Equal marriage could only threaten gender roles if it magically turned everyone gay

The modern basis of marriage is partnership and equality rather than innate difference.

One of the favourite arguments of those opposed to same-sex marriage is the idea that the institution of marriage embodies the "complementary" nature of men and women. Just as (they would say) marriage and civil partnership are "equal but different", so are the genders. The fact that the argument invariably comes from those espousing what they like to call the "Biblical" view of marriage (conveniently skirting over all those polygamous patriarchs in the Old Testament, but never mind) is apt to raise suspicions that what they really mean is that women belong at home in the kitchen while their husbands are out winning the bread in appropriately manly ways. But I doubt it's necessarily as reactionary as that, at least not in the minds of many of those putting it forward - liberal Anglican bishops, for example.

Speaking yesterday in the House of Lords, the Bishop of Leicester offered a superficially convincing modern twist on the idea. 

I could not help noticing in the debate in this House on International Women's Day the underlying assumption that women bring a special quality to the public square and that the complementarity of men and women is what encriches and stabilises society. Yet, in the realm of public discourse, assertion of sexual difference in relation to marriage has become practically unspeakable, in spite of the fact that it is implicity assumed by most people in the course of everyday life. Equal marriage will bring an end to the one major social institution that enshrines that complementarity.

He's got a point. Not, I think, about the threat that equal marriage would allegedly pose to "sexual complementarity": inasmuch as that matters, it matters to the individuals concerned, so that equal marriage could only threaten "complementarity" if it magically turned everyone gay. Where the bishop might just be on to something is in his identification of the importance that society still, indeed increasingly, attaches to gender difference. There does indeed seem to be an "underlying assumption" that men and women are essentially different beings, and arguments for expanding the role of women do often come down to enumerating the unique gifts that women are said to bring. "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus," as the ever-popular relationship manual assures us.

In the Church of England itself, the case for appointing women as bishops has been made not just on simple grounds of equality (here are some excellent potential bishops who just happen to be women) but by stressing the special qualities of women - the "maternal" quality of their pastoral care, for example. The same is true of politics and the world of business, where it has become commonplace to blame macho attitudes for wars or the banking crisis.

And what special qualities do women bring? Invariably, they turn out to be the very attributes that have always been considered quintessentially feminine and that were once trotted out as reasons why women's proper place was in the home. The contribution of women is celebrated, even by many feminists, on grounds of difference (though it is a difference disguised as superiority) - women are assumed to be more consensual, less competitive and aggressive, more concerned with nurturing and supporting others. One side-effect of such thinking is that women who are none of these things (the late Baroness Thatcher springs to mind) are apt to be denigrated as un-feminine.

The potency of the idea of sexual difference is remarkable, given the speed with which women have joined professions once considered a male preserve, from the legal profession to the military, where they operate increasingly (though not yet fully) on equal terms. Barely a day goes by with out some new scientific study confirming the existential difference between men and women, where a statistical correlation is interpreted as an iron law of biology and the interplay between biology and culture is never examined. Women may have more economic independence than ever before, but that hasn't prevented the increasing commercial and cultural enforcing of gender norms, with Tesco categorising chemistry sets as boys' toys and Disney reimagining the tomboyish Merida as a slim-waisted princess. Gender binaries rule.

So the bishop of Leicester really has very little to worry about. In the days when a woman had to promise to obey her husband and all her property became his the bishop might have had a stronger case. Such an institution would indeed have provided a most inappropriate model for same-sex relationships. The modern basis of marriage, on the other hand, is partnership and equality rather than innate difference. Far from being the sole redoubt of sexual "complementarity", in a world seemingly more convinced than ever that men and women come from different planets marriage has in fact become a challenge to it.  

Would same-sex marriage pose a threat to "sexual complementarity"? Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.