Ten days ago in Ireland, for the first time anywhere, the question of marriage equality was put to the popular vote in a game changing referendum. I could not be more proud of the Irish people for their resounding “yes” to allowing same-sex partners to have true equality with heterosexual couples when it comes to marrying. Already cross the world other nations where the people have dreamed of such a thing, they are now demanding to know why if Ireland can do it, why can’t they. Hopefully we will soon see the present roll call of 20 nations allowing Marriage equality grow, as the ripple becomes an unstoppable tide of change.
Personally, I dislike the term ‘gay marriage’ because it suggests something for gay people. Actually, it is about equality with everyone else. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. I do absolutely believe that gay people should have the right to marry, to live as a committed couple and to raise children if they so choose. Of course while I celebrate the these advances I still question why human rights need to be voted on at all. Surely rights are just that and not open to choice.
I believe also that we should have exactly the same rights and the same range of options to choose from as everyone else. As human beings however, it is the choices we make and the way we adapt them to fit, which defines us. I would be infinitely saddened if I thought that all we had achieved was the option to simply live in an imitation of a traditional heterosexual marriage. I’m not knocking traditional marriage. It certainly has its place in society both for gay and straight couples. It should always be one of the options available.
However, (you knew that was coming didn’t you?), I firmly believe also, that homosexual couples have much to teach some of their heterosexual peers about maintaining healthy long-term relationships which are not defined nor dependent upon legal contracts. Of course we are surrounded always by heterosexual couples who have maintained happy, long term marriages which work. My sisters and I are all in long term committed marriages and none of us have any experience of divorce. I put that, in part, down to the example given by our parents who are about to mark their sixtieth year together.
When I look at my own relationship of thirty-three years, I have to admit, that the option to marry simply comes as an affirmation of what we already have together. Maintaining a long-term, same-sex relationship is a very different business to a heterosexual one. In a world of rapid social change we may have things to teach others about the dynamics within a modern marriage. Rest assured that I am not in any way questioning the validity of traditional marriage. I am concerned however that for many people the traditional format does not work and I am dismayed that we all too easily walk away from relationships which might well work if other options were to be considered.
Many years ago I was having a late night conversation with a group of fellow teachers about our various relationships. My colleagues listened to my somewhat radical ideas about what kept relationships both fresh and solid. Generally they accepted the validity of my thoughts whilst mostly stating that those ways were not for them That is just as it should be. The one response which has stayed in my mind over the decades since then was a dear friend who summarised my views with the words “It must be a gay thing.” I suspect for the many, that is still the case, but, for the few, it is time to consider other options or other formats which may take us away from the trend towards marriage being treated as a disposable item.
Long before reaching the point of marriage, most gay men and women have been through an early life which very much dictates their approach to relationships. Whether or not we have had an easy time of coming out, there will be some period of reckoning with our own sexuality. Even if we are happy with that, most of us live in a world which still forces us to go through the constant pressure of controlling other people’s perceptions of us. Whether at home, at school, or in the work place we are constantly weighing up the cost of either hiding or revealing a core part of ourselves.
Hopefully the end result of this struggle is a stronger more resilient person, but then comes the next step. For most people, the desire to find a shared love is an irresistible force. This search has to overcome both internal and external obstacles and it often drives us to create or to find supportive communities. This tends to make gay people the strongly social animals that many people see them as.
Once a gay person does find a true mate, there then comes the whole challenge of building a partnership. The coupling can have many of the same difficulties and pitfalls facing straight couples. Some other challenges however are unique to gay people and are not so surprising when you examine them. Most difficulties come down to how we handle the accepted norms and social legacy of single gender pairings. Ladies, it does not take much reflection to come up with an idea of standard male behaviour including strong attitudes and a desire to dominate. Now double that and imagine two such men trying to establish roles in an all-male household.
How about the emotional openness which is part of the attraction of a woman? Try doubling that and ponder on the consequences. Of course it is precisely these challenges and the strategies we develop for managing them, that can make same-sex couples so strong and resilient.
As gender roles in society become more fluid it is possibly traditional marriage which needs to accept change. I believe that same sex couples have a head start with these challenges and as such we have a lot to bring to the table. Of course it would be foolish to deny that same sex couples can’t learn from our straight friends too.
Marriage in its current, widely accepted form, needs to move with the times. Traditional marriage needs to reach a new level of maturity and could do worse than to look at the existing norms for many long-term same-sex couples. I have mentioned the fluidity of roles, but there are other areas which the gay community seems to have developed different behaviours too. These may include less anger in times of conflict, more freedom in money matters, or the recognition that there are other attractive people out there to admire and comment on. There is even a different approach to things like sexual experimentation and so called infidelity.
It will take several generations for heterosexual relationships to reach the place where gay and lesbian partnerships are today, but it will happen. There may be set backs and detours along the way and I don’t expect it to be a smooth ride.
We must continue the fight for equal rights throughout the world and we should all cherish our meaningful relationships whether they are conventional, traditional or otherwise. Let’s expand our list of options and move forwards as loving and caring human beings without the fetters of out-dated convention. There is no doubt that at the end of the day, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
This Blog post first appeared in shorter form on the Lovebytes Reviews site in my monthly guest blogger spot.