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7 Aug 2013

Same-sex marriage: The final destination?

At last count, 14 countries have legalised same-sex marriage. In Asia, the issue is gaining steam in Vietnam and Thailand as its governments are considering legalising same-sex marriage and civil unions respectively. Is this a cause all gay people should get behind? Malaysian gay activist and co-founder of Seksualiti Merdeka Pang Khee Teik writes that while this right should be celebrated, it is not the most important right for LGBTs.

A March 2013 issue of Time magazine declares the same-sex marriage wars are over.

Amidst the cheers for same-sex marriage, it is easy to mistake the cause as the ultimate goal for gay rights, after which we are all supposed to live happily over the rainbow, or depending on who you ask, the ultimate doom for mankind, hastening the end of the world. Both sides forget that there is a diversity of responses to same-sex marriage as there are ways to form relationships.

Same-sex marriage legalisation will not impact gay and lesbian communities alone, but everyone concerned about such developments. For those against LGBTs, marriage equality may be a sign of decline of society. For those in support, it may be a sign of progress. But this is not always a clear division. In fact, many LGBTs in Malaysia are too busy worrying about more pressing things to be concerned about marriage: being discovered and fired from work, being discovered and disowned by families, being arrested, being bullied in schools, being forced to leave someone we love in order to be married to someone we don't love.

There are of course some Malaysian LGBTs who have managed to live openly among their friends and families. While some may be happy enough just to be accepted, it is in the nature of humans to hope for more, for equality, for legal recognition, for celebration.

We must be aware there also exists those who don't care about marriage. Whether gay or straight or bisexual, some people see marriage as nothing more than a social pressure, a legal recognition of a personal relationship, a state's attempt to regulate private relationships. The legal, economic, social privileges we give to married people have created another inequality that we no longer question: the unequal status between married and unmarried people. Unmarried people have been made to feel as if we are incomplete, irresponsible, immature, if we don't marry, and that, magically, we would become whole when we do.

From young, we have been taught to desire marriage for its social value. As a result, we conform ourselves and our relationships into shapes recognisable by society. And hence, many LGBTs desire marriage and try to change themselves, even marrying the opposite sex, in order to become legal subjects before the law, to belong within local norms.

I don't mean that marriages are all meaningless but that we have to recognise that a lot of its meanings are constructed through cultural institutions, from everyday language to faith rituals to gender roles, all doubly reinforced through legal discourses. Couples who chose to define their relationships or marriages on their own terms are often frowned upon, if not made to be outcasts all together. The state remains ever a cold, ruthless, machine that passes judgments on matters of the heart with heartless laws. I would rather we have less state in our private relationships, and more state in regulating corporations and politicians.

At the end of the day, the state shouldn't have any business regulating relationships at all. And this means it neither has any business legalising nor banning marriages. Adults of age should just be allowed to call their romantic relationships what they will, and negotiate that relationship among their other familial and social relationships how they will.

Before you accuse me, don't worry, I am aware I sound like an anarchist, or some free love hippie stuck in the wrong decade! I do recognise it is unrealistic to expect the state to withdraw its investment in control and power (at least not until our collective imagination dreams up a better, workable system other than the nation state to organise the planet, and also a system to produce consensus on that!). I hope, however, it won't stop us from asking ourselves: What exactly are we asking for when we approach the state to legislate our relationships? What are the good and bad ramifications and how can we overcome the bad ones? And how can we stop the state from over-reaching its jurisdiction?

Yes, it is great when adults are allowed to marry each other, and this right should be celebrated wherever people realise that that should be the case. But it is neither the most important right for LGBTs nor should it be the only socially desirable destination for everyone, whether gay or straight.

This right would be meaningless if society and community remains so rigidly structured and are taught to alienate and reject those we don't understand. In fact, our social and national identity is largely defined by who we exclude and who we hate. The state wants to produce a homogeneous society where everyone can be taught to vote the same way and buy the same way, and everyone else who doesn't conform must be an enemy. Why do we need the state to tell us who we can love or hate?

We are taught to hate, misunderstand and reject, based on the fear we absorb through state policies and political discourse around who is acceptable as a citizen and who is not. Perhaps our definition of who is a citizen has to evolve. Perhaps it shouldn't be left to politicians and leaders to determine who are citizens. Citizenship should be a process that is democratic, people-led, inclusive, transparent, evolving. Outcasts, non-conformists, dissidents and LGBTs have as much to teach us about living together as anyone else. Perhaps the space needs to exist where everyone in Malaysia can freely discuss their hopes and dreams and loves without fearing prison.

