Germaine Greer and gay marriage

by nike, April 22, 2013


Chloe and Olivia’s wedding cake. Actually, I don’t know any Chloe and Olivia. The title given to this image is a kind of visual extension of one of my favourite passages in Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own, in which she writes: ” ‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature …”

Germaine Greer recently took it upon herself to comment on the debates about gay marriage.

Now, first I have to say that I have a great deal of respect for Germaine. She’s difficult, noisy, articulate, passionate, awkward, intelligent and all kinds of other adjectives. She says what she thinks, even when she’s wrong. And says why she thinks what she thinks while lots of other people sit around on the sidelines sniggering into their handkerchiefs and not being courageous enough to say what they think, and risk being thought wrong.

And, to be honest, there are things about Germaine’s position that I do agree with. I’m gay, but I feel ambivalent about gay marriage.

When I think about it, my ambivalence comes down to something that is best expressed, at least for me, by reference to Virginia Woolf. Virginia once wrote, in A Room Of One’s Own, about a moment of healthy, clear-eyed doubt she experienced while crossing the lawn at some boys’ club of a university. She hesitated long enough to wonder why we (in this case, women) were so keen to join up to these men’s institutions, on their terms. Why were ‘we’ in such a hurry to be just like them, and compete on their terms for the rewards they felt were worth having. Why would we want to join the mens’ club rather than, say, form our own club, or found our own institution.

As a queer woman, I feel that we* should stop and consider why we want to join their (in this case, heterosexual’s) ludicrous institution (marriage). What’s so good about marriage?

Not much,you might say. Marriage is an institution that, particularly for women, has a poor track record. It has been used to contain, constrain and control women for centuries. Married women are the unhappiest and poorest of the four ‘gender/marital status’ identities (married men are the healthiest, happiest and wealthiest group of that set, so I guess it makes fiscal, emotional and economic sense for [gay] men to get married).

Around half of all marriages in the Western world end in divorce. Which isn’t to say marriage is not worth entering into. Many good things have an end-point, including good books, good wines, and (most) childhoods. That they end is no argument for not having them in the first instance.

Germaine writes that:

In a sane world, heterosexuals would be demanding the rationalisation of marriage or, better, its abolition. What we have instead is a strange new belief that marriage is a fundamental human right.

Which is, I think, a kind of humorous misdirection; a magician’s aside designed to distract the reader from the issues being debated. Heterosexual marriage is not about to be outlawed, and it is a right that (most) straight adults have. Not fundamental, (as in everyone has a right to get married and if they can’t find a partner somebody should be able to be sued), but a right nonetheless. A right gay people do not have in most countries or territories in the contemporary world. A right many are arguing we should have, even if we choose not to exercise that right.

Despite what Germaine sneakily tries to imply, most straight adults in the Western world, at least, do have the right to get married. And, most of the time, in most of the world, the right to choose not to marry (though, as Greer is at pains to point out, who can get married, and to whom, has changed over time).

Straight people have that choice. I believe that I should also have the right to make that choice.

Greer’s long list of the people who, at one time or another, were not able to get married is interesting. But it is no argument against awarding marriage rights to gay people in 2013. If anything, her long list of the history of proscriptions surrounding marriage is a reminder that marriage has evolved over time. That it is not a stable institution. That it is possible to change the rules now, just as it was possible to change them in the past.

Greer goes on to say that some people couldn’t afford to get married, or couldn’t find suitable partners to pledge themselves to. Presumably to prove that marriage is not now, and has not ever been, a fundamental human right. But, as I said, nobody – I think – has been saying that it is. It is, however, a right – a choice – available to most adult heterosexuals. This section of her argument is, I think, though interesting for its historical information and nicely put, yet another red herring.

Then, Greer argues that the terms of a contract of marriage are unknown. Whether the formal terms of your marriage are clear largely depends on when and where you get married, and on whether you have a pre-nup, but even if you don’t have a formal contract of marriage, the implicit contractual terms of marriage are fairly clear, and are reflected in the laws governing the dissolution of marriages in the country in which you marry.

