Supposing the only people who are married are those men and women that made a public commitment to one another, what can we say about those unhusbands and unwives who do not or cannot ratify their love institutionally?
Say what you will about conservatives, on the issue of marriage they have remained remarkably consistent. Those that have a strong view on the subject would like men and women to get married before having children (or even before having sex), and they would like only men and women to get married. The liberal overreaction to this position is that such people must overtly or covertly be homophobes. It’s essentially impossible for committed liberals to understand why anyone would want to preserve the essential nature of a traditional institution that dates back millennia for the sake of the institution itself.
The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of liberally minded people don't care one jot about marriage – the only reason it has come to matter is because commitment to the liberal ideal of equality engenders outrage when anything is approached from a perspective of asymmetry. Thus despite being fairly cool on, or even openly opposed to, the institution of marriage, a great many liberals suddenly care deeply about gay marriage, because they believe everyone has a right to enter into an archaic legal and religious arrangement, even though they themselves don’t actually believe in it.
Marriage has been steadily losing popularity for some time now. A great many of my friends are in long term, committed relationships; few are married. Having children makes no difference in this respect; they continue with the now-ridiculous relationship roles of ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ even though they have obviously made a long-term commitment to one another. They are, to my mind, already married in the practical sense. They have just refused to ratify it publically because, to their mind, they see no reason to elevate an entirely personal matter to the level of the community. I call friends in such situations ‘unhusband and unwife’.
Unmarriage demonstrates the hilarious nonsense in the contemporary liberal approach to marriage: as far as it applies to themselves, it is antiquated and of no importance. But tell any liberally minded person that there’s some minority who isn't allowed to do it and suddenly it’s an outrageous affront to human dignity. There’s something approaching hypocrisy in this attitude. Of course, the conservative attitude to marriage isn't a great deal more coherent, but at least in such cases there is a genuine concern about marriage as an institution. It’s something their political opponents cannot seem to fathom.
This talk of ‘institutions’ may make some liberally-minded people scoff – equality, autonomy and freedom are more important than mere traditions, it may be tempting to claim. But pause to reflect where the conception of Human Rights as freedom – upon which these values rest – has its origin. It is a product of the Enlightenment, built on the philosophy of Kant and others. (Indeed, Human Rights as freedom is something specifically developed by Kant). Freedom is also an institution, and even if this were denied, Human Rights can only be understood as institutional, as with all law.
Just as marriage is an institution, so to some extent is unmarriage, and just as there are many different kinds of marriage, there are diverse forms of unmarriage. Only one form, however, consists of a loving, committed, adult couple that are not permitted by law to be married. This situation is changing in parts of the world, but legal reform is slowed by the inevitable resistance that will always occur when traditions are revised. To enact lasting institutional change requires forging new visions of ideals. Sadly for gay marriage, it seems no-one can be bothered to do the work.
One of the most shocking aspects of this issue for me personally is the staggering arrogance of the liberal community in their steadfast refusal to understand the moral perspective of their opponents. Since the consequence of conservatives caring about the institution of marriage is a staunch reluctance to allow gay marriage (which does, after all, alter the specifics of a truly ancient tradition), liberals go straight to bitching about how Christians are homophobes. Never mind that many Christians support gay marriage, nor that the reasons many opponents of gay marriage have for their resistance are more concerned about concepts of family than sexuality, per se. Since ideals of liberal equality are denied to gay people it must be homophobia. It is the classic formula of the political knee-jerk reaction: my values are violated, your values don't count.
What is it that we call those situations where one group of people make outrageously prejudicial assumptions about some ethnic group and then despise everyone under that identity? It's on the tip of my tongue... Ah yes, I remember – racism and bigotry. Far too many liberals feel it’s okay to be a bigot about all Christians because some Christians are indeed bigots. This is no different than (say) believing all black people are lazy because there are some lazy black people. It’s as if there are good and bad kinds of racism, and the bad kind is whichever set of beliefs you yourself do not hold.
But I can't let the conservatives entirely off the hook here, since they too have their fair share of nonsense in respect of marriage and unmarriage. It makes no sense, for instance, to claim that marriage is inappropriate for gay people because of the lascivious, wanton behaviour of the gay community at large – does anyone seriously believe the heterosexual community scores any better on this front? If you investigate the incidences of casual sex in the world, you will find that the vast majority occurs between partners of different sexes – hardly surprising since heterosexuals outnumber homosexuals by perhaps as much as fifty to one.
Given that there are gay people in unmarriage – in loving, stable, long-term relationships – wouldn't it be better for the institute of marriage if we all said: ‘we want to help you publically ratify your relationship in the spirit of what marriage has come to mean: a celebration of love’? What good does it do the institution of marriage if we force people who wish to be married to remain in a state of unmarriage?
Unlike many conservatives, I support gay marriage, because unlike most liberals I support the institution of marriage. When two adults are willing, in the face of the infinite mystery and uncertainty of existence, to make a commitment to one another founded upon their mutual love, we should support them and help them celebrate it publically. It should not matter what flesh those two souls inhabit if their love is genuine. It is a bigger injustice to force such lovers to remain unwillingly in unmarriage than to allow them to marry, whatever their respective genders.
As I suggested before in Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage, liberal voices have failed to decisively win the argument in favour of gay marriage precisely because they have not made the story about the deep love that exists between committed (gay) partners. Instead, they try to make it about equality, because that’s their sacred value, and that way the argument seems pre-empted: no further discussion required. Real democracy, however, requires discussion. Those who claim to value freedom must be willing to grant that freedom to those who disagree with them.