The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage

William Quill

David Cameron

In his speech to Conservative Party delegates at their conference in Manchester earlier this month, David Cameron spoke on the question of gay marriage,
“I once stood before a Conservative conference and said it shouldn’t matter whether commitment was between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and another man. You applauded me for that. Five years on, we’re consulting on legalising gay marriage.
And to anyone who has reservations, I say: Yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”

William Quill is Director of Policy of Young Fine Gael. He writes here in a personal capacity. He also blogs

This still seems counter-intuitive to some. Surely the conservative approach would be especially hesitant to alter an institution so fundamental to traditional values? First off, this has been a slow and cautious change, as Cameron himself was as recently as 2003 vocal in his opposition to the repeal of Section 28, a law that forbade “promotion” of homosexuality in schools, effectively prohibiting any honest reference to the matter. In 2009, he apologised for his support of that measure.

wedding cake

More broadly, the change in views on marriage reflects attitudes over the past two decades towards homosexual relationships. This change in understanding is appropriate given our modern appreciation of the general equality of all relationships, and I genuinely feel that it can only strengthen the position of marriage in society. How could allowing more people commit to each other send anything but a positive message about the value of marriage? Some assume that the burden of proof lies on those arguing for a change in the law. Given that we now recognize that society was wrong to have criminalized homosexual behaviour and to have widely discriminated against gay people, any remaining aspects of discrimination deserve particular scrutiny.

two grooms

If the state is to acknowledge the relationships of couples, it should not discriminate on the basis of the sex of the two partners. By acknowledging that gay couples merit recognition, but only in the form of civil partnership, the state perpetuates the concept that the love between a man and a woman is superior to that between two men or two women. A move towards equality simply acknowledges that the care and love a couple show each other should be recognised in a way that they believe best reflects their commitment.

For myself, this is fundamentally about the hope that I might settle down one day into happily married life, hopefully in a lifelong relationship, the same reasons anyone wants to marry.


The clearest reason that those who oppose allowing gay couples to marry present relates to children. Clearly a gay couple cannot produce children in the way that a man and a woman can. But I would contend both that there are reasons to support marriage outside of the benefits to children, and that the benefits to children are one of the strongest arguments for marriage equality, given that there children currently being rasied by gay couples.

old couple

While raising children is an important reason to recognize marriage, it is not the only one. We also recognize the importance of personal bonds. Studies on this, and just plain common sense, will tell you that those who are married in committed relationships live longer, healthier and happier lives. Of course having a constant, loving companion can be such a comfort in life, there for each other, for better for worse, in sickness and in health.

Suppose an elderly couple, who are past child-bearing age, and who have no desire to adopt. No one begrudges them the right to marry. We feel instinctively that by making the commitment to be with each other in all circumstances, they will be the better for it. They have that emotional security of the other’s bond that they will be there for each other. There are benefits not just to the couple, but to society at large, to people not being isolated.

Indeed, the marital vows themselves emphasize only this part of marriage:
…. will you take …. to be your husband?
Will you love him, comfort him,
honour and care for him,
and, forsaking all others,
be faithful to him as long as you both shall live? (Book of Common Prayer)

Even those who see marriage’s primary function to provide for children acknowledge the exceptions of the infertile and the elderly, so why cannot they simply extend that privilege to gay couples? We could treat a gay couple under the same terms in law as any other couple where there is a difficulty with fertility.

But on the question of children, it is certainly relevant that there are same-sex couples raising children. This can happen because of adoption, artificial insemination or a child from a previous relationship. And it will happen, parental instincts exist among all to some degree, regardless of sexuality. At present in Irish law, only one of the parents can be officially recognized as such, and the other treated in law as a stranger. This would change as of right if gay couples could marry.

gay couple with children

Growing up, role models are important for children for their character formation, but not ultimately for their ideas of sexual and gender identity. Any two people will have different characteristics and traits, to give the children they are raising guidance and example. The values children learn from their parents, from personal integrity to respect for others are not exclusively male or female. Unsurprisingly, this has been scrutinized in recent years, and there has been no empirical evidence to suggest an inherent value to the parenting ability of a man and a woman, as against a same-sex couple. When tested in a federal court in the United States in 2010, those seeking to uphold a ban on same-sex marriage could present no such evