Same sex marriages, discuss?
For a number of reasons same sex marriages have been a topic of debate for the last twenty years or so. In Western society ideas about the freedom of the individual have led to the development of personal moral codes. Gay rights activists have also brought the issue to the forefront of debate in many countries and the anti-discrimination laws that have been introduced in Europe and many parts of America have made discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation illegal.
In its many different forms marriage has been a central feature of social organisation in most parts of the world. It is thought to be essential to raising children and to perpetuating the norms and values of a given culture (Parsons, 1951).In the West, marriage is generally understood as monogamous i.e. the union of one man with one woman, in some cultures, however, men are allowed to take a number of wives. Having more than one wife is known as polygamy and in a study of a large number of societies Murdock (1949) found that polygamy was a central feature in the majority of them.
Generally speaking marriage in all societies is part of the patriarchal
structure and has served the interests of men and marginalised and
oppressed women (Abbott and Wallace, 1997). The rules governing
marriage have also been used to exclude those outside the dominant
culture in order to subjugate them. In America marriage was forbidden
between Black people until after the Civil War and mixed marriages, or
marriage between a white and a black person was illegal in many states
until the 1960s. This was also the case in South Africa under
Apartheid. This paper will begin by looking briefly at the changing
nature of marriage and the family structure in order to discuss the
concept of marriage between two people of the same sex.
Changing Family Structure
In the last forty years the UK and other Western countries have experienced changes in marriage, household, and family forms that would have been unthinkable before the Second World War (Giddens, 2001). Many people are less likely to marry than was once the case and they do not tend to marry at such a young age. The rise of the women’s movement has (some theorists argue) led to a rise in the divorce rate and the number of single parent families. There has also been a growth in the rate of women who have children but have not married and in 1997 they made up 42% of all lone parent households (Social Trends, 2000). However, Crow and Hardey (1992) have argued that it is difficult to be clear about this because of the many different reasons that people become lone parents and because of the changing nature of family structures either through the death of a partner, cohabitation or remarriage which leads to reconstituted families. Second marriages however tend to have a higher divorce rate than first time marriages. By 2000 Wilkinson and Mulgan (1995) predicted that 80% of couples would have lived together prior to getting married, but those who live together may be far more likely to split than married couples. The changing nature of relationships and of the family structure tends to contradict Murdock’s (1949) claim that the nuclear family is universal although social attitudes towards families headed by a lone female still see this as a facet of disorganisation in society rather than a viable family unit. Gonzalez (1970) argues against this view stating that matrifocal families (those headed by a lone mother) are often well organised groups and that the harmful effects attributed to such a family are not really proven. It would seem that any relationships that contradict the patriarchal norm are atypical and therefore should be resisted. This is particularly the case with same sex relationships as these have not, historically, been fully sanctioned by any society.
Homosexuality is still viewed by many as a deviant act and a threat to
social organisation and the heterosexual norm. It therefore becomes
necessary to marginalise those people who do not conform to this norm
(Rutherford and Chapman, 1988). The opposite sex of the two partners in
a marriage is legally defined and therefore this makes it difficult to
say that two people of the same sex could ever be considered to be
legally married. Those who argue for same sex marriages do not agree
that this is unchangeable, marriage has changed so much that it may
just be a case of going that one step further. While single sex
marriages may be the norm it does not mean that they are necessarily
the only form that such a relationship can take. Redman (1996) has
argued that the changing nature of sexual relations has called into
question the view of heterosexuality as the norm and has demonstrated
that there are other family forms that work as well or better than the
traditional nuclear family. Since it has become illegal in many
countries to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation
homosexuality has become more normalised, while this is still a way off
from same sex marriages the result has been that in some European
countries homosexuals who live together may register with the state and
claim some of the rights previously reserved for those who are married.
To some extent this has happened in the UK where since 1999 a
homosexual couple who live together may be defined as a family.
However, until the law is changed they do not have, for example, the
same pension and inheritance rights as heterosexual married couples.
(Giddens, 2001). From December 2005 same sex couples may register
with the Government and although they will be entitled (if they wish)
to a commitment ceremony this would not have the legal status of a
marriage. Much of the resistance to same sex marriage has also been
based on the fact that same sex couples cannot have children, although
this is increasingly becoming a redundant argument as procreation is no
longer regarded by many as the primary reason for marriage. The recent
ruling in Britain to recognise same sex households as a family means
that this may have further implications for inheritance rights and for
parental status. Gay activists continue to argue for same sex marriage
because it gives them the same rights and status as everyone else, they
can make life or death decisions (medically) with regard to their
partners, whereas at present this is not the case (Giddens, 2001).
Sullivan (1995) has argued that there is an increasing recognition that
sexual orientation is conferred by nature rather than chosen and to act
or legislate against homosexuals and forbid same sex marriage is to
turn them into a marginalised and oppressed minority. He contends that
if this is not to happen then homosexuals must be given the right to
become legally married.
Gay and Lesbian Households
Gay and lesbian households are sometimes called ‘families of choice’ (Giddens, 2001:192) because such relationships are based on personal commitment rather than the sanction of the law. In 1999 the rights of a male gay couple had their parental rights upheld by having both their names on the birth certificate of children who had been born to a surrogate mother. Hartley-Brewer (1999) maintained that this meant the nuclear family was changing and the emphasis was on the fact that a child had loving nurturing parents regardless of their sexual orientation. Calhoun argues (from a lesbian perspective) for the rights of gay families, thus she writes,
…artificial insemination, contract pregnancy, and the like undermine cultural understandings of the marital couple as a naturally reproductive unit, introduce non-related others into the reproductive process, and make it possible for women and men to have children without a homosexual partner (Calhoun, 1997:142-143).
Calhoun is of the opinion that same sex households and relationships
should be regarded as normal family relationships in the same way that
heterosexual families have been views. She does not believe that same
sex marriages tend to support the patriarchal familial structure
because of the many forms that the family has taken in the contemporary
world, same sex marriages and families are just one more variation on a
theme (Calhoun, 1997).
ConclusionClearly, even in the context of huge cultural changes and of the changing nature of marriage and the family, same sex families and marriage are still a matter of highly contested debate. Calhoun (1997) argues that many see the changing nature of marriage and the changes in the reproductive process as a threat to the stability of society rather than an enrichment of it. Both gay and lesbian families and the unmarried mothers who live on state benefits have been scape-goated by government and society. In Britain, in the late 1980s it was illegal to teach the acceptability of homosexual relationships as a legitimate form of family structure (although this has now changed) . Calhoun argues that this kind of scape-goating and resistance to same sex marriages is an attempt to disguise the departure from family norms by the majority of heterosexual couples. Calhoun contends that the ideology of the family has played a distinctive role in the marginalisation of gay people and in social resistance to same sex households and marriages.
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