In 2006, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper acted on a campaign promise and introduced a motion in the Canadian Parliament asking members to re-open the debate on gay marriage, which had been legalized in 2005. The motion was decisively defeated, with many Conservative MPs voting against it. Harper said after the vote, “I don’t see reopening this question in the future.” The issue of gay marriage was not mentioned in the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) election platforms in three subsequent federal elections.
And yet, at the party’s 2013 convention, delegates passed resolutions that resulted in the inclusion, in section 70 of the CPC Policy Declaration, a statement that reads:
- We believe that Parliament, through a free vote and not the courts, should determine the definition of marriage.
- We support legislation defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Despite the fact that the definition of marriage had already been changed by a vote of Parliament to include same-sex marriage, the language of exclusion directed at lesbian and gay couples is still party policy. This should change, and not because the party needs to embrace more left-wing ideas to remain relevant in the 21st Century, but because extending gay marriage to same-sex couples is, in fact, sound policy that members of the CPC should feel comfortable with for traditional conservative reasons.
First of all, let us recognize that this is a very polarizing issue. Proponents of both sides feel strongly about gay marriage for legitimate reasons, and it does not advance the debate to demonize or belittle those with whom we disagree. Opponents of same-sex marriage are often decent people who are not necessarily bigots, and those in favour are not, by definition, depraved sexual libertines who are hell-bent on destroying the ancient pillars of society. It should be possible to have a civilized discussion about this without name-calling and mud-slinging.
That being said, let us examine the conservative arguments for gay marriage. American author Jonathan Rauch identifies three main purposes of marriage: the raising of children, the stabilizing and settling of the young (especially young men), and the provision of reliable care-givers. Opponents of gay marriage tend to focus on the first of these as an argument to exclude homosexuals from the institution of marriage, but all three reasons are equally applicable to both gay and straight couples.
The argument is frequently made that marriage should be about raising children in a stable family unit headed by a married male/female couple, and thus gays should be denied access to marriage because they are by definition unable to produce children. This line of reasoning in itself has logical inconsistencies. We do not deny civil marriage to infertile or elderly couples or to post-menopausal women. We do not impose a fertility test as a requirement for a marriage licence or force shot-gun marriages on unwed mothers. US writer Paul Varnell argues that, if anything, this is an argument for forcing heterosexuals to marry if they want to have children and for making divorce and cohabitation more difficult. “In short, it is an argument about what heterosexual parents should do, not about same-sex couples who do not and by themselves cannot have children.”
Furthermore, according to the 2010 US census, almost 600 000 American households are headed by same-sex couples. 125 000 of these households are raising almost 220 000 children under the age of 18, mostly the biological children of one of the partners. In Canada, according to 2011 statistics, 65 000 households are headed by same-sex couples. Many of these couples are raising children: almost 10 000 under the age of 24. Is it good conservative policy to prevent these children from living in a household with married parents?
With regard to the second function of marriage, the stabilizing and settling of the young, Rauch argues that marriage, and even the prospect of marriage, is a great domesticator. It is a stabilizing influence in society, especially on unstable young men:
If you hope to get married, and if your friends and peers hope to get married, you will socialize and date more carefully… you will reach for respectability. You will devote yourself to work, try to build status, and earn money to make yourself more marriageable… Because you aspire to marry, you prepare to marry. You make yourself what people used to call marriage material.
This is a very conservative pro-marriage argument, and is equally valid for homosexual couples, who have until recently never had this outcome to strive for.
The argument about care-giving is also a very conservative one. As Rauch points out:
From society’s point of view, an unattached person is an accident waiting to happen. The burdens of contingency are likely to fall, immediately and sometimes crushingly, on people – relatives, friends, neighbors – who have enough problems of their own, and then on charities and welfare agencies. We all suffer periods of illness, sadness, distress, fury. What happens to us, and what happens to the people around us, when we desperately need a hand but find none to hold? If marriage has any meaning at all, it is that when you collapse from a stroke, there will be another person whose ‘job’ it is to drop everything and come to your aid. Or that when you come home after being fired, there will be someone to talk you out of committing a massacre or killing yourself. To be married is to know there is someone out there for whom you are always first in line.
Denying this option to same-sex couples places this burden of care on the state – how is this good conservative policy?
