Lucy Sullivan considers the “transgressive” motivation of the political push to redefine marriage and reveals the inner illogic of the historic campaign, which has been pressed relentlessly without any reference to the way persons actually behave. This is the first part of a two-part article.
There are two strands to the political campaign for homosexual “marriage”, which I put in inverted commas because it can only exist as a legal superstructure and can have no embodied reality.
Copulation will not stand alone as the definer of marriage, although its absence has been used to dismantle the legal structure. It is not even mentioned in the five-centuries-old Anglican marriage ceremony, where the procreation and raising of children of the married couple supersedes it as marriage’s central function. I shall distinguish the two strands in my terminology as “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage”.
The gay marriage project, which has the longer pre-history, can be characterised as driven by invidious hostility towards heterosexual society; same-sex marriage, the current term, used indistinguishably regardless of motivation, is of much more recent emergence, and makes the claim that its narcissistic love is of the same nature as the love that binds sexual disparity in the cause of procreation, and that this qualifies it as “marriage” despite the impossibility of a procreative outcome.
The grudge driving the gay marriage strand is conceived (mistakenly) by its activists as deriving from persecution of their kind during the roughly 100 years in which its practice was, theoretically, illegal in Britain and its former dependencies, which ended in the 1960s. None of the current gay marriage activists personally experienced this persecution, and in fact it was much less root and branch than its illegality suggests. It was not pursued into the consenting privacy of adults. The law confined its attention to the public nuisance of soliciting in public places, just as it did with prostitution. Francis Bacon, the artist, for example, led an openly gay life in 1940s and ‘50s London and was never prosecuted. The notorious trial of Oscar Wilde resulted from him himself bringing a libel case, the defeat of which necessitated rehearsing his sodomy in the public arena.
In the male homosexual case, once it was decriminalised, the excitement of illegal sexual activity was apparently felt as a loss and had to be sought again in new forms of transgression (their word) through flouting the cultural mores of sexual relations and practice, audaciously advocating extreme levels of promiscuity for heterosexual relations also. Thus the first response of gay activists to their public liberation was the antithesis of marriage, with its ancillaries of stability, exclusiveness and domesticity. In the generally libertarian ethos of the 1960s and ‘70s, the goal was to unmake (hetero) marriage and recast all sexual relations in the mode that, presumably, suited gay men best.
The heady conviction that gay sexuality was leading heterosexuals to a better life assuaged for a time the loss of the stimulus of persecution. But this line soon lost its effectiveness as hetero theory of sex and marriage was in free fall under the influence of the belief that human relations can be rationalised simply and successfully to match individual volition. At its most blatant, marriage was rationalised as “just a piece of paper”, and sexual union of a man and a woman (even in the production of children) as no one’s business but the couple’s own.
This soon proved erroneous as couples increasingly separated and called on the law to adjudicate disputes over property and children. The matters of property that derive from joint living (and of children) would not go away and resulted in greater intrusion by the law than had been needed before sexual relations were “liberated”, and the same regulation by the law was claimed by and awarded to homosexual couples with any show of permanence.
The subversive excitement of homosexual activity had to be sought again in new forms of transgression. Copulation which is only that and has no “useful” social extension is doomed to satiation, and for its continuation requires extraneous stimulation, such as group participation, drugs, and dysjunctive types of hands-on physical activity – invasion of other bodily parts, and sadism and masochism (also engaged in by heterosexuals caught in the promiscuity trap), flouting the norms and decencies of traditional sexuality.
The promiscuity of the bathhouse became central to the project of homosexuality. These practices, which went beyond the aspirations even of the most liberated heterosexuals, were not successfully proselytised among them generally, defeating gay aspirations as cultural leaders in this field.
But the new forms of homosexual transgression increasingly ignored the essential facts of disease transmission. In embracing the anti-social and the disruptive, the hygienic irrationality of this behaviour was entirely overlooked. (While heterosexuals had embraced the doctrines of self-centredness and eschewal of responsibility for others [autonomy] in sexual relations, they took their efforts in transgressing the repressive rules of hygiene only so far.)
Then came the shock of the AIDS epidemic. The homosexual lobby did all it could to dissociate its origins from their sexual culture, but in the end the statistics of transmission could not be (albeit silently) avoided. The arrival of AIDS put paid to this irrational exercise in rationality that had failed to take into account the scientific truths of disease susceptibility and transmission.