I for one, long for the day when people are simply given the choices to determine who they are, who they love and who they want to tell that to, while their families and communities are encouraged to support them. And that together, we are recognised through our love for each other rather than our hate.

Pang Khee Teik is the co-founder of Seksualiti Merdeka and currently a graduate student at University of London in the United Kingdom. The column is originally written in response to questions from a reporter at The Star newspaper in Malaysia. The article Activists: Legalising gay marriages in Asia won't solve Malaysia's LGBT issues was published in The Star on Jul 29. 2013.

Reader's Comments

1. 2013-08-07 19:10  
It's interesting how many countries now have full marriage - equally interesting to note those that are progressing down that road, too.

For example, my country - Ireland - has State-sanctioned and recognised civil unions for gay people, which then has a knock-on effect for certain legal standings and tax issues and so on, which is... nice, but it's/they're seen as a kind of diet-version of marriage for many gay people. (Like a nice, patronising pat on the head: "There, there you go, The Gays - now you can have a civil ceremony! Lucky you!")

In the depths of the country's worst crisis since The Civil War violent period a century ago, with the Recession lumbering on and on and on here, developing gay rights isn't exactly a priority for The Government or The People right now, which I can understand. After all, there Are already systems in train, and groups at work, to address any concerns about whatever The Constitution says (we're currently updating our Constitution, bit by bit - unlike certain Other countries that get Very prissy about how "perfect" their centuries-old constitutions are, We recognise that Our 100-year-old framework is obsolete in many parts and doesn't reflect the modern country - this includes gay rights).

It's not certain just yet whether the Irish Government will simply guillotine through whatever laws and amendments are needed to facilitate full, equal gay marriage, or whether it'll put it to the people in a Referendum (which would be passing the buck a bit, and which would probably lose - while most Irish people couldn't care less about gay people, the recent re-emergence of Abortion as a social topic in Ireland reignited truly explosive faultlines under Society - a clear indication of how there remain some bizarre religious fundamentalists here; not many, but clearly enough to wage war against any further gay rights/progress).

The reason I witter on about Ireland so much is because I read constantly about how "conservative" certain Asian countries and peoples are. Which *used* to be the same kind of stuff said about my country - Ireland - and how people here/there could "never" accept gay people; never accept gay rights; would never accept gay relationships, blah blah blah. We *almost* elected a gay President last year; you can't turn on the radio or TV without seeing ads for hotels offering civil ceremony deals (ie, for The Gays); there are a number of gay politicians that nobody ever says a word about; and so on.

If Ireland - still obstensibly a deeply religious country (which it is and it isn't; can be, but generally isn't at all, in ways that're hard to explain) - can simply get on with accepting gay people (and with poll after poll, study after study showing a very clear majority of The People are in favour of gay rights and marriage) - well, why can't other countries? Other societies? Other people?

It's time to stop hiding behind convenient fall guys - gay people - who're easy to blame for *potential* societal problems, and just get on with creating a fairer, inclusive and progressive society, no matter what country you live in.

After all, even the Irish could do it, and we're as cranky, argumentative, caustiv and sour (among Ourselves) as the day is long... :-P
2. 2013-08-07 23:09  
It is indeed true that the state does not and should not have any say whatsoever in the matters of the heart and it should give full protection in marriage and the benefits that come with it, whether it's for straight or gay couples.

The problem is that in several countries, such as Indonesia (my country), the government is very much influenced by religion (in this case Islam). While other countries in Asia are moving forward, we are going backward in time with the rise of movements that try to uphold the Sharia law. In fact, 282 out of 491 provincial districts in Indonesia are based on this law.

In more advanced places in Indonesia, gays are becoming more and more visible such as in Bali, a place where the claws of Islam do not have power and where foreigners bring their values.
3. 2013-08-08 08:15  
oh plz also in asia for the first step :p
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8. 2013-08-08 10:22  
What's the use of legalizing gay marriage when many gays out there ,or may I say most, are still slutting around and having so-called open relationships?
9. 2013-08-08 12:46  
What an idealistic, moralistic, ideological abstract piece of crap. Not everyone has so much free time and energy like the author to think about "big issues" such as "anti-state". Many ordinary people in the West, like myself, need to work and pay the bills, and when we fall in love, we want the relationship to be celebrated and recognised by those around us. As simple as that. The author is too smart and too intellectual to possibly understand the joy and desires of ordinary people. If the author doesn't want to get married personally, fair enough, and his/her choice should be respected, but he/she should not dismiss other people's personal life priorities, because that's none of his/her business.

