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The totalitarianism of marriage equality

People should be allowed to freely express their opposition to gay and lesbian marriage

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

Elton John has managed to leap back into the limelight by calling for a boycott of luxury fashion label Dolce & Gabbana. His plea for the trophy wives of the world to unite and ditch their $1,000 handbags was prompted by an interview published in the Italian magazine Panorama in which the founders of the brand, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, were seen to have questioned gay marriage and criticised same-sex parenting.

The Italian designers, who are both gay and were formerly in a relationship, subsequently explained they were only stating their own personal opinions and choices with regards to the traditional family and belief in the need for children to have a mother and a father. But the attempt to defend their democratic right to free thought and expression did not save them from suffering the fate of those who dare to dissent on fashionable social issues, and instead earned them their very own hashtag (hatetag?) #D&Gboycott.

What does this latest example of burning heretics alive on social media have in common with Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm’s private members bill to legalise gay, transgender and inter-sex marriage? The censure that was piled onto Dolce and Gabbana by a gaggle of like-minded celebrities is a taste of the hostility members of parliament who vote against marriage equality will face. Politicians who vote ‘no’ are certain to be singled out as bigots for denying gay and lesbian couples their ‘rights’.

Ironically, these accusations will be made in the name of promoting tolerance, diversity and acceptance. Yet the underlying authoritarianism is self-evident, as is the virtual political gun being leveled at MPs’ heads: either agree with marriage equality or face an onslaught of name-calling and social ostracism for daring to have a contrary opinion. This is doubly ironic considering that the marriage equality campaign wants federal parliamentarians to be given a free or conscience vote on the issue. Yet marriage equality advocates do not pay their opponents the courtesy of believing their views are motivated by genuine conscientious objections regarding the meaning and purpose of marriage.

Personally, I do not believe marriage equality will undermine the institution of marriage, for a very good reason: allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed cannot possibly do any more damage than straight couples have wrought on marriage since the passage of the ‘no fault’ divorce Family Law Act of 1975. But opinions differ. Organisations such as the Australian Christian Lobby — which copped flak for running TV ads during the Sydney Mardi Gras opposing gay marriage, and saw the ads yanked by SBS — are at least consistent, and oppose all efforts to redefine the meaning of marriage, regardless of whether those efforts are spearheaded by Lionel Murphy or Tim Wilson.

Those who are keen to defend and promote the traditional meaning of marriage as an important social institution have consistently maintained that marriage should be about using the holy rites of the religion and social rituals of the law to underwrite the shared commitment of opposite-sex parents to raising children. They are wary of another push to dilute the meaning and further reduce marriage to simply a vehicle for individual self-fulfillment, especially given the toll family breakdown has on children.

The social science evidence is clear. Children, on average, do best on a range of welfare indicators when their parents are married and have stayed married. Marriage is associated with a range of advantages, including: devoting greater financial, emotional and educational resources to child rearing; and, crucially, greater family stability compared to de facto and sole parent couples. However, this evidence could cut both ways, and could be used constructively by the marriage equality movement to bolster the case for change.

This evidence offers a basis for a conservative case for marriage equality. Traditional institutions such as marriage, much like the common law, should be flexible enough to be adapted and applied to changing circumstances in order to sustain their relevance and prevent them from becoming reactionary. Because gay and lesbian parenting is increasingly common, there may be sound reasons to extend the right to marriage so that the children in all types of families can enjoy its benefits. Rather than scream ‘homophobia’, advocates of equality might think of ways to try to enable marriage traditionalists to change their minds about same-sex marriage in good conscience.

This would require demonstrating that the marriage equality movement takes the traditional meaning of marriage ‘til death do us part’ seriously, and that gay and lesbian couples will take their marriage vows seriously and will stay married for the sake of children. However, given the character of the campaign so far, to recast it in a conservative fashion would require the leopard to undergo a considerable change of spots.

Rather than win friends, the marriage equality movement appears to favour obliterating all who stand in its way. The more likely outcome, I fear, is that the advocates of equality will continue to try to shame and embarrass opponents into swallowing their principles. For as Dolce and Gabbana have learned, all those who question ‘gay rights’ end up being condemned like Fred Nile at the Mardi Gras. A straw in the wind as to the kind of ‘debate’ one can expect is Scott Ludlum’s infamous attack-speech on Tony Abbott (which went viral on youtube of course), in which the PM was told that due to this opposition to changing the Marriage Act he would not be welcome in Western Australia if he showed up ‘waving his homophobia in people’s faces’.

The marriage equality campaign is a depressing insight into what politics looks like in the 21st century. In place of rational debate, we have the cheap, easy and shabby politics of perpetual grievance and taking offence against all who dare depart from the ‘party line’. This is underpinned by the nasty threat that only true believers in the cause will be considered fit members of civilised society. This isn’t democracy — it’s the totalitarian tactics of personal intimidation. In a free and democratic country, you should not have to risk social and cultural death by Twitter to express a dissenting opinion.

Dr Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.

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