Let me make something really clear from the outset: I really liked being married.
My then-wife and I had been together for almost a decade when we tied the knot, and to our surprise it did genuinely change us.
It wasn't a fairytale ending, as the use of the past tense and "then-wife" may indicate, but there's no point being coy about it: I was deliriously happy about being married at the time and remained so for most of the next five years.
We'd been living together, so on the face of it not a lot changed when we performed the legalities in the middle of Adelaide's Botanic Gardens surrounded by our families and friends. But the socially constructed fact is that there is a subtle but crucial difference between being someone's boyfriend and being their husband. "I'm just grabbing a vodka and soda for my wife" has more oomph than the same sentence with "partner". "Wife" had a weight and a gravitas, and I liked using it.
The reason I bring this up is that in all the current discussion about same-sex marriage there’s a lot of discussion about the legal and social benefits that official recognition bestows upon a relationship, and that’s something worth making clear in the wake of the US Supreme Court submissions on the Constitutional validity of California’s Proposition 8 (that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”) and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (in which the US government would only recognise opposite-sex unions as far as federal things like tax and immigration, regardless of any state laws permitting same-sex marriage).
And given the likely outcome of our own federal election, it’s worth being aware that our possible future PM is perfectly prepared to deny support of his own sister’s long-term relationship, so is hardly going to make an exception for the rest of the nation. Maybe the delight that has galvanised so many people upon watching New Zealand’s parliament amend their Marriage Act – they freakin’burst into song – will give our leaders pause, although I’m sure part of the public enthusiasm is from the unfamiliar sight of bipartisan support for something, rather than both major parties using every issue as a bludgeon with which to beat the other side.
Marriage is a legal arrangement that recognises a unique relationship between two people in situations that involve their shared lives. It’s also, y’know, genuinely kinda lovely. I attended a wedding the other week, as it happens, and was reminded that weddings are one of the all-too-few opportunities in life for otherwise disparate groups of people to get together for a day of uncomplicated joy. These things are fun, to cite the ageless wisdom of Dr Suess, and fun is good.
That’s not in any way to diminish other partnerships, let me make clear. I know plenty of people don’t see any need for the ring and the bit of paper. However, that doesn’t mean that those people that do get married are solely doing so because of The Society or Jesus or The Parents. Those all have influence on some peoples’ decision, of course, but it seems to me that most people are getting married because, well, they like the idea of being married.
Said ring and bit of paper confers no guarantees for a Happy Ever After slow-fade over the end credits, obviously, but there’s something very reassuring about two people linking arms and effectively bellowing “alrighty world, we’re joining forces from here on in because we’re a goddamn awesome team. Have at us.” Which I absolutely want to see a couple incorporate into their wedding vows, by the way.
I appreciate that it’s a tradition that has its roots in the grimmest traditions of the patriarchy, and it’s worth making clear that equality is not the same as treating everyone identically. But arbitrarily preventing one group of people from partaking of a right doesn’t do anyone any favours: not even the most marriage-adverse commentator would see a blanket ban on inter-racial unions, say, as being a step toward a more equitable society.
What’s more, in certain situations, being married makes a huge difference. A partner is one thing, but your spouse is legally part of your family and that affects a diverse range of things (depending slightly on where you live), including inheritance, property settlement, access to superannuation, and in some cases even whether you can be by your beloved’s side in the case of a medical emergency. These are important benefits.
It’s worth making explicit, though, that there’s a difference between fighting for marriage equality – a battle we’ll eventually win, incidentally – and marriage as a specific individual choice. That expensive day with speeches, friends and booze isn’t an end in itself. Marriage is the beginning of a much larger and more challenging Phase Two, and that can come as a surprise – much like the experience of young bands who get signed to that elusive big record contract only to discover that, rather than being the glorious culmination of all their effort, having a deal simply marks the beginning of the real work.
And it does involve work, and sometimes it still isn’t enough. Bands and marriages both end, often spectacularly, publicly and with huge, unrecoupable debts. Other times things wind quietly down with an “indefinite hiatus”. And sometimes the union marks a brilliant, colourful, lifelong project.
All this is a long-winded way to explain why those currently arguing against marriage equality can’t have it both ways. Among the current arguments against same-sex marriage is the claim that marriage is sacred and important and can’t be sullied by any sort of change, posited by people who then also argue that most of the benefits of marriage are now covered under civil law, so why can’t all those gay people be content with their civil unions or what have you?
It’s a bullshit argument: either marriage is significant, in which case everyone should have the option, or it’s not significant in which case there’s no sane reason to bother denying it to people.
Marriage equality is worth fighting for because it legally confers certain privileges and responsibilities that other relationships don’t have. It’s worth fighting for because it’s a right that’s currently denied to far too many of us for completely arbitrary reasons. But most of all it’s worth fighting for because, when it works, it’s pretty goddamn great.