On the 22nd May the Republic of Ireland voted in favour of allowing same sex marriage (SSM); they are the first country to do so by popular vote. This is because any changes to the constitution have to be put to a referendum, and in this form of direct democracy 62% voted to expand marriage to same sex couples.
This is surely a big win for a country still under the influence of the Catholic Church and its social conservatism. In 1995 the right to divorce was passed with only 0.6% of the vote; only in 1992 was sex between same sex people decriminalised.
Yet, the SSM debate is not without controversy within the LGBTQ movement and on the left: marriage has dominated the discourse often at the expense of Trans rights and other important points of struggle for LGBTQ people.
SSM, arguably, is for the most affluent of LGBTQ people: middle class white gay men. Then there is the socialist critique: marriage is an out-dated concept based around protecting property rights. Is this an institution we should be protecting and expanding? For socialists and feminists, arguments presented by both sides are convincing but the question remains, should we care?
The problem with marriage
Marriage in the West has two key aspects traditionally: one to do with religion and the other to do with property. Religious and civil marriage have separated now completely in Ireland. The Catholic Church, other Christian denominations and other religions may perform faith-based marriages in accordance with their beliefs, but the Catholic Church no longer has a say in how civil marriages are performed. Which is no small feat considering the hold the Church has on Ireland, especially as it happened by popular vote. Religion is becoming increasingly unimportant in public life, with many people in the West – including in Ireland – seeing religion as either a private matter or turning away from it entirely. The Church in Ireland, although still more influential than in many other countries, is on the decline.
Which leads us onto the second aspect of traditional marriage: property. Marriage has typically been about maintaining and protecting ownership and it is the strength of neoliberalism that this has been maintained. Where our values have become more liberal, such as not viewing women as property, marriage has evolved to be about love – yet the protection of land and wealth remain.
Marriage has also been expanded to be a state-benefit: with hospital-visitation rights, economic and tax benefits all existing within the institution. Now marriage has been expanded in Ireland for same sex couples, they too can access this benefit and protect their wealth.
As socialists and feminists we should be opposed to marriage. The argument that marriage is a benefit that people should have access seems appealing, but it is moving us away from the argument that all people should have access to these benefits no matter what.
Conservatives like David Cameron can appear more palatable by being in favour of marriage for same sex couples, whilst cutting vital services for LGBTQ people living on the fringes of society, because marriage is inherently a conservative concept and queer people are acceptable so long as they are rich and assimilate. This is a key example of where social issues like SSM are framed independently to economic issues. SSM marriage being viewed as “equality” for LGBTQ people means ignoring the intersecting oppression and relation to capital that queer people experience.
Is it worth the effort?
Is SSM worth it for LGBTQ people humiliated over their asylum requests, for BME Trans women violently assaulted or for LGBTQ youth estranged from their families? Beyond the politics of respectability and assimilation are many people who will never fit with the restrictive image of queerness cultivated for SSM campaigns. SSM has notoriously dominated as a single issue and has left little room for anything else.
However, Ireland is very much a special case compared to other countries: it has gone from decriminalisation to marriage in just over 20 years. There is a big difference between illegal, tolerated and equal. What may seem like a small step in another context is significant in a country where being queer was a crime until the early ‘90s. SSM is certainly the tip of the iceberg for LGBTQ liberation, but we cannot underestimate the context in which it has happened in Ireland.
The argument of whether SSM is worth the effort or whether we should care comes down to how SSM fits into the wider struggle for queer liberation. If marriage is all that’s there, then a benefit has been extended but there are many indignities still left to suffer.
The argument for same sex marriage
There are very strong reasons we should be happy about the SSM win in Ireland and reasons why excellent queer activists and left wing radicals campaigned for it. Firstly, having a referendum meant platforming the ‘No’ campaign: LGBTQ people in Ireland were subjected to weeks of images, propaganda and heightened homophobia. Challenging this bigotry head on was important and the win meant that homophobia was not institutionalised by popular vote. Supporting same sex marriage is a vital show of solidarity to the LGBTQ people in Ireland who have to confront a campaign full of bigotry.
We should also be happy because of how big the ‘Yes’ campaign was’ it saw a massive mobilisation of grassroots activists door knocking and a large amount of the Irish working class voting for SSM especially where they were organised against water privatisation. This dispels notions that the working class are inherently homophobic and it shows the strengths of grassroots campaigning. The argument made by a lot of people is to see SSM as a stepping-stone to the next struggle.
Furthermore, just because we oppose marriage does that mean people should not have the right to take part in it, if they so choose, especially as despite the history of marriage the majority of people do marry for love today. The discussion is also crucially different between people who choose not to marry for political reasons and people who cannot make that choice because they are not allowed to be part of the institution in the first place.
Of course, reform is not the change we want, but it can be the way to push for radical change as every victory should be. We should be seeing SSM as part of a long strategy for LGBTQ liberation and challenging anyone, liberal or otherwise, who thinks equality starts and ends with marriage.
Abortion and same sex marriage
The general feeling has been that winning SSM will mean that the right to abortion will be won soon too. That argument is logical, if we look at SSM as a loosening of the grip of the Catholic Church and maybe it will mean the legalisation of abortion will follow shortly.
However, I am not filled with hope because SSM and abortion are two very different kinds of issues. SSM has been campaigned on as a movement for love, for stability, to create a home. These are very positive ideas that are easy to get behind and SSM materially benefits the most well off in society, but abortion is about when life gets messy. It’s not about “nice couples who just want to settle down” but about women who have sex.
Women who forgot to use protection, women who don’t want kids or are not ready, women who have already had enough kids, women who are experiencing complications or women who have been raped – some ofa myriad of reasons why more than 3,500 Irish women travelled to England in 2013 to have an abortion. In a society that shames women for drinking too much, “asking for it”, being too promiscuous, ambitious or not a good enough mum, a campaign to legalise abortion would be very different from SSM and I doubt as successful.
So, should we care about same sex marriage?
I would cautiously answer, yes. The success of the vote in Ireland and the wave of countries legalising SSM will be measured by whether it remains a single-issue, becomes a symbol of assimilation or is used to propel forwards more struggles for the LGBTQ community. Let’s hope it’s the latter.
Moreover, it is hard to deny even the limited expanding of equality to an oppressed group to make things materially better. However, the criticisms of marriage still stand, because our goal should be to get rid of the institution all together and to end homophobia and transphobia. We should see SSM for what it is, and continue to struggle and agitate for abortion, for Queer Liberation and for an end to capitalism.
Zoe Salanitro is a student at the University of Birmingham, reading English Literature and History. She’s an activist in the group Defend Education Birmingham and the campaigns officer for the Women’s Association. Zoe is also part of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.