I agree that in third world countries, there are other priorities, but not many third world countries are legalising same sex marriage anyway, so what's the point to write an article to say it should not be a priority?
10. 2013-08-08 13:47  
I agree with you. In this world, there is always the first step for some countries and the rest of the issues will be addressed. We just need the first movement.
11. 2013-08-09 13:35  
Once there is marriage equality, the other issues will fall in line.
12. 2013-08-09 17:34  
@DouglasSeattle - I'm not so sure full marriage rights are such a panacea. Won't it create a different hierarchy, where married gays and lesbians enjoy full equality while unmarried (single or coupled) get equality-lite? Gay marriage may shift the cultural climate, but I don't know if I could say it alone would prevent the sissy boy or butch girl from getting bullied in school, or prevent employment/housing discrimination.

@plin085 - I don't think the author is saying gay marriage would be harmful and that gays should not fight for it. He is saying that BY ITSELF gay marriage will not solve all the problems, so we should not stop fighting for other aspects of LGBT equality. That seems fairly common sense to me.

@tommyoch - I think a larger percentage of straight marriages are, in reality, open relationships, just without one partner knowing it. That is, the problem is not the non-monogamy; it's the dishonesty and betrayal of trust. I tend to think more and more that humans are not a naturally monogamous species. Societies try to deter polyamory for a number of reasons (although not all societies do), but I don't think this is to reflect human nature in society. I think it's mainly because too many people screwing around makes things messy and complicated, and societies have legit reasons to cut down on the social costs of that confusion. But people will still want to screw around (look at any French bedroom farce).
13. 2013-08-09 18:51  
"Common sense"? There is a movement happening, and society is changing rapidly, instead of celebrating the positive changes and being encouraged like the majority of the general society, some "clearheaded" gays like the author write paragraphs after paragraphs of "common sense" to make highly abstract ideological points such as "The state remains ever a cold, ruthless, machine that passes judgments on matters of the heart with heartless laws", etc. Even the language of this article is not very "common" at all. How many commoners use expressions like "regulate", "control and power", "state", "cultural institutions", "conform", "discourse", etc? Commoners like myself only use simple direct expressions such as "love", "brave", "proud", "happy", "isolation", "depressed", "fight", "rights", etc. To be frank, I just don't like intellectual elitists who just want to differentiate themselves from others all the time.
14. 2013-08-09 19:42  
you need to know, what morality is?
when you understand on morality
you may say that Religion is immoral
15. 2013-08-11 15:30  
@plin - Ok, let's stick to the practical. The main question to me is, Will gay marriage really be the magic bullet that will solve all the problems of anti-gay discrimination? I think it should be fairly obvious that gay marriage is no such thing. So the author's main point -- that we should not forget about gay issues other than marriage -- makes sense to me.

You've raised two objections to the article:

1 - Gays and lesbians should have the choice whether they want to marry or not -- so, if the author thinks gay marriage is not all that and a bag of chips, he's hurting the chances of gays who do want to marry.

** I don't see anything in the article saying that gays should not marry. He does say that many LGBTs have bigger issues to deal with (violence, employment discrimination), and he says that married gays shouldn't be held up as being "better than" gays who choose not to marry. Your argument doesn't address those points (but it does address something he didn't actually say).

2 - He's a pompous intellectual bore.

** I see your point here (I don't want to write like that myself!). The writing style strikes me as a non-native English speaker's imitation of quasi-academic prose. I'm inclined to cut some slack here. It's hard enough to write with good style (I'm thinking of Orwell's great essay "Politics and the English Language" here) in your native language, and I think non-native speakers are more likely to try to "sound intellectual" without grasping the difference between pretension and sophisticated (but clear) reasoning.

Anyway, #2 is almost an ad-hominem attack, which implies that we don't have to take his argument seriously not because of flaws in the
16. 2013-08-11 15:37  
My tablet sucks... it entered the comment before I was done with it.


... not because of flaws in the argument but because of the kind of person he is. That's a debating no-no because it distracts from the topic.

As for the "state" argument -- I don't think I fully agree with him, but I'm out of time for today.
17. 2013-08-12 14:55  
I am agree with plin.
LGBT should understand on "words Playing" and This "words playing" often used by Religion.

What is response when people playing words?
you should able to kick out the words from mind quickly, and let the words gone by wind quickly by giving attention to other things.
Playing words just wasting time and Sin.
Or you do not need to read every paragraph, do not worry u will lost some information in each paragraph.That is not your fault.

