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Equal Marriage - A Few Thoughts...

Equal Marriage – the ‘you can’t redefine marriage argument’ explained and unpicked

It’s now over a week since the vote on equal marriage - a debate, it has to be said, that at times certainly did not elicit the most statesmanlike contributions from our elected leaders. During the discussion in the House of Commons a number of reasons were put forward as to why particular individuals were against the motion – ranging from those who had particular disagreement with the legislation, to those with deeply held religious views.

But there were also those individuals who simply opposed the bill using the argument that a redefinition of the term to include same sex couples simply didn’t make sense – that ‘gay love’ is somehow different to ‘straight love’. It is towards an explanation of this group of individuals’ behaviour that is the subject of this blog.

Let me be very clear. I am not excusing bigotry. I am not justifying it in any way. Intolerance on the basis of difference alone is wrong, and should be labeled so and challenged. But I also think it’s worth looking at the cause of such opinions – what makes individuals think this way, and moreover, what (largely positive) lessons does this have for society and the equal marriage cause more generally.

To do this, I want to introduce a simple conceptual framework into the debate. The literature on identity theory, and in particular, that associated with social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner (1974, 1978, with Turner 1986) offers a picture of the individual premised upon a distinction between types of situation that involve interpersonal, and those that involve group processes. In short, it asserts that individuals, and their behaviour, can be explained with reference to either personal or social identity.

The negative response to equal marriage that I picked out above is much better explained via the latter, rather than the former conceptualization of the self. Let me pick out four key factors that have been found to promote the notion of a common identity, and induce individual behaviour that discriminates towards the in-group in question:

  1. Shared experience (Drury et al (2009) 
  2. Presence of an out-group (Tajfel 1970) 
  3. Use of common language (Dieckhoff 2004) 
  4. Desire to maintain a self-conception (Swann and Hill 1982) 

It should be immediately obvious that all of these factors are also indicative of the equal marriage debate. Individuals who have a shared experience of heterosexual love and taking part in heterosexual marriage are more likely to share a common identity with each other, and discriminate against those who have not. The presence of the same sex marriage lobby as a codified campaign clearly fulfills the out-group requirement. The use of common language – in particular the repeated utterance of the phrase ‘marriage is between one man and one woman’ clearly satisfies the third criteria. And the apparent crystallization of strength of feeling, even in the face of public opinion and political lobbying, is a nice example of the desire for these individuals to hang on to this group identity of anti equal marriage legislation.

Which is all very interesting, theoretically – and certainly goes some way to explaining the behaviour of these individuals. But what lessons should the pro equal marriage/LGBT lobby draw from this? To make things nice and simple, I’d like to separate these out in line with the criteria above:

1. A more shared experience 

We should be more attuned to the speed of the advancement of gay rights. The last thirty years have seen us come a long way, to the point where for many people even the debate around gay marriage seemed silly. But this also means that there are individuals out there who were brought up and socialized in a time where being gay wasn’t an option, let alone a public statement of approval offered by the state. These individuals have little experience of the gay community, and often rely on lazy stereotypes to fill in this lack of understanding of what a gay relationship actually entails – which for those of us with experience know to be exactly the same as a heterosexual relationship. Until the media covers gay relationships (which is perhaps the best disseminator of a shared experience) in a less scandalous tone – as something as normal as any other relationship - then this is likely to continue.

2. The presence of an out-group

When being gay could result in open discrimination in the work place, bullying and even arrest, it was only natural that the LGBT community should look inwards and draw together for support. But with attitudes (and indeed now the law) changing, this must be reversed. Events like PRIDE should be opened up to the straight community and used as an educational vehicle as much as a celebration. Breaking down the barriers and becoming part of the community (notice no prefix of straight or gay) will remove the ‘us and them’ mentality that so clearly defines the individuals in question.

3. Use of a common language 

The third lesson is perhaps the most obvious. As individuals who enter same sex marriages are more comfortable describing their relationships using the same language as those in heterosexual relationships, the gap between the two communities will shrink. As it stands, the very fact that one is labeled a civil partnership and the other a marriage is enough to contribute to the distinction in people’s minds – it is the very definition of a self fulfilling prophecy. Removing this inequality and opening up a shared vocabulary will help create a shared understanding of the concept – where marriage is defined simply as a relationship between two individuals.

4. Desire to maintain a self-conception 

And lastly comes the idea that the individuals in question have strengthened their views simply because there has been a debate to partake in. As things settle down, as the heat is taken out of the argument, it will become far easier for these people to reevaluate their opinions (and identity) – after all  no one likes to back down once they’ve set their stall out in such a public manner.

So there we have it. We might not agree with these individuals in question, but at least a better understanding of some of the causes of their opinions does suggest even better times ahead for those in search of LGBT equality.

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