In Australia, in particular, you can refer to the Family Law Act to get an idea of what constitutes [a breach of] a marriage contract, what your obligations are if you are contracted into a marriage, and if you want to contract out of one. I’d also point out, here, that because we are fortunate enough to have no-fault divorces available in Australia, a marriage contract can be torn up (metaphorically) by either party at any time for no reason. No breach of contract has to occur for a marriage contract to be rendered null and void. And we all know that the reason many marriages end acrimoniously is that there are, indeed, under the laws in most countries rules and laws governing such areas as:

[mutual] liability … provision for damages … [and, enforced if necessary] commitment to the ongoing needs of any children of the union

Next, Greer attacks marriage on the grounds that it is a ‘sacrament’, that:

A sacrament requires a sign; all marriage requires to become actual in the sight of God is the saying of the words in the present tense ”I take thee … ” by bride and groom, followed by consummation, that is, insertion of the penis of one party into the vagina of the other

Now, this is a combination of a religious and carnal model of marriage. As far as I am aware, most if not all of those agitating for gay marriage rights are fighting for secular marriage rights. The right to be married before the law, not (necessarily) before God. [Many in the anti-gay marriage camp do, however, often confuse the issue by insisting that  marriage is, by definition, a religious institution. It is not. Or, more precisely, that is only one way to define a marriage.] Some gay and lesbian people might also be interested in fighting for the right to be married in their church but, as far as I know, this is not part of the rhetoric of the international political campaign for gay marriage rights. So this, again, is a red herring.

As is the mention of penetration/sex. Amusing. Slightly gross. A bit confronting. Very Germaine. But not really the point. So straight marriage was/is defined for some people in terms of a spiritual sacrament and a particular sexual act. That this is one model (or two models) of historical heterosexual marriage does not preclude there being other historical, or contemporary, models. That gay people are asking that the current secular and legal model of marriage include their right to marry has little to no relationship to the sanctity or form of the religious or carnal models of marriage Greer describes here.

Greer concludes her article by saying that:

Gay and lesbian people would find it hard to believe that less than 50 years ago heterosexuals who tried to live together would find themselves summarily evicted, the locks changed and their property dumped in the street by the landlord, their deposit forfeited, because they had used the premises for an immoral purpose. We pushed as hard then for the right to remain unmarried as they are fighting now for the right to be married.

As a lesbian, I don’t find this either hard to believe or surprising, and I’m a bit surprised and insulted that Germaine thinks all gays and lesbians are so uneducated or self-involved that they would have no idea about the history of (heterosexual) sexuality. I’m well aware that it was once considered immoral, and grounds for eviction, for straight couple to cohabit and/or engage in consensual sex.

I’m also well aware that it was once considered immoral, and grounds for eviction, for a lesbian couple to cohabit and/or engage in consensual sex in my country. It isn’t now. Because THINGS CHANGE, including the moral, religious and ethical ideas that inform our ideas about love, family, commitment, and … marriage.

My feeling is that Germaine Greer would find it hard to believe that although marriage is an ancient, wobbbly, imperfect institution, which has not always been available to all the straight people who, whether or not they wished to exercise it, had a right to get married, many gay people would like to enjoy the same right to turn up their noses at it as she preserves for herself.

We, too, would like the right to marry too young, to the wrong person, and be given household appliances as gifts by relatives we never knew we had. We would like to spend hours learning to sign our ‘new’ name. Or to hyphenate our name. Or telling everyone we’ve decided not to change it all. We would like to buy real estate together, have joint accounts in which we put everything except the little bit of spending money we never tell our dear wives we have. We would like to have the right to endure Christmases at our in-laws’ homes, to have extra-marital affairs and be forgiven, or not, to undertake counselling. To get divorced, perhaps, and remarry. As many times as it takes to either find the right person, or give up. Or become ridiculous.

We cannot say we will do any better at being married than you straight folk have done. But we can’t do any worse.

And that, for now, is my two cents on the issue. 🙂

*’we’ here refers to gay people. If you’re not gay, then for the time it takes you to read this blog post, you can have the curious experience of being addressed as if you are one. Just as I, in my daily life, am constantly addressed as though I am str8.


    • Jon
      Replay Cancel Replay
    • June 2, 2013

    Greer doesn't believe that gays and lesbians are stupid and do not know the marriage. She just thinks it's absurd to support marriage at all. As a gay man, I completely concur wit her. With Greer, you always have to take her position intellectually- never personally, she doesn't care to offend you or any other, she empties her words in the way she thinks.

    • Replay Cancel Replay
    • June 3, 2013

    Hey Jon, Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I think you're right that Greer is mounting an anti-marriage, rather than an anti-gay-marriage, argument. I tend to agree with her in many ways, actually; that was the point of my argument regarding Woolf, etc: that queer people should be intellectually wary of wanting what straight people have without questioning the worth of their rights and privileges. I hope you didn't think I was taking her argument personally - I wasn't :)

Leave a Reply

Subscribe now!

Enter your email address to subscribe to perilous adventures and receive notifications of new posts by email.