The word `bigot` is deployed so often that it’s become mere punctuation in the gay marriage debate. Bigots do exist, but not all those seeking to retain purely heterosexual marriage count as one. A large poll by the research agency YouGov indicated that there are 32% of Britons who support civil partnerships, but not same-sex marriage. That’s not the ignorant expression of revulsion we might expect: it shows there’s a fine distinction being made between homosexual union and full marriage.
This non-bigoted kind of opposition is a purely technical one. It holds that a union between two people of the same sex would fail to qualify as ‘marriage’ purely by definition. To these traditionalists, ‘marriage’ is an analytical description, not a right to be shared out.
To explain, let’s take a less emotive example: it would be nonsense to campaign that everyone has the right to become a bachelor. Bachelors are men by definition, and women cannot become bachelors. No matter how much someone might campaign on grounds of equality, it will have no effect in persuading us that women should be allowed to become bachelors too.
Those traditionalists opposing same-sex marriage ‘by definition’ are in the same camp. To traditionalists it simply does not qualify as an equality issue: marriage is, by definition, limited to male-female union. That’s why the popular language of this debate is having no impact. Instead, if we want to persuade them to support gay marriage then we need to admit two things: (a) extending marriage to homosexual couples entails a fundamental redefinition, and (b) there are good reasons to redefine marriage this way.
We should begin from a position of understanding. Traditionalists define marriage as a contractual union designed to create a stable foundation in which to raise a family. (For a fuller explanation see this ResPublica paper.) It is therefore reasonable for them to insist that, given this, the institution of marriage can only form around the biological combination necessary for the propagation of children. In the absence of an unnerving scientific breakthrough, that combination remains the one between a man and a woman.
But there are good grounds to change the definition of marriage which might find sympathy with traditionalists. Let me outline one such argument here, albeit briefly.
The best way to keep the traditional definition of marriage current is by extending marriage to same-sex couples. The traditional conception of marriage has not kept up with the way nuclear families are formed in modern Britain. Specifically, adoption, fostering and surrogacy are common. Same-sex couples are building families in this manner, but are not entitled to the protections of traditional marriage.
That traditional definition held that marriage is a contractual union designed to create a stable foundation for family. If that is the case, then surely society will benefit from an expanded institution: one which gives families headed by a same-sex union a stable foundation too. Given the way that families are increasingly formed, the male-female biological combination is no longer as central to marriage as the need to encourage commitment.
Same-sex marriage, then, preserves the spirit of traditional marriage. In order to persuade Britain’s traditionalists that it is a good idea, we need to understand their opposition, not shout it down nor speak irrelevantly about equality. We should admit that same-sex marriage entails a fundamental redefinition, and argue that such an important institution should support modern families in all their guises. Supporters: swallow your pride and understand the ‘bigots’.