Same-Sex and Mixed-Race Revisited:
Should Marriage Be a Public Affair?
by Emily Monroy
A year ago I wrote the essay “Same sex and mixed race: zeroing in on the debate around gay and interracial marriage.” In it I stated that in a modern society, the state has as much prerogative to ban gay marriage as it does interracial marriage, which is to say none at all. Some of my views have changed since then, though. No, I still have nothing against either same-sex or interracial marriage. On the other hand, I have begun to ask myself whether the government should be in the wedding business in the first place.
I am not the first to pose this question. In an article in the men’s magazine Everyman, Canadian feminist Wendy McElroy says that instead of a three-way relationship between the government and the marrying parties, marriage should be a contract between the prospective spouses, the terms of which the legal authorities could enforce like any other contract. The spouses themselves however would be the ones to draw up these terms rather than adhere to a “one size fits all” formula set by the state. According to American libertarian David Boaz, privatizing the institution of matrimony would essentially end the debate over gay marriage. In the meantime churches, some of which strongly oppose gay marriage and others of which perform “commitment ceremonies” for same-sex partners, could decide which unions they would bless. Thus everyone would have the freedom to define marriage as they wished.
Others are not so sure about this less than modest proposal. Russian-American journalist Cathy Young fears that conservatives would hail the privatization of marriage as the “final destruction of the family,” whereas gays would see it as an attempt to exclude them from the institution altogether rather than expand it to include them. Ms. Young’s fears are not unfounded. For example, right-wing commentator Betsy Hart writes that while she and her husband deliberately left out any mention of the state from their wedding ceremony, she now considers what the government thinks about marriage to be very important. In other words, the state should uphold the traditional definition of marriage as a union between a woman and man.
Hart and other conservatives who want the state to reflect their definition of the family might keep in mind that by the same token the government could involve itself in family matters in ways that would probably not please them. Take the issue of corporal punishment. In Canada recently there was an attempt to introduce a bill that would make it illegal for parents to spank their children (the proposal ultimately failed). Among its most vociferous critics were conservative groups who felt the bill interfered with their right to raise their children as they saw fit. So inviting the government to have a say in family life could also work to traditionalists’ detriment.
Yet at times liberals can be insensitive to right-wingers’ concerns. In another article, Cathy Young states that while pro-lifers do not possess the right to outlaw abortion, their tax money should not be used for a procedure they find repugnant. Most pro-choice advocates however insist that abortion be not only legally permitted but publicly funded as well. Similarly, should employers who morally oppose gay relationships be forced to extend benefits to same-sex partners of their workers? Privatizing marriage would leave that to the discretion of individual employers. (Nor would they be obliged to provide benefits to heterosexual spouses of employees.) People with religious or other objections to homosexuality have the right not to subsidize a lifestyle of which they disapprove.
Personally I find the idea of removing marriage from governmental control altogether an attractive one. It would among other things eliminate the “one size fits all” formula to which anyone who enters into a legal marriage must adhere. For example, the current law that divorcing couples must divide their assets equally makes sense when ensuring that a woman who works on her husband’s farm gets her fair share of monetary compensation if they split up. But should the former wife of alcoholic be forced to pay alimony to her ex-spouse who prefers to spend his days at the bar rather than the workplace, as happened in a real-life Canadian case?
The question of privatizing marriage has come up with regard to gay rather than interracial marriage. At this point the majority of people do not wish to criminalize the latter, even if they morally disapprove of such unions. However, looking back at past legislation that forbade not only mixed marriages but non-marital interracial relationships as well, supporters of interracial marriage should be sceptical of any state involvement in family life whatsoever.
Emily Monroy is a professional translator and is of Irish, Italian and Norwegian descent. Born in Windsor, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto. Her articles have appeared in several publications, including Interracial Voice, Cats Canada, and Urban Mozaik. She welcomes feedback on her articles. You can contact Emily here