In the 19th century, the people who I write about were much taken with the idea of 'free love'. Those of us who came of age in the sixties and seventies are more likely to associate the phrase with the licentiousness of the 'permissive society', whose membership forms seemed so elusive at the time. In fact, the term referred to something else entirely. This was the idea that the law had no place in regulating human sexual behaviour, that 19th century marriage was an institution that dehumanised women by making them the property of men, and that marriage was not a free choice due to the social and legal coercion directed against those who chose to not to get married. Ending legal marriage was therefore seen as a process of emancipation.Marriage destroys love through property.Henry Seymour, individualist anarchist, 1888.
As a happily unmarried person, I have some sympathy with them. I have seen perfectly content partners turned into warring spouses due to the expectations and pressures that marriage can bring to bear. However, there are many other blissful and lasting marriages amongst my friends and acquaintances and who would deny them the right to celebrate and formalise their relationship through marriage? Well, quite a few if they were gay.
Whereas, many of the causes that those 19th century radical battled for have been won and the decision to enter into a legal relationship is mainly a free choice, the law still puts on its sternest face, not to force people to get married, but to deny them the right to do so if they choose. The arguments pitted against freedom of choice and equality before the law range from outright bigotry, through doctrinal rigidity, to elaborate sophistries; none impress. So, though marriage is not for me, I am delighted that New Zealand has at last made it available to everyone who might want it, just as the right not to get married remains.
Legislative assemblies can be forbiddingly formal places, but here human happiness intruded as a decision was celebrated to at last accept full legal equality for gay people. And what a touching scene it was.