Marriage equality: What I want to say

Helen Marshall, RMIT University:

The request was to write something about the struggle to alter the Australian legal definition of marriage for Nexus. I was being asked because, as a heterosexual woman, my views might provide a contrast with other writers. I said ‘yes’, then thought ‘oh dear’. I didn’t and still don’t feel capable of addressing the dispiriting political shuffling and manoeuvring for advantage on the issue, or of offering any helpful comment on how to respond to it. On the issue of same-sex marriage, I can’t in any sense represent a demographic in which I might be counted. All I can do is speak from the position I am in, which is, yes, female, straight, anxious to see the definition widened and also ageing. I probably said yes because the request took my mind off my 65th birthday and a decline in gym performance that can’t be blamed totally on too much birthday cake.

What do I want to say? First, that in spite of feeling dispirited by the political debacle, I can see that practices and attitudes have changed a lot in a relatively short span of time; second, that in spite of encouraging change, there is lingering and worrisome sameness; and third, that there is lots of interesting work for sociologists around this issue.

And how do I want to say it? I need to make two points about naming. First, as far as I’m concerned and in line with most of the serious commenting, it’s the marriage equality issue not ‘same-sex marriage’ or ‘gay marriage’. Second, I will refer to the varied groupings of gender and sexual identity who have most to gain and lose over the issue as the Rainbow Collection (henceforth RC). In drafts, I played with LGBTQI (prioritising the group I feel closest to) or GLBTQI (prioritising in terms of history, because ‘gay liberation’ in the 1970s briefly signified all same-sex attracted people). I tried cycling through all the alphabetic permutations of the acronym until my document began to look like my computer keyboard. Rainbow Collection sounds twee and the rainbow flag is being exploited commercially, but for parents of a certain age, RC evokes the sound of small children singing along with Kermit the frog about the rainbow connection between ‘the lovers the dreamers and me’. And love, dreams and the link between politics and the personal are intertwined in the marriage equality struggle.

Now to the first thing I want to say. We can see the changes in practice just by looking at the Australian Bureau of Statistics website and comparing the 1970s with today. Forty years ago marriage rates were high – the ABS crude marriage rate was around 9 per 1000 of mean estimated resident population per year. That was certainly down from highest recorded rate (12 marriages per 1000 in 1942) but well up from the low figures of the 1930s Depression era. Youthful marriage was common. For the age group under 19, the first marriage rate in 1966 was 14.9 per 1000, and for those aged 20–24 it was 152.8. (ABS 1995). Today formal marriage is obviously less popular than in 1972. The crude marriage rate in 2014 was down to 5.2 per 1000, (ABS 2105), median age at first marriage had risen close to 30 and while 53% of Australians over 18 were in a registered marriage in 2010, 11% were in a de facto partnership. Since 1996, the ABS has also counted same-sex relationships, finding in the 2011 Census that same-sex couples were 0.7% of all couples, with numbers somewhat skewed towards younger age groups (ABS 2012). The decision to count same-sex couples is in itself an indicator of change.

I can see changes in attitude in my own life and my family. I was part of what novelist Margaret Drabble has called ‘the early marriage generation’. She says

It is hard to believe now that so many of us married so innocently, so young. We should have known better. In those days, women still married to get away from their mothers…

In 1945, Evelyn Waugh, not the most perceptive of writers about women, noted of Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited that

If she looked further than the wedding it was to see marriage as the beginning of individual existence… from which one set out on the true quests of life

I married in 1972 at the age of 20, as did all the group of my closest friends. And yes, I married at least in part to achieve independence from my family and start an independent quest in life without breaking violently away from my kin. I called myself a feminist and was an active participant in women’s groups, I knew people who refused to marry and who argued against monogamy, and I certainly believed that being a sexually active adult should not require a licence from the state. Even so, I could not imagine a world in which my boyfriend and I could live together other than as husband and wife without causing more family conflict than I could bear. While I had already rejected the religious framework for marriage, it was hard not to see a partnership that lacked state recognition as living ‘in sin’.


Drabble saw that things had changed:

Like the family, marriage isn’t what it was. It’s much less constraining, much less deadly, much more inventive. The summer bird-cage has an open door, and the birds fly in and out as they will.

I grew up and became more confident, which made it less difficult than I feared to break the news of my marriage ending to my family and later to announce that I was pregnant and re-partnering but not intending to marry. As Drabble noted and as the ABS has counted, diverse ways of doing family life and intimacy have become much more accepted.

Sociology’s account of marriage has changed too. Family sociology circa 1970, as enshrined in the index of Goode’s text The Family (in the ‘Foundations of Modern Sociology’ series) contained these topics:

  • The family as an element in social structure
  • Biological bases of the family
  • Legitimacy and illegitimacy
  • Mate selection and marriage
  • Organized descent groupings
  • Role relations of spouse sand parents in family and society
  • Stratification
  • Dissolution of family role systems
  • Changes in family patterns

(Goode, 1964)

There is no index entry for sexuality, heterosexuality or homosexuality and under ‘sex’ we find:

(see also Courtship; Love; Marriage: Mating): and family life… and social norms… feminine versus masculine attitudes… rural morality myth… social and biological differences.

