I know this will surprise you, given the shy and retiring violets who largely write in these pages, but one of the main problems with being a columnist is the rampaging ego. In my own case, this manifests not in drunken debauchery or unabashed priapism (which is a shame as both sound fun) but in a naive and quite self-obsessed assumption that people might have been keeping track of what I’ve written about things, regardless of where I’ve done so.
Hence my mistake. Two weeks ago, here, I made an offhand reference to supporting gay marriage. Since then, I’ve had a handful of letters, a few emails, and an actual face-to-face bollocking from a very nice lady at a ‘meet the readers’ Spectator tea party. Combined, they left me pondering that, although I’ve already argued the case in the Times six months ago, it’s perfectly possible that readers here won’t realise how cleverly I did so. As I cannot bear this (see above, re: the ego), I’m going to do it again. Drop me an email if you also read the last one, and I’ll send you a few funny paragraphs about something else. George Osborne and trains, maybe. I’m all over that.
The only real argument against gay marriage is the Christian one. I didn’t realise that at first, because Christians were shielding their motivation behind lots of guff about nature and bigamy, but it’s pretty obvious now. I struggle with exactly why the loving Christian god would so object to gay marriage, but I daresay these people have given it some thought, and I’m unlikely to change their minds. Crucially, though, their minds do not need to be changed. They simply need to accept the unstoppable logic of the argument that their beliefs deserve no agency over anybody else.
Personally, I was raised as a Jew. Had I wanted to marry my wife in my childhood synagogue, the fact that she is not a Jew would have prohibited me from doing so. That’s fine. Them’s the rules. But I’ve never yet met the rabbi who would argue that the law — the law — should ban me from getting married anywhere else, either. As I wrote before, in a secular world, the headline ‘bishop slams gay marriage’ really ought to matter about as much as ‘imam miffed about pet licences’. You know. Rendering unto Caesar, and all that.
Of late, the vogueish argument has become one that civil gay marriage would inevitably lead to churches being forced to conduct gay marriages, due to militant gays indulging in murky shenanigans at the European Court of Human Rights. I’m not sure about this one. I suppose it might happen, and I also suppose it ought not to. How much, though, does it matter? There surely cannot be many people, gay or otherwise, who want to antagonistically get married in a place that really doesn’t want them to. The whole point of gay marriage, indeed, is to make our society less of one in which people feel these fights need to be fought.
At any rate, again logically, the argument simply doesn’t work. A strong likelihood that A will lead to B does not entail that A is a bad idea. It’s a bit like opposing female suffrage on the grounds that it might lead to women demanding quotas in Association Football teams. I mean, it might, but that’s a whole other problem. And a rather niche one, too, on which to exercise a veto.
Once you’ve put the religious objections on the sidelines where they belong, all of the other arguments simply wither away. Against nature? The birds and the bees do not get married. On a slippery slope leading to state recognition of bigamy and incest? Simply rubbish. For one thing, as my colleague Oliver Kamm has argued, excellently, the principle of one person being tied to another person is not incidental here, but fundamental. For another, if there is a slippery slope, then it starts not with gay marriage, but with marriage.
Any other objection you can dredge up, as I’ve argued before, will have its roots in distaste, which is no basis for law either. During my bollocking at the Spectator tea party, my interlocutor — a polite and wholly pleasant lady — told me that it was logically impossible for gays to marry, ‘because they can’t consummate it’. Ever since then, I’ve slightly regretted not feigning bafflement, and saying, ‘but what if they put their penises in each other’s bottoms?’ But that would have been a mistake then, and it’s probably a mistake now, because it employs the language of outrage. This debate doesn’t need that. It needs the opposite. It needs cold hard sense.
The objection I mind the most, often argued on these pages, is that none of this really matters, and that all we have here is David Cameron and others like him (including me, clearly) striking a modernist pose without meaningful substance. I mind that, because it is a twist of the truth. Unlike civil partnerships, which were about rights, this is about society. It represents principles of individual liberty and agency which are currently impeded by the state and must not be. It represents how I want my country to look, the values I want to dominate it, and the sort of beacon I want it to be to the world.
Plenty of those against gay marriage deserve respect for their views, but they are wrong, and they will lose. Do you get it, yet? I’m in favour of gay marriage even if gays aren’t. Rarely do I mean anything as much as I mean this. So now you know. Ego satisfied. I’m only sorry it took so long.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.
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