America actress Portia de Rossi couldn’t have chosen a more culturally sensitive time and place (a Los Angeles court) to file a petition to take the surname of her partner, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
The news broke five days after US district court Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Proposition 8, which has prohibited same sex-marriage in California since November 2008, was unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent decision to suspend Judge Walker’s ruling until at least Christmas has deeply frustrated many in the LGBT community, who see gaining access to the institution of marriage as a major victory in the fight for equality. Others, however, are not so sure. And the substitution of “DeGeneres” for “de Rossi” goes straight to the heart of their concerns.
Marriage has its roots in ownership, both bodily and financial, with women treated like assets. Until the mid-nineteenth century, fathers exchanged their daughters for social elevation and security. The ceremony itself symbolised this transaction, which was sealed by the signing of the register and a change of surname.Outraged, the eighteenth-century English writer Daniel Defoe (author of Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe) denounced marriage as “legalized prostitution.”
Obviously, things have changed since then. Getting married in the Western world no longer signifies an overt loss of personal and financial freedom. However, the remaining traditions and connotations of marriage are still enough to put off some gays and lesbians. The crime novelist Val McDermid, speaking in favour of civil partnership, comments:“I’m glad that it’s not called ‘marriage’. For me, that offers us the possibility to avoid the pitfall of aping the worst aspects of heterosexual marriage, with its implicit roles and definitions. We have the opportunity to form relationship structures that mirror the reality of our lives”.
So have we turned gay marriage into such a Holy Grail of LGBT civil rights that we risk undermining the very equality we are seeking to achieve? By buying into the rituals and traditions of such a fundamentally patriarchal institution – by changing our surnames, for example – are we simply substituting one form of discrimination for another?
Well, in short, no.Although it is easy to do so amidst the current furore, we shouldn’t forget – in spite of the headlines – that the ultimate goal of what is happening in California is not actually gay marriage, it is freedom of choice.
It is not inevitable that civil marriage, if won, would replace civil partnerships. Or that it would automatically replicate established institutional conventions. But it would be both arrogant and self-deluding to imagine that all gays and lesbians are de facto radicals. Each couple will have differing political views, religious beliefs and cultural inheritances.
Some gays and lesbians, such as Val McDermid, may never want to get married; others may wish to do so, in a church, dressed in white, carrying flowers or – who knows? – roller skating down the aisle to the Buffy the Vampire theme tune. The point is having the option. At the moment, gays and lesbians don’t have the right not to get married. And that is wrong.
And this works both ways on the sexuality spectrum: a growing number of heterosexual couples in the UK are now arguing for the right to enter into same-sex-style civil partnerships in preference to marriage. Currently, they are excluded from doing so.
Ultimately, the label “gay marriage” is a bit of a misnomer. The Reverend Sharon Ferguson of the Lesbian, Gay and Christian Movement recently congratulated Pink News for “talking about ‘marriage equality’ and not ‘Gay marriage’.” She was absolutely right to praise the news site for its choice of words. The fight against Proposition 8 is not about assigning special privilege to a particular social group and institution. Rather, it is about removing the divisions implied by words such as ‘privilege’. It is about granting everyone, regardless of sexuality, equal access.
So let’s hope we don’t have to wait much longer.
First published by Fyne Times