Historian Dr. Lesley Orr and panellists on the positive potential of same sex marriage

With the heartening prospect of same sex marriage legislation on the horizon for Scotland, feminist historian Dr. Lesley Orr and a forum of panellists came together at the end of last month to discuss the positive potential of same sex marriage. The forum, chaired by Tim Hopkins, director of the Equality Network, was part of the Edinburgh International Middle Eastern Spirituality and Peace Festival.

Historian Dr. Lesley Orr studies marriage in all its complexity as a “variable social institution that has traditionally regulated sex and reproduction, family and kinship, control of resources and labour.” Most of the biblical arrangements should sound pretty horrific to your average 21st century Scot: marriage by rape; chastity for the wife, but not the husband; King Solomon and his 700 wives and 300 concubines; the list goes on.

Our Scottish history of marriage has not been much rosier: girls married off at puberty by their families, days and years of bread and water for such iniquitous crimes as adopting forbidden sexual positions or masturbating. Until 1989, rape was not considered a crime if the woman involved was the wife of the assailant or a prostitute. Charming.

Do we feel comfortable with most Bible-prescribed marriage scenarios advocated by the Church in times gone by? Marriage by rape? I think not.

Our place and time is different. So what is relevant to partnerships and relations in the 21st century? Quite a lot of what Jesus originally preached, actually. Lesley points out that Christ rejected traditional attitudes that women should be secluded, inferior beings and preached inclusiveness and equality. He offered a radical, countercultural critique of domination and vindicated “deviant people.”  As Eddie Izzard has it, generally “relaxed and groovy.”

However, Lesley explains that by the time the Roman Emperor Constantine converted, Christianity had been institutionalised according to the imperial and patriarchal traditions of Roman and Greek societies. This turned out to be very bad news for the egalitarian heart of the Christian faith. Patriarchal marriage roles reasserted, women were again relegated to silence and submission, and theology became markedly misogynist.

Thankfully, a lot of the more unpleasant of marriage arrangements and traditions are no longer socially acceptable and have been legislated against. That said, we do have these persistent problems of violence against women and gender discrimination, which seem like relics of a society dominated by men where “women’s value was instrumental rather than intrinsic.” Hence the feminist critique of marriage as “an institution rooted in inequality that will always privilege men and heterosexuals.”

But is marriage really so tied to this relationship of gendered binary oppositions- of domination and submission, authority and service- that it can never form part of a genuinely egalitarian society? Lesley and the panel say no and that the legalisation of same sex marriage is a fundamental step in the right direction.

Lesley notes that over the years, law has shifted from detailed scrutiny of the married couple’s behaviour (“a Godly commonwealth in miniature”) to a simple determination of whether the pair were living together or not. Now, when a contract of marriage is made, she observes, the state has no place determining the quality and nature of the relationship, its details are unregulated and the home is considered, legally at least, an un-gendered space.

But still that pesky legal definition of man and wife, the binary that perpetuates an oppressive relationship that does no favours to women or men, and, as panellist Rev Maxwell Reay observes, deeply hurts LGBTI couples who are denied a ceremonial affirmation that is “what everyone else in their community does.” I would add that being pestered with the question ‘who’s the husband and who’s the wife?’ must get old pretty quickly, too.

We need to go farther. Panellist Nathan Young Gale of the Scottish Transgender Alliance says that “the role gender plays in marriage needs to become incidental to law.” A definitive step on the road to gender equality is to legalise same sex marriage and, in doing so, eliminate gender prescriptions from the definition of marriage entirely.

I don’t think anyone’s saying that this will, in one fell swoop, solve all our gender-related human rights issues, but it sure sounds like the beginning of a better society for all of us.


Insightful contributions were also made by panellists Maruska Greenwood, Director of the LGBT Centre for Health and Wellbeing and Nancy Russell of the LGBT National Youth Council.