Divorcing Tradition: Freedom, Equality and Marriage

Arings Marriage can mean many different things to different people. For some, it’s all about the wedding – often an event with the pomp and opulence of a fairy tale ball. For others, it’s about the legal arrangement and the accompanying benefits, which could mean anything from health insurance to citizenship. Still for others, the most important part may be the commitment to sharing a life together.

In recent decades, the issue of gay marriage has been widely debated. Should two men in a committed relationship enjoy the same benefits as a man and a woman in the same domestic arrangement? If it were simply an issue of basic human rights and equality, then the answer is clear – gays and lesbians are human, so human rights should apply. But gay marriage violates tradition, and tradition is important to many people.

Traditions are part of our history, part of our culture, and part of who we are. The degree to which we suffer to maintain traditions reflects their great importance. Maintaining tradition has been worth the pain of genital mutilation, ceremonial scarring, and foot binding. Nevertheless, traditional practices have been disappearing steadily. For example, in many places, women are now considered full persons. They’re allowed to work outside the home, to wear pants, and to vote. For those who value tradition, this is a trend that must stop.

One might argue that traditional practices should be abandoned when they no longer make sense. But as French mathematician Blaise Pascal recognized, the heart has its reasons that reason doesn’t understand. Some things are simply more important than reason, and for many, tradition is one of them.

If there is any doubt about the appropriateness or morality of same-sex marriages, we can always turn to religion for answers. According to many religions, marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman. The woman is supposed to stay at home and be subservient and they should have lots of children. Some religions also advocate putting people to death for minor deviations from the traditional paradigm. Roman Catholicism seems to be tolerant of some deviations, like pedophilia, but not others, like homosexuality or the use of contraception.

Some argue against same-sex marriage on the basis that homosexuality is unnatural. Perhaps by “unnatural” they mean something other than lack of occurrence in nature. There are lots of animals that engage in homosexual behaviors, with an impressive array of mammals among them. Bonobos, which have been described by primatologist Frans de Waal as “the free-sex hippies of the animal world”, are completely bisexual. They’re also our close evolutionary cousins. Simple observation would suggest that homosexuality is entirely natural.

Perhaps what is really meant by “unnatural” is that homosexual activity is wrong or immoral because it is non-reproductive? This would make some sense if concurrently held views included the notion that use of contraception is immoral. The desire that underlies non-reproductive sex is entirely natural, but satisfying it does seem less purposeful. Despite the lack of potential for conception, however, such practices aren’t without benefits. Research has shown that sex, in general, confers a range of health benefits, including improved sleep, better cardiovascular health, and better self-esteem.

Many of us were raised to view sex as something naughty and base. Control over such urges makes us seem more respectable and less like animals. A sexually adventurous person may even by described as a “real animal in the bedroom”. The truth, of course, is that we are animals in the kitchen and the living room too, and even at the office. There isn’t any way of behaving that will change the fact that we are animals.

Perhaps because so many things, like weddings, and commitments and benefits, are associated with marriage, it’s easy to forget what marriage is really about. It’s clearly not about children. Two non-reproductive individuals are generally allowed to marry legally as long as they’re of opposite sex. And homosexual individuals are allowed to adopt children in most parts of North America and the UK.

It’s worth pointing out that the adoption of children by homosexual couples is also an assault on tradition. Research suggests that parenting by same-sex couples is just as good if not better than that by opposite-sex couples. But reason and evidence have little to do with tradition. Perhaps it’s worth asking ourselves what’s more important: children’s well-being or having traditional parents?

Marriage is also not about a particular domestic arrangement or commitment level. Living together in a committed and intimate relationship may be insufficient grounds for legal marriage. Same sex people can have children and live together in a domestic arrangement identical to that of married couples and still be denied spousal benefits in some places. One has to wonder what defines marriage if it isn’t love or commitment or raising children. The answer lies in the only distinguishing feature of traditional marriage – the sex difference.

The argument against gay marriage is thus similar to the argument against allowing women to work in traditionally male occupations; being a wife is a woman’s job and being a husband is a man’s job. If we have laws against non-traditional marriages, for similar reasons we should have laws that prevent women from working in non-traditional occupations. A man’s job should be done by a man. Evidence that women might perform the task just as well is irrelevant if our aim is simply to uphold traditional practices and beliefs. We can be confident that same-sex marriages are wrong in the same way that we can be confident that women – particularly blond women – shouldn’t be hired for jobs that involve math or driving.

Not everyone who declines to be married wants to spend his or her life entirely alone. There are also non-sexual domestic relationships in which many of the traditional spousal benefits and privileges would make sense. Two widowed or unmarried women may decide to live together for companionship. If one is hospitalized should the other not be entitled to the visitation privileges that a traditional partner would enjoy? Human relationships don’t need be sexual in nature to be important to our well-being.

There is great variety in human sexual practices. We tend to think that we all fit neatly into heterosexual and homosexual categories, but we don’t. There are bisexual people, and asexuals with little interest in sex at all. Then of course, there are “autosexuals” – those who, perhaps not by choice, engage mainly in solo sex. And there are all sorts of sexual idiosyncrasies and fetishes. The variety of human sexual preferences and practices might suggest to some that most humans are unqualified to decide what constitutes an appropriate sexual relationship. If left to our own devices, we might just be content with our devices. Freedom leads to variety in relationships, domestic arrangements, and sexual practices. This variety would serve to further dilute traditional households, which have already declined significantly in North America in recent decades. Freedom is dangerous to tradition.

If we want to protect traditional marriage, we should be prepared to sacrifice our love affair with equal rights and sexual freedoms. If tradition is to be maintained, its place in society must be above human rights. Our education system would need to reflect this and foster respect for tradition for its own sake. This would require indoctrination to some extent. If we encourage children to think for themselves, it’s inevitable that many of them will decide that we ought to have equal rights. Gay rights would generally need to be stamped out so as to keep homosexual people in the closet. With openly gay and lesbian people making valuable contributions to society, it’s difficult to maintain the belief that they should be denied equal rights.

Unless we teach children to value tradition for its own sake and protect our traditional practices from critical examination, we risk having the very foundation of our society change. We may find ourselves in a society that accords equal rights to all people and that places human well-being above tradition. Is this the kind of society that we want to live in? I think so.