Tom Sutcliffe: What's undermining about gay marriage?

Social Studies: Why are opponents of gay marriage so obsessed by sex and so little concerned with love?
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The Independent Online

There was a predictable explosion of froth and foam in reaction to the news that gay couples may be allowed to register civil partnerships in church. The richly comical Melanie Phillips – who goes off like a whole packet of Mentos in a bathtub of Coke when the provocation is right – excoriated the Prime Minister for his feeble capitulation to political correctness and announced that "we are fast reaching the stage where upholding biblical sexual standards will become the morality that dare not speak its name".

She wasn't specific about which sexual standards she had in mind here, though I'm guessing from the context that it wasn't the one that enjoins biblical literalists to stone adulterers to death. It's possible that Melanie regrets our spineless modern relativism in this regard, but you have to choose your battles and even she may recognise that the reinstatement of capital punishment for a bit on the side wouldn't be an easy sell. What she was worried about, bluntly, was buggers.

And, as is usually the case when people start shouting about the undermining of traditional marriage, what was most striking was the implicit contempt for the institution that emerges from conservative arguments. Let's take "undermining" for a start – a phrase that suggests gay couples are tunnelling beneath the foundations of our civic fabric so that the entire thing will one day collapse with a terrible roar. Do the opponents of gay marriage really believe that the only thing keeping the building standing is discrimination?

More to the point, why are opponents of gay marriage so obsessed by sex and so little concerned with love? Because procreation and child-raising are at the heart of the sacrament, they reply sternly. But that can't really be true – otherwise those heart-warming stories of pensioner marriages wouldn't be heart-warming at all, but a distasteful mockery of a traditional virtue. And couples who didn't plan to have children, or knew that they couldn't, shouldn't be permitted a church marriage either.

Those gay couples who want their marriages celebrated in church recognise a larger truth I think – even though I suspect quite a few of them might well agree with Phillips that marriage can benefit children (however they arrive to make a family complete). They recognise that marriage is a promise – to sacrifice momentary and private gratification in the interests of a richer engagement. And that it is a commitment as well, to push through the dull stuff in the interests of long-term fidelity and trust.

I don't suppose any more of them are going to be able to keep the promise in the long run than heterosexuals, but it is genuinely baffling to me that social conservatives aren't pleased that they should want to try. Far from scrambling for inconsistent and incoherent arguments to exclude them they should welcome them as allies.

Please – not this act of charity

"It's for charity," is often the real-world equivalent of the expelliarmus charm in the Harry Potter stories – a verbal formula which only has to be uttered aloud to successfully repel hostile attacks. One does occasionally wonder though. The ghastly picture of Neil and Christine Hamilton recreating that scene from Ghost in which Patrick Swayze guides Demi Moore's hands over the liquid clay is surely a case in point.

It was staged to "raise awareness" of a Muscular Dystrophy fund-raiser – which I suppose it has now done, though one of the things we're aware of is that the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign knows no mercy when it comes to getting our attention. It also raised my awareness of Christine Hamilton's planned trip to Machu Picchu on another Muscular Dystrophy fund-raiser. "I am NOT asking you to fund an adventure holiday for me," she writes on a web-page soliciting donations, explaining that she's paid all the costs. She then goes on to acknowledge that it will be "immensely rewarding and uplifting for me" and explain that she needs our support "to make it all worthwhile".

No donations recorded at all at the time of writing, which doesn't entirely surprise me. Very good cause, I'm sure, but why would anyone want to redirect their donation so that it has the ancillary effect of making Christine Hamilton feel better about her Peruvian expedition? And couldn't we sponsor her to do something of more immediate social value – like keeping her clothes on?

Blades, etchings and edge of reason

The Telegraph reports that Graham Short, a professional engraver, has successfully etched the phrase, "Nothing is impossible" on the cutting edge of a razor blade – supporting this claim with a magnified photograph of the result. Apparently Mr Short had to work only at night, because of traffic vibrations, and mucked up around 150 razor blades before he finally got it right. The razor blade is now on sale with a price tag of £47,500.

I'm not interested, frankly, but if Mr Short dropped his prices a little I wouldn't mind commissioning a piece: the phrase, "This is a complete waste of time" to be engraved in a spiral around the tip of a sewing needle. It would be the centrepiece of my planned Museum of Nugatory Human Achievement.