Douglas Pratt: Better to celebrate our differences

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Gay couples would be best to have their own enabling act rather than be subsumed under the Marriage Act. Picture / Getty Images
Gay couples would be best to have their own enabling act rather than be subsumed under the Marriage Act. Picture / Getty Images

There is a lot of hype surrounding the push for gay marriage in New Zealand. Expectations of a momentous change are high. It seems the last bastion against full equality of hetero and homosexual people is set to fall. But is this really the case?

Stephen Rainbow (Dialogue, February 22) in rightly bemoaning that anti-gay rhetoric and prejudice mistakenly equate a stable loving relationship, an apparently gay goal, with marriage. But marriage is no guarantee of that, as our separation and dissolution figures readily testify. At best marriage presupposes and hopes for stable longevity, and you can have one without the other.

Marriage is a term that applies to a particular form of heterosexual relationship. Obviously, homosexual identity and relationship is not the same as heterosexual. To juxtapose the two terms is to commit non-sense. It is to say, in effect, "homosexual-heterosexual". The term gay marriage is an oxymoron.

Proponents of gay marriage stress the goal of equality. But if a gay couple think that getting married will confer a quality of gender-neutral relationship and commitment previously lacking, they are mistaken. For marriage is not, and can never be, a gender-neutral state of affairs.

As Ron Hay (Dialogue, February 25) correctly notes, the proposal to apparently "extend" the provisions of the Marriage Act to include homosexual couples is a sleight-of-hand, for it will require a wholesale redefinition that will detract from the distinctiveness of both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

We can see this clearly when considering what constitutes the act of getting married. All legal marriages require a set of conditions and a minimal formula of words that each party publicly utters. There are four essential elements to the act of getting married. The first is that the couple declare their free intention, typically by saying yes to a question posed by the celebrant. Then there is the saying of a vow, which must meet the legal minimum of each stating to the other words to the effect that he becomes her husband and she becomes his wife. The language is all about a gender-specific relationship.

The saying of the vow is usually symbolised by the giving, or exchange, of a ring. Then the celebrant pronounces that the couple are married - "I pronounce you to be husband and wife" - and, again, the language used is relational, not institutional. It is not about entering or creating an institution called marriage; it is about establishing a unique relationship of marriage. This is followed by the signing of the marriage certificate and, if appropriate, the register, which the couple do as bride and groom.

Before this sequence of events commenced the couple were two single persons. Each has taken on a role and identity with respect to the other - the female becomes "wife" and the male becomes "husband". There is no reason why gay couples could not undertake some similar ceremony of equal value to that of marriage, but logically it cannot be the same thing. For the terms of marriage are the gender-specific relational terms of man/woman, groom/bride, husband/wife. The act of getting married reflects this. If it does not, then it is not marriage.

I am all for gays enjoying equality before the law together with straights, but the simplistic identification of equality with sameness that tends to dominate the debate is a travesty of logic. A banana and an apple are equally fruit, but they are not the same thing. Marriage is a union of male and female. Whatever may be designated as the union of homosexual commitment is an equally committed relationship. But the two are not the same thing.

We are all different, and the point is to affirm and celebrate difference not gloss it with the false equality of apparent, or honorary, sameness. That is what happened when Maori were accorded the status of honorary whites in order to play rugby in apartheid South Africa, for example. We rightly objected. If a gay couple refer to each other in the heterosexual terms of husband and wife, this would surely be a devaluation of their gay distinctiveness - to play a role belonging to an altogether different form of relationship. Is that what is intended by gay marriage? I think not. Better to call it something else. Better to have its own enabling act. Don't confuse the issue by subsuming it under the Marriage Act.

Professor Douglas Pratt of the religious studies programme at Waikato University is author of Celebrating Marriage: A New Zealand guide to wedding ceremonies and birth celebration.

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- NZ Herald

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