A last-ditch stand of the sexual liberators was to encourage pubertal children to engage in sexual activity via a soft porn type sex education program in schools, pretending to teach sexual hygiene but in fact the reverse. It quietly died due to the natural reservation of most teachers and the sensibilities of the coeducational classroom. The journalist Paddy McGuiness called it “child sexual abuse”.
In the history of this strand of gay activism, we can discern a ratification of the Swiss philosopher Denis de Rougemont’s dissection of the cult of romanticism in 13th and 14th-century Europe (Love in the Western World), which, he shows, served as an enabler of adulterous love, and not as we now conceive it, as the precursor to marriage. While marriage has its template of a devolution into the satisfactions of a long-term mutual commitment to family even to the third and fourth generation, adulterous love, to retain its thrall, needs obstacles to its fulfillment to disguise its sterility. De Rougemont uses the romance of Tristan and Isolde as the archetypal pattern of the dead end of human sexual obsession, with its perpetual need for obstruction to keep it alive.
With the obstacle of illegality lost and the pride of iconoclasm shattered, and this new obstacle of disease not susceptible to sociological or legal obloquy, what new demon of heterosexual oppression could be identified to give valour to the gay project? Why, of course, those trusty demons of the late 20th-century postmodern social critique – “exclusion” and “inequality” – watchwords of the left in its middle-class, atheist, rationalist manifestation.
And so to the materialisation of the campaign for gay marriage in contradiction of all that had gone before. The falsity of the campaign for gay marriage is obvious from the rapid turn-around of sentiment from the anti-family rhetoric of the 1970s and ‘80s to the demand for family inclusion from the early 1990s and the Year of the Family. After the transparent invalidity of the initial claim of the gay lobby to enlightened values, as exposed by the STD epidemic and AIDS, the demand for gay marriage provided a conservative “wholesome” façade, while simultaneously striking at a foundational ritual of human society.
Opposition from the church, and support from atheistic rationalists – who had their own long-standing tradition of opposition to the church and a goal of destabilising society via the destruction of traditional marriage and family – could be counted on.
When marriage was divorced from procreation in the legal conditions of divorce, “family” replaced it in common language to emphasise the primary and organic role of procreation and genetic relationships which marriage had represented but no longer did – again a contingency from which gays, by their chosen sexual life, were excluded. They sought to be included in its purlieus, even as their invalid inclusion would trivialise its protective function.
The equality already given to gays in civil unions was soon extended to support their “family” objective. The gay project of acquisition of children by gay couples by adoption, by artificial insemination, IVF and surrogacy, and by deceptive marriage to heterosexuals and its abandonment after children were born, with the law supporting the claims for custody of both gay partners, was won too easily under civil law, thus failing to supply the needed obstacle to support a grudge against society. (The detachment of children from their genetic parents had already been introduced as a solution for illegitimacy through their adoption by a stable married couple.)
So the campaign for same-sex marriage became the next step, satisfyingly less easily won despite its acceptance by the unthinking “progressivism” of much of the otherwise wholesome community, who were probably reassured that homosexuals were no longer asking for something “real”, but for participation in a purely symbolic ritual. If so, they failed to recognise the importance of its role in defining a vital order in human ethology that was lost if it was extended to same-sex couples.
It is at this juncture that the second strand of same-sex marriage activism emerged, as the almost exclusively male activist movement sought alliance with the previously silent lesbian culture in a move to give credence to a new claim of oppression, an imagined obstacle to fulfillment, an inequality artificially imposed through unjust discrimination by heterosexual society. Thus arose the campaign to impose, under secular law, a ritual with its origin in religion’s benign ordering of procreation, though with no secular substance – except, that is, as a word on a piece of paper – and which implied no more in material and civil terms than the already achieved rights of a civil or de facto relationship.
Of course there have always been stable long-standing, even domiciliary, homosexual couplings, like that of composer Benjamin Britten and singer Peter Pears, and possibly this became more common with the advent of AIDS. It had indeed always characterised lesbian sexual practice. While respecting the expressed sentiments of some same-sex couples of either sex, it would be foolish to accept at face value the characterisation given to the campaign by its more belligerent proponents. These have falsely represented the facts of the established order as obstacles meanly, discriminatively, put in the way of their achievement of the elusive satisfactions of heterosexuality; rather it is a continuation of the war on those same satisfactions.
Lucy Sullivan, PhD, is an Australian social scientist.
Please read Part 2 of this article here.