Tuesday 8 December 2009

Judging quality

There are two aspects of New York State Senator Diane Savino's speech on marriage equality (which did not pass the New York State Senate) that I want to point out: First, her description of what role the state plays in the business of marriage, second her debunking of the myth that gay marriage devalues "traditional marriage".

First, the question of whether or not the state judges the quality of a marriage:
"We in government don’t determine the quality or the validity of peoples’ relationships. If we did we would not issue three-quarters of the marriage licenses we do, and I know there are many people in the religious community who feel that we’re going to force this on them, when that in fact is not true. We have never done that. I’m a Roman Catholic. The Catholic church has the right to deny me the sacrament of marriage if they determine the person I choose to marry is unfit or our relationship doesn’t meet their standards. City Hall does not have that right. That will not change under this bill, that will never change. Religious institutions can continue to practice discrimination with respect to the sacrament of marriage. We don’t. We shouldn’t. We should not do it for gay and lesbian couples."
I will be discussing the Austrian case, but I feel that many of the arguments made against gay marriage transgress national and even come cultural boarders. The argument that the state does not "determine the quality or the validity of peoples' relationship" and only has the role to "administer a contract" between two people is of course true if a man and a woman of legal age who both have the Austrian citizenship choose to marry each other: if any of those factors change, the state does indeed judge the validity of peoples' relationship, because marriage is connected to certain privileges - like citizenship.
"mindestens sechsjähriger rechtmäßiger und ununterbrochener Aufenthalt .  in Österreich, sofern

    * eine fünfjährige aufrechte Ehe mit einer österreichischen Staatsbürgerin/einem österreichischen Staatsbürger besteht und die Eheleute im gemeinsamen Haushalt leben oder
    * der Status "Asylberechtigte/Asylberechtigter" vorliegt oder
    * der Besitz einer EWR-Staatsangehörigkeit nachgewiesen wird oder
    * die Antragstellerin/der Antragsteller in Österreich geboren wurde oder
    * die Verleihung aufgrund von bereits erbrachten und zu erwartenden außerordentlichen Leistungen auf wissenschaftlichem, wirtschaftlichem, künstlerischem oder sportlichem Gebiet im Interesse der Republik Österreich liegt" [help.gv.at]

The state does decide who is fit to marry (the legal age for marriage is eighteen), and can grant sixteen years old the right to marry if "they are appear mature enough and their partner is of age" (the Austrian Ehegesetz can be found here). Forbidding factors are family relations, a previously existing marriage that hasn't been divorced.
The state does not deny the right to a non-citizen (Austrian or European Union) to legally marry a citizen, but if the marriage does not meet the above cited standards, it might decide to withhold certain privileges, which can result in deportation if the partner loses his residence authorization - and if the marriage is deemed to have been forged so that one of the partners could get the other's citizenship, it can be annulled. In the Presse-article cited below, police spokespeople indicate that the so-called "Scheinehe" is mostly investigated in cases that involve migrants from Turkey or former Yugoslavia - when EU-citizens marry Austrian citizens to gain tax benefits, it's not investigated. The process of deciding whether or not a marriage is "real" is naturally one that considers quality and judges what marriage means - applying standards that no "hegemonic" marriage (between Austrian citizens) has to meet to remain legal.
In short - at least in the Austrian case, the state does indeed concern itself with the question of the quality of a relationship, although only in some cases.
Now, for the second part of the speech that I found particularly well-worded and incredibly moving:

"I know many people are concerned about the destruction of the sanctity of marriage, as well, and they view this as a threat. But let me as you something, ladies and gentlemen, what are we really protecting when you look at the divorce rate in our society?[...] That’s what we’ve done to marriage in America, where young women are socialized from the time they’re five years old to think of being nothing but a bride, they plan every day what they’ll wear, how they’ll look, the invitations, the whole bit. They don’t spend five minutes thinking about what it means to be a wife. People stand up there before god and man , even in Senator Diaz’s church. They swear to love, honor and obey. They don’t mean a word of it. If there’s anything wrong, any threat to the sanctity of marriage in America, it comes from those of us who have the privilege and the right, and we have abused it for decades."
The instititution of marriage has always been a tool of those who have the power to set standards in order to discriminate. The law does not state what the social gain of marriage is, but the privileges that come with it indicate that society considers it to be of value - but the argument that the ultimate aim of marriage is children and the future of society is ideologically tainted, and there is no way to back it up. First of, the argument is difficult to prove quantitatively (recent statistics in the US show that about 40 percent of all children are born out of wedlock, but an additional question would be whether to count every child born in a marriage or whether it is more important to count children who are raised for a good portion of their childhood in a marriage). The state does not require a statement of intent to raise children prior to a marriage, nor does it limit marriage to people who are physically able to procreate - it specifically excludes same-sex partners, but there are several other potential scenarios in which a marriage might be intentionally or unintentionally childless.
My favourite argument is that same-sex marriage somehow devaluates the marriages of heterosexual couples, or at least the 50 percent who manage to avoid a divorce.  Since when do other people's relationship have any qualitative influence on your own? It's a hollow argument disguising homophobia (just as limiting the "eingetragene Partnerschaft" to same-sex couples is a form of discrimination, and the decision to deny the same ceremony to gay and lesbian couples reveals that this is not at all about what is best for the country, but about personal prejudices), and there is no social gain in forbidding homosexual couples to marry (they aren't going to end up turning straight just because of that. No seriously, they WON'T). 

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