Clearly there was only one form of family (THE one) and one form of marriage and in this context gender needed little discussion while sexual orientation needed none.

Dempsey and Lindsay’s textbook for today’s sociology students takes a very different approach. Their chapter titles are

  • Relationships and families over time
  • Diversity in families and relationships
  • Sociological perspectives for relationship and families
  • Young people relationships and sexuality
  • Love, commitment and marriage
  • Relating beyond the cohabiting couple
  • Fertility technology and family change
  • Parenting children and childcare
  • Families and labour
  • Separation, divorce and reconstituted families
  • Violence in intimate relationships, ageing care and intergenerational relationships
  • Conclusion: new families, new relationships

(Dempsey & Lindsay, 2014)

The index contains entries for gay relationships, heteronormativity, heterosexuality, homophobia, and lesbian-parented families, and the text stresses the varieties of patterns and attitudes found in contemporary Australian families.

Noting the changes I have lived through, I can see considerable hope that once the definition of marriage is opened up, marriage as a relationship between two adults will relatively quickly become the new status quo and we can get on to new ways of defending and extending human rights (like the rights of refugees and asylum seekers).

But if the first thing I want to say is to note with optimism the amount of change that has taken place in a relatively few decades, the second is more pessimistic. In the arguments about marriage equality, I see important aspects where change is not happening.

The deep background to the movement for marriage equality was the rise in the 1970s of same-sex liberation movements that grew sometimes in tandem and sometimes in tension with the second wave of feminism and shared with it a project to challenge oppressive institutions and practices. Marriage and the isolated nuclear family were identified by both movements as oppressive, and one key element of the emerging gay and lesbian identity was experimentalism in relationships. There has been an ongoing tension between activism that stresses similarity and suppresses differences (such as liberal feminism) and activism that celebrates difference and is suspicious of mere ‘equal opportunism’ (such as queer identity). As a recent article notes:

Nothing better illustrates the tension between assimilationist and queer politics than the LGBT movement’s pursuit of the right to marry (Ghaziani et al. 2016:172)

I value the diversity that exists in contemporary families. I don’t want a world in which everyone lives an intimate life like mine. I want a world in which varied arrangements of intimate life like those described by Robinson (2008) for gay men are accepted as reflecting nothing more than personal preferences and judged solely in terms of whether the participants treat each other fairly. So I worry that achieving marriage equality may be seen as:

[T]he end of the social justice movement for LGBT rights, when in fact it is just another privilege for us, in very privileged countries, to have. (Baumgartner, 2013)

In a somewhat similar vein, Denis Altman roused some controversy with his ambivalent stance towards marriage equality. He noted in 2013 that:

Increasingly I find myself in the odd situation of hearing straight friends and politicians insist on the importance of an issue which, for me as a gay man with a long history of activism, is at best a second-order political demand … an argument increasingly difficult to make in public (Altman, 2013:192)

In The End of the Homosexual he argued that the issue may have brought together the RC and straight communities, but in doing so it has possibly hidden divisions as well, because it has ‘bleached out’ sex from any discussion (Altman, 2013:199). Nonetheless, he decided that, despite his reservations, marriage equality now has huge symbolic importance and in 2015 he declared

It is now the yardstick by which genuine acceptance of homosexuality is measured

Pessimistically and cynically, one might wonder if the push for marriage equality is simply going to bring more consumers into the market for weddings, and more couples into an undemocratic and basically heteronormative institution that is, at heart, about property relations. Very pessimistically, I note the extent to which the campaign for marriage can be seen as a response to the conservative attempts to turn back the clock. Ghaziani et al. (2016:172) declare:

 It was the conservative countermovement mobilized by the religious Right that initiated the marriage equality protest cycle.


Bill Jesdale of University of Massachusetts Medical School blogs (in Bill and Tuna) about ‘queer health and other things I care about’. His account of how his thinking on marriage equality has evolved suggests that he has reservations about the relative importance of the struggle to obtain a somewhat symbolic right, and a strong suspicion that the battle over symbols has been engineered by conservative forces.

Gay marriage wasn’t my first choice, but if that’s the battering ram the religious right was using to knock us around with, then we did need to fight back. The religious right had succeeded in putting our movement on the defensive.

And it showed – we had been making tremendously rapid progress, especially in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s in extending employment protections across the nation. That progress came to a screeching halt as nearly all of our political resources got re-oriented towards the marriage battles. There was still progress being made in adding gender identity protections, but this happened more in jurisdictions that already had gay rights laws than in extending protections in new states and cities.

