Is gay marriage really a simple case of non-discrimination, of extending a right to a section of the community to which it has hitherto been denied?
This is an attractive idea and, in light of the current political climate, by far the easiest and most expedient one to adopt. However, it does not really stand scrutiny. Firstly, because marriage has never been denied to any section of the community – gay men and women have always been able to marry, providing their marriage partner is of the opposite sex.
Secondly, because redefining marriage to include same-sex partnerships would alter the nature of marriage as it has been previously understood. It would deny that marriage has any procreative or generative function in the form of producing and raising children, for which one man and one woman are needed. At its heart, it would be to deny that there is any fundamental difference between man and woman and father and mother.
Of course, since 2002 gay couples as well as single men and women have been able to adopt children, removing the previous condition that only married couples could adopt. But, I hesitate to venture, such instances are still seen as exceptions to the norm, and most people still retain a notion of the family that is no longer borne out by statistics: that notion being a married father and mother and their offspring.
In another generation that notion may well change: most children today are born out of wedlock. Many have only the barest contact with their fathers, and such are divorce rates that even many married parents fail to stick together for the duration of their children’s childhood and adolescence. But all the same, it is a change that we may come to regret. Since children are, and can only naturally be, produced by the union of one man and one woman, it would seem to follow – as indeed it does from all the available evidence – that the happiest and healthiest child is one that has a relation with both of his or her natural parents. This is not to slight the efforts of foster parents, single parents or adoptive parents: merely to point out that there is an ideal and that its existence should be acknowledged.
It follows that any changes made should be aimed at strengthening that ideal and not weakening it. Here the Government’s proposal to redefine marriage comes in. Since the only definition of marriage that could include same-sex partnerships would be a temporary contractual or legal bond regardless of gender and with no view to the upbringing and providing for of children, it seems fairly clear that it would weaken the idea of marriage as it is currently understood.
Arguments in favour of gay marriage have been advanced in terms of rights and equality rather than recognising the distinctive nature of marriage as the union of a man and woman in which the freedoms and licence of the individual are restricted in order best to raise the next generation. Most religions – whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, as well as other faiths – teach that marriage is an existential bond between husband and wife for the procreation and nurturing of children. Yet this is not only a religious view, and one does not have to be religious to endorse it. It is rather an eminently rational view based on recognising the best way to protect life for future generations.
By Samuel Johnson