In recent months I’ve seen same-sex marriage described variously as: a niche issue; a darling of conservative governments and therefore the enemy of radical queers everywhere; a sure-thing within a generation; another failing of the Gillard government; a politically expedient strategy for Rudd (and that turned out so well!); a fond wish; the ‘fashion of the moment’; another reason to move to New Zealand; unimportant because de facto couples have rights anyway; a ticket to bestiality; a basic human rights issue.
I’ve read tweets and blogs and op eds and overheard students say ‘yeah, of course I believe in gay marriage’. Since the election I’ve heard dismay about the new government’s expected failure to improve — or even maintain — LGBT rights.
But I haven’t had any chats about marriage equality at school pick-up. My mothers’ group friends aren’t sharing articles about it on social media. I haven’t seen Michael Carr-Greg or Pinky McKay or whoever else currently passes for a parenting expert doing the morning-show rounds about the issue. And I certainly haven’t seen any young people given a platform (beyond youth media like Triple J) to talk about what marriage equality means to them.
When heterosexual couples reach a certain age or relationship stage it is expected that they will start planning for marriage-and-babies. Long term de facto couples regularly announce a wedding timed for just before they want to ‘start a family’ — any time friends in their thirties announce wedding plans it’s taken as a sure sign of cluckiness. It is widely accepted now that a woman needn’t acquire a husband before getting up the duff and yet, for so many heterosexuals, the plan to ‘settle down to have kids’ implies matrimony, not simply cohabitation. It seems to me that the Marriage and Babies Boxed Set is still far more popular than the less traditionally packaged version.
The reasons for this are many, and they are not all about tradition or religion or social class. Despite the quite strong legal protections enjoyed by cohabiting couples in Australia, there is still some legal expediency attached to marriage, especially if a relationship ultimately breaks down if one spouse is dependent and/or there are children. And there is no doubt that being married ensures that everyone: bureaucrats, police, CPS workers, school principals, doctors, lawyers, even family members, takes your relationship status seriously.
More powerful even than the legal ramifications of marriage, though, is the social imperative. Unwed mothers (a term that itself exposes the othering of single mums) are often treated less well, even by healthcare providers. I’ve known pregnant women, too swollen to wear a wedding ring, who’ve been shamed and scolded by the pathologist performing a routine blood test and random people in cafes: in each instance the women chose to assert that they were really married, pointing to the wedding band temporarily worn as a pendant. The temptation to assert one’s right to breed whilst unwed is easily trumped by the need to seek shelter in heteronormative symbols. And understandably so.
Kids frequently start play-acting weddings in toddlerhood. Bean has expressed a desire to live alone as an adult but she still talks about wanting a wedding. And sometimes, she asks me to get married again.
I haven’t told her that I couldn’t legally marry my partner. Shattering her fragile ignorance of the extent of the bigotry her family faces would break my heart. Soon enough someone will tell her that Mama and Ima can’t be married like most of the other parents and step-parents she knows. Like all kids, she has an easily mobilised outrage switch: I expect she’ll rail against the injustice. But she’ll also have the sensation that I feel every time my relationship is devalued or erased or vilified. The sensation of a thousand tiny voices whispering ‘you are less than us.’
It is hard enough to get Bean’s teacher to acknowledge her queer parents — it is very clear that even in the 21st century mainstream schools are heavily invested in teaching heterosexuality. And what chance do we have, even as feminist killjoy parents, of meaningfully counteracting the relentless messaging about marriage? Bean loved the wedding in her school’s recent production of Cinderella. She’s dead keen on happily-ever-after.
Twenty percent of queer couples are raising kids. I’m sure not all of the children sense a lack of social recognition or stability due to their parents’ inability to legally marry, but I have no doubt that many do. Importantly, their peers who have straight parents also lack the unequivocal signal sent by wedding rings and the terms ‘wife’ and ‘husband’. Children may have access to ‘Tango Makes Three’ but they are not missing the meaning behind the ongoing denial of recognition faced by same-sex couples. Less than married (or potentially married), less than ‘normal’, less than equal. Is that how we want same-sex attracted youth to envisage their future? Conservatives and bigots are not afraid to use children as an excuse for their hatefulness: does the left want to leave a gaping vacuum where positive discourse about what family diversity could mean for children should be?
I know that realistically, marriage equality is off Australia’s agenda for at least the next few years. But it shouldn’t be off the minds of straight parents.
Someone has to think of the children.