Why does marriage exist in the first place? Marriage exists because men and women produce offspring. Without that simple fact, marriage would not exist. Marriage is unnecessary except for that fact. Society has depended on and nurtured the institution of marriage to provide certainty around the birth of children.
Story: A man visited a mountain kingdom where the people built rope bridges between the peaks so that they could trade with their neighbours. The man returned to his village on the plains and retold his stories. The people were puzzled and dismayed as they looked across the plains. “We need more rope!” they said.
Marriage between men and women has developed in every almost society on Earth for the entire history of man, and long before that, as a way to ensure the continuation of the tribe, the society, the culture. There are some minor exceptions, like the Naxi ethnic group in Yunnan province of China that refrains from marriage. In general though, marriage has been integral in the development of society and civilisation.
Story: The man who had visited the mountains had a better plan. The next morning the villagers were busy digging a deep trench around their village.
The concept of marriage has always been about a man and woman. Gay couples in the past have definitely established long-term relationships but until just recently, no one has expressed a need or desire to call this marriage.
Story: Having built bridges across the trench around their village, the people set off to trade with their neighbours. “Why didn’t we think of this before?” they asked.
Apart from man and woman, other combinations of the two sexes (man and man or woman and woman) do not produce offspring, so their pairing is irrelevant to to the original concept of marriage. Marriage is often celebrated as the act of two loving people coming together but we all know that it is the bit where a child is conceived that makes this pairing so essential to society. So essential that in the last two or three centuries, after thousands of years of custom, tradition and, indeed, thousands of years of religious observance, marriage between man and woman has now become part of the law of most nations.
Story: When the people of the village reached the neighbouring towns and villages they were astonished at what they saw. “Where are your bridges?” they asked. “How can you trade with your neighbours without bridges?”
Why were national laws required around marriage? After all, it is not the place of government to decide who can pair up with whom. When the marriage laws were first written (in British law specifically) there was a big difference between the relative status of the sexes. Marriage, at that time, ensured the legitimacy of a man’s children, protected the woman and her children from exploitation and placed obligations on both the man and the woman. There was already a stigma attached to pre-marital relationships and bearing children “out-of-wedlock”. A woman on her own with children was in the worst possible position.
Story: The people hurried back to their village puzzled to know why other villages did not have trenches and bridges but could still trade with their neighbours. The man who had come back from the mountains was ready. He replied, “Those people haven’t learnt the truth, yet. They are living in the past. Come with me and we can show them the right way.”
So the laws that we have today are based on two basic premises that had been true in most societies in most ages, that women are disadvantaged and require protection, and that their children must be provided for by their father, her husband. These may seem rather quaint concepts today.
Story: The people of the village went out across the land showing everyone how to dig trenches and build bridges so that they could trade with their neighbours. They attested to the stories of the mountain people and their special bridges between the peaks.
Are traditional marriage laws that exist in Australia today applicable to same-sex relationships?
Many of the conditions that existed when the laws were originally written are no longer relevant even for man-woman relationships. Nowadays, women often have children without marriage and the state helps looks after them. Men and women often forego the wedding ceremony and just live together with their children and there is no problem. Women are most often not dependent on a man as they can earn a similar income, although there is still room for improvement. There remains the automatic presumption of fatherhood for the husband.
Story: In the surrounding villages, the people encountered some resistance to their ideas, but they ridiculed and shamed whoever disagreed, and soon all the villages and towns had accepted the truth that they needed trenches and bridges in order to trade with their neighbours.
The preconditions of the marriage laws are not present for same-sex relationships. Obviously there are no issues concerning a mismatch of power between the sexes in the relationship, as both participants are the same sex. In same-sex relationships there are no natural offspring so the parentage of any children would need to be established by some other mechanism in any case. From a strictly logical point of view, same-sex relationships are irrelevant to the original tradition of marriage, and the laws that followed on from that tradition are irrelevant to any same-sex relationship. There is also no social pressure on gay people to marry before they cohabit, so it’s hard to see what is actually behind this push for change.
Story: Years later, a man who lived in the mountains went on a long journey. He came to the plains people’s villages. He asked them why they had trenches and bridges around their villages. They replied, “You should know better than us. After all, we learnt this from your people. It is so we can trade with our neighbours.”
The push for same-sex marriage has been pursued as if a society that doesn’t accept their demands is a society rejecting them altogether. That’s not an appropriate or logical extension. Same-sex couples are already free to have their relationships which are personal and can be just as valid as any relationship without the need for the marriage laws.
Story: The mountain man looked exasperated. “Don’t you realise how we much we resent having to cross those bridges to make the simplest journey and how we envied you people on the plains. You could go anywhere without any hindrance! Couldn’t you be satisfied with living in your own way in your own place?”
Perhaps, some time in the future, same-sex couples will realise that the campaign for same-sex marriage was really about something else. Then they won’t really care about marriage anymore.