The conservatism of same-sex-marriage

December 2017

We have just gone through the exciting phenomenon of watching Australia “vote for marriage equality” — that is, we had a postal survey in which most people responded “Yes” to the proposition that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, and this was followed by a private members bill in Parliament to amend the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry. The bill passed with a huge majority.

By the end of this process, we had heard some overblown rhetoric on all sides about the significance of this reform, but the conservatives who opposed the change had been well and truly routed. Australians in general can’t see a reason to interfere with gay and lesbian couples who want to behave like straight couples.

Some commentators have seen this as a sign of our native modernity and social liberalism. It could also be considered a significant indicator of the new brand of social conservatism in Australia.

I recall that in the 1970s and 1980s, sexual liberation was generally seen as requiring the overthrow of marriage and other trappings of religious morality. Gay men were increasingly “coming out”, and frequenting gay venues where sex was freely available. Promiscuity was the banner of the liberated gay lifestyle. Sex was fun. Lesbians in particular, but women’s liberationists more generally, were pouring scorn on marriage as a patriarchal institution and looking forward to a day when such formal stamps of social approval were no longer required.

Since then many things have changed. In the usual manner of political change, the changes are not all in one direction and not at all in the direction that anyone who was hoping to steer the process would have intended. The radicals of the 1970s envisaged the withering away of marriage, with people combining in less formal and less permanent groupings that matched their shifting desires for pleasure, personal growth and political progress. The conservatives of the time envisaged that this sort of disgusting immorality would itself wither away, and that marriage would endure and regain the strength and permanence it once had.

The Family Law Act of 1975 introduced “no-fault” divorce, and was followed by a divorce boom that has only now begun to fade away. For several decades, people seemed to enter into marriage knowing that they could exit again fairly easily. The divorce rate climbed to approach the point where half of marriages ended in divorce, often within a few years. Only now do we seem to be coming to the end of this trend. Instead, people are marrying later in life and with more (but by no means absolute) commitment to permanence. This trend is equally common to straight, gay and lesbian couples.

The children of divorced parents are showing a stronger commitment to marriage than their parents. Presumably when we have a new generation grow up whose parents never divorced, they will discover a new hankering for freedom, but in the meantime marriage has come to seem less of a straitjacket than it once was. It has become reappreciated.

Many gay people became disillusioned with promiscuity when AIDS made it potentially fatal, and this burnished the charms of fidelity. It may be too that the party scene of endless sex, drugs and loud music was never destined to be more than a passing fad, being too exhausting and mindnumbing for sensitive people to long continue. Love, fidelity and a simple life have always had their charms.

The increasing acceptance of same-sex-couples and same-sex parents, partly aided by legal changes and (in a minor way) medical advances, has made it easier for gay and lesbian people to embrace their urge to reproduce and to nurture children. Child-rearing is a long-term activity, made easier if the tasks can be shared. The commitment to child-rearing is readily enacted in marriage.

In short, in many ways the desires of the radicals of the 70s and 80s were transformed into more conservative desires for peace, stability and nurturance. Some social causes of this change have already been briefly mentioned here, but there are many more. The conservative influence of the iPhone (among other digital technologies) upon human interactions has yet to be fully appreciated. In a number of diverse ways, the adaptation of the capitalist world order to the political challenges arising in the 60s and 70s has blunted radicalism and rechannelled human energy into a fresh pursuit of consumerism. The fall of the communist enemy in the 80s and 90s did nothing to radicalise the West; the rise of radical Islam since then has done more to produce a conservative reaction. Many, many, broad-ranging trends in economy, society and technology have combined to transform conservatism but also to preserve it. It is even true that the Green movement, radical in many of its demands upon the capitalist system, is in part a conservative movement, seeking to roll back various social changes wrought by global capitalism.

I am aware that this short piece has floated many propositions that really require thousands of words of evidence and justification. I welcome corroboration or reasoned disagreement, if you want to let me know your thoughts. Meanwhile, I would like to close by briefly noting a few key implications of the Australian “vote for marriage equality”:

  1. The proposition for many straight Australians was actually quite conservative: would you like gay and lesbian people to be different (ie, not married with kids and a mortgage) or would you like them to be the same as you? They voted that gays and lesbians should be just like straight people. Gays and lesbians who are corralled within monogamous relationships are obviously less threatening than the free-roaming variety. Australians have voted against a form of prejudice and in favour of a form of social cohesion. It is not difficult to see why many on the conservative side of politics were able to embrace this development with enthusiasm.
  2. The conservatives who could not embrace same-sex marriage were the religious conservatives. Australians are not religious, on average. The politic views of Australians are not strongly influenced by religious dogmas or religious leaders. I don’t think this makes us a radical nation, but I hope it makes us a more reasonable people.
  3. Business was fully behind the change. Business sees marriage as productive. Marriage produces marriage ceremonies (each one a vigorous spurt of consumerist behaviour); it combines the capital of two individuals to create family units more capable of consumption and debt; it steadies the behaviour of productive individuals, making them more reliable employees; it produces children, renewing and growing the cyclical bases of our economic merry-go-round. Even in falling apart, marriage is good for business. Marriage is business, and restricting it to straight people is a restriction on business. In putting its case for marriage equality, business appeared to be more influential than religion, and for the most part the opinions of business leaders were received with more attention and respect than those of religious leaders. You might jargonise this businesswise by saying that in Australia today, business imperatives are key drivers of morality outcomes.
©2017 Craig Bingham