In Australia the Marriage Amendment Bill of 2004 that defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman was brought in by the Howard Liberal government to prohibit the recognition in Australia of same-sex marriages performed in foreign countries (Parliament of Australia 2012 ch 2). It ignited public interest. In the ACT, the Marriage Equality Same Sex Act 2013 was announced as a response to Federal failure to legislate a national scheme. It became law, was challenged in the High Court by the Abbott government and overturned, creating further controversy. With the current shoddy manoeuvring (by all parties) around a plebiscite which is the outcome of internecine struggles within the government, the issue undoubtedly takes up energy that could be spent on matters of equal importance to RC members such as the protection and enhancement of the Safe School program. As Altman (2016) notes, ‘fear and loathing reigns’ in both marriage equality and Safe School debates and both have the potential to harm vulnerable people, so it is unfortunate, to say the least, that they have coincided in time. At the time of writing (14 September) it looks as though a plebiscite may not happen, but if it should the statement by the Director of the right wing Australian Christian Lobby that public funding will be used for ‘airing the concerns of a whole range of consequences that flow from taking gender out of marriage’ (ABC 13 September 2016) raises disturbing possibilities.

I note too that, so far, all the debate is about what was initially called ‘gay marriage’ in popular discourse and conjured images of the wedding of Sir Elton John to David Furness and Ellen DeGeneres to Portia de Rossi – only the G and L sections of the RC. Issues around marriages for other groups within the collection may remain to be addressed.

So, there is change and room for hope, there is continuity and feelings of despair. The third thing I want to say is that there is a lot of potentially interesting sociological thinking to be done around marriage equality.

Reading Andrew Cherlin’s (2004) account of the de-institutionalisation of marriage, I am struck by his claim that the symbolic importance of marriage is now that it is ‘a marker of prestige’:

Marriage is a status one builds up to, often by living with a partner beforehand, by attaining steady employment or starting a career, by putting away some savings, and even by having children. Marriage’s place in the life course used to come before those investments were made, but now it often comes afterward. It used to be the foundation of adult personal life; now it is sometimes the capstone. It is something to be achieved through one’s own efforts rather than something to which one routinely accedes’ (Cherlin, 2004: 860).

If he is right, genderless marriage will mean that it is not only women who will look to marry in order to achieve independence and set out on their true quests of life. In one way, I feel hopeful about that, in another pessimistic. Must everyone’s quest be predicated on cleaving to one and only one (or only one at a time) intimate partner?

Where, if anywhere, does the concept of individuation fit? Those who link Giddens’ optimistic pictures of plastic sexuality and the ‘pure relationship’ (1991, 1992) will possibly read ‘changing definitions of marriage’ as beneficent de-institutionalisation and dwell on the possibilities of individualised fluid identity narratives that exist free from social norms. Those critical of the fit between Giddens’ concepts and reality, and those who view individuation in the gloomier terms suggested by Beck and Beck Gernsheim (1995) will dwell on other scenarios. Gloomy sociological stories about individuation may link back to feminist anxieties about the antisocial family and ask how, if marriage as monogamous domestic coupling remains a dominating idea, people will find support as they deal with the everyday strains of contemporary life such as juggling childrearing and work in precarious environments, or indeed with the strain of relying on only one significant other for support, comfort and companionship?

How will sociology think about whatever marriage evolves towards? I have no doubt that the evolution of family sociology towards a sociology of personal life (Carol Smart’s term) or relationships and intimate life (Dempsey and Lindsay) will continue and will take on new forms, possibly even within my remaining lifetime.

Whatever theoretical directions they take, I hope that sociologists studying the new forms of intimacy will contemplate two strategies. The first is to place change in some kind of historical context. It will need to be broader than the highly personal and short lifetime context I have written about here. I hope too that they are sensitive to the ideological context. I’d really like to see us take up that complex word again, not just as a term of abuse but as a concept that could have some critical and explanatory use. I think it’s a useful word for sociologists working on intimacy, because lurking in its history are hints about identity and language. I’ve written about this in the context of the ideology of parenthood (Marshall 1993) and think there is some traction in the concept despite it being relegated to the ‘too old, too structuralist’ basket.

I also think that whatever directions a sociology of intimacy takes, there is some truth in David Morgan’s 1975 observation that novelists often give us more insight into the intricacies of family life than sociologists. I’m looking forward to reading the sociology of marriage equality, and to novels about it. And I’m hoping personally (although not really expecting) that in my lifetime conversations happen something like this (it’s slightly fictionalised but essentially truthful).

Me: I haven’t seen you in years! How are you and your children?

Her: I can’t stop; I’m on my way to Mass. But we’re all good. I got the Catholic trifecta (grins)

Me: Huh?

Her: Eldest lives with his girlfriend and they say they’ll never marry; middle is the unmarried mum and youngest is a lesbian transitioning in man. They’re good kids. I love them, my God loves them, all their community loves them and supports them and they support me.

End of story.

(full references available from the author)


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