One can certainly make the argument that there are valid religious reasons for opposing same-sex marriage, and I won’t dispute this. However, I would point out that marriage is legally a civil institution, not a religious one. Churches, mosques and synagogues have religious ceremonies that confer spiritual blessings and approval on a married couple, but as far as the law is concerned, married status is conferred by the state, not the church. The state should certainly allow religious institutions the right to opt out of performing same-sex marriage ceremonies for theological reasons, but a blanket ban on civil marriage for gays makes no sense. The Roman Catholic Church is opposed to remarriage after divorce, but most Catholics are not seeking to make it illegal for everyone in the country to obtain a civil divorce or to remarry. The state has no business enshrining religious doctrine in civil law. After all, it is not illegal to be gay in Canada. As US journalist Andrew Sullivan has written:
Can you think of any other legal, non-criminal minority in society toward which social conservatives have nothing but negative social policy? What other group in society do conservatives believe should be kept outside integrating social institutions? On what other issue do conservatives favour separatism over integration?
I don’t accept the argument that same-sex marriage cheapens or belittles heterosexual marriage. same-sex couples are not cheap or flawed versions of straight couples, and it is ridiculous to think that a straight couple would refuse to get married if they were so inclined just because a same-sex couple in their community is also married. Jonathan Rauch points out that what cheapens the institution of marriage is denying it to committed couples who want it. Liberal-minded citizens will recoil from participating in an institution that is discriminatory. Before gay marriage became legal across the US, Benton County, Oregon had stopped issuing marriage licences because officials there do not want any part of a legal institution that discriminates. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie once announced that they would not get married until homosexuals could also legally marry in the US. I’m not suggesting that we make policy based on the public musings of Hollywood celebrities, but the institution of marriage may become tainted by political incorrectness as long as it is perceived to discriminate against a minority. This is not good for marriage, and certainly doesn’t strike me as good conservative policy.
The most serious aspect of this debate for conservatives is the damage it does to the image of the CPC. It is the one issue, more than any other, that opponents seize on to argue that the Conservative Party is in thrall to religious zealots and homophobic bigots and can’t be trusted with power. More than the perfectly defensible positions on, say, national security, foreign policy, or taxation, a policy demanding the passage of legislation defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman sends a message to centrist voters that a CPC government would open up all sorts of social policy areas that are now considered settled in Canada. Over 21 000 same-sex couples have been married in Canada since the law changed in 2005. Is the CPC really going to run in the next election on a policy declaration that supports invalidating these marriages and prohibiting future ones?
Andrew Sullivan wrote in 2003:
Like most other homosexuals, I grew up in a heterosexual family and tried to imagine how I too could one day be a full part of the family I loved. But I figured then that I had no such future. I could never have a marriage, never have a family, never be a full and equal part of the weddings and relationships and holidays that give families structure and meaning. When I looked forward, I saw nothing but emptiness and loneliness. No wonder it was hard to connect sex with love and commitment. No wonder it was hard to feel at home in what was, in fact, my home.
Most heterosexuals don’t realize how insulting and humiliating it is for same-sex couples to be told by politicians that they are not worthy of the legal benefits and responsibilities of civil marriage. Marriage policy is not a zero-sum game: extending civil marriage to lesbians and gays in no way takes anything away from heterosexual married couples, so other than saying to homosexuals they are not fit to be married, what legitimate social policy objective can be achieved by banning same-sex marriage?
How can it be good conservative policy to advocate excluding gays from the benefits and responsibilities of this institution? Allowing gay citizens to marry stabilizes and enriches same-sex relationships while benefiting society and strengthening the institution of marriage. It respects individual rights while minimizing the oppressive intrusion of the state into the lives of a minority of its citizens. Above all, it treats all Canadian citizens as equal under the law. All of these values are deeply rooted in the conservative movement and appeal to lesbians and gays and straights alike.
Conservatives often take contrarian pride in, as William F. Buckley Jr. once said, “standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop’.” Doing so on the subject of gay marriage, though, risks alienating voters who otherwise would be our allies and dooming the party to permanent opposition status. The exclusionary language on marriage in the CPC’s Policy Declaration should be removed. Conservatives have nothing to fear from embracing this change and publicly acknowledging that gay marriage is good social policy.
Hastings County, Ontario