for not making that departure, but it is an argument for thinking the change through with care.

The real problem with Charles Moore’s piece is contained in that very word, “real”. As he builds up his arguments, from history, from coalition politics, from cultural change, it suddenly all goes pear-shaped. The veil of sophistication slips momentarily to reveal the truth: that Charles Moore starts and ends from prejudice. He cunningly connects the gay marriage debate with the furore over the Human Rights Act and the Bolivian cat (actually, I think the cat was English) whose ménage à trois with two men was adjudged to constitute “family life”, or so Theresa May would have had us believe. Charles Moore, in considering this, casually contrasts this cat-based domestic arrangement with “a real family life – marriage, children, that sort of thing”. Ah. I see.

Charles Moore is wrong. But he’s not wrong to point out that what some people want is not a sufficient argument in itself for letting them have it. Society has to make a judgement about what we collectively think is best for our common health. He is right to make the case that sometimes this will mean that some sections of society will not get what they want. I’ve no idea if there is really much Muslim enthusiasm for male polygamy, and if there isn’t, then this was a tendentious argument to deploy. But that doesn’t alter the fact that allowing such polygamy would not be justified merely because some people might want it.

My support for gay marriage is predicated on a clear division between civil marriage and religious matrimony, because religion in a secular society cannot be the template for social relationships. I happen to think that it is religious tradition that is impeding change in this area, and we can cut this Gordian knot by allowing religion and the state to co-exist without forcing the one on the other. Charles Moore is seemingly not yet ready to make that separation, since he manages to bring both Islam and the Anglican Church to bear in his thinking. In disagreeing with him, it is not necessary to claim that he is wicked. By demonising him those who support gay marriage risk being both ungracious and unwilling to engage with those they happen to disagree with.