We are not looking for intellectual but a kindness and honesty

Be simple Author.
18. 2013-08-17 11:09  
A well written piece and very thought provoking. I agree the state should keep out of personal relationships altogether but as one respondant indicated: all states fear anarchy if our personal behaviour isn't regulated, including sexual behaviour. Obviously states have to have laws preventing us physically harming each other or stealing from each other, but where do you draw the line as a state so as to keep society functioning? Not such an easy one to decide.
19. 2013-09-12 16:07  
Some interesting points made both by the author and readers.

I am neither here nor there for marriage, gay or otherwise, but I do agree that there are far bigger issues that need addressing. Marriage is all very nice for those wanting to enter one but being married isn't going to stop you from losing your job because you are gay any more than it will stop your friends and family from disowning you because you love someone of the same sex. Neither will it stop you from being evicted from your home because the person you rent your nest from finds out you are partial to a bit of man-on-man action.

Surely, what we are in greater need of is protection from the kind of discrimination that has the potential to REALLY hurt us?

What I don't understand is why married people in the UK may soon be eligible for a tax break. Surely life is cheaper when you are coupled so shouldn't it be the single folk that get the tax break? And what about those that have been together for years but have chosen not to conform to what is expected of us by getting married? Now there's discrimination for you.

20. 2013-10-01 04:26  
To Optimist72: The issue is not whether you like or dislike the married state, it is about equality. For those who wish to commit in marriage, there are no problems for heterosexuals. However, commitment in marriage is largely based on love and having the same rights to property inheritance and to visiting your wife/husband should he/she be medically ill. If a sick or dying person only has a partner, medical doctors may go to the family instead of consulting with the partner. But, if the sick person is married (homosexually or heterosexually) then the doctors and lawyers must honor the married person. I cannot see how you tie in jobs or loosing your home (terrible disasters) but link them to marriage? You are comparing apples to oranges.
I am a married Canadian lesbian and I can tell you to joy we both felt when we were able to legally marry. I can say "my wife" to numerous organizations and it carries weight. Human rights and equality has to be the basis of a just society.

21. 2013-10-12 09:28  
To Paula: Thanks for your feedback.
22. 2013-10-20 08:31  
To Paula:

Correct me if i am wrong but isn't the key issue here about equality?  Assuming i am right then i am not comparing apples to oranges at all.  Allow me to explain by using a hypothetical situation.

You have been married to your wife for, say 6 months.  I on the other hand have been with my boyfriend for 25 years; neither of us felt the need to get married so we never did. Now, the train our partners are travelling on to work derails and sadly, both pass away.  At the hospital, the doctors consult you directly as you chose to marry yet they refuse to talk to me, choosing to talk to the family of my boyfriend instead.  I am not able to plan or have a say in the funeral of the man i loved and shared the last 25 years of my life with, because we were not married.  Things worsen when i am told that as we were not married, unlike you, i am not entitled to 100% of his pension or the death in service payment his employers offer.  Just when i think things can't get any worse, i have to leave the home we bought together 20 years ago because his half goes to his family, because we weren't married, and they want to sell but i can't afford to buy them out.  Thankfully, you are not subjected to any of this because you chose to get married.

Now, can you hand on heart say that any of this is justifiable based on the fact that you and i made different life choices?  To me, all that has happened is that governments the world over are replacing gay / straight discrimination with married / unmarried discrimination.  Interestingly enough, i don't hear anyone crying out for the right to equality for partnered but unmarried people.

Would it not have been better for governments to make it against the law for anybody, be it doctor, funeral director, employer, landlord etc etc to discriminate against someone based upon their sexuality rather than their relationship status?  That way, we would ALL be protected by the law in the scenario mentioned rather than the small minority that are gay and enter a marriage (and let's be honest, don't you think that most of the gays don't actually want to get married but do want their relationship to be treated equally and offered the same protection by the law?)  Of course, your marriage should be protected by law but should it be more protected than my relationship?  I personally think not, after all, it's about equality right.

Taking of which, you mention human rights and the fact that being married carries weight but, forgive me if i come across as being a bit pert, i doubt very much that the United Nations feels that married people should be afforded more protection from discrimination because their relationship has more value than a person that is unmarried but is in a relationship that is equally as loving and commited.  Does anybody even have the right to place more importance, more value, more respect on one form of a relationship than another?  I don't know about you but in my books, nobody has that right, oh, but hang on, governments do apparently.  The message they are clearly sending is this; if you choose not to get married, your relationship is not worthy of our protection in law.  Niiiiice.

I agree that societies are better when more equal but gay marriage, as great as it is for those that want to marry, doesn't make society more equal as it discriminates against people like me that have no desire to get married.

Of course, i may have gotten this all wrong and if that is the case, please accept my apologies.
Comment edited on 2013-10-20 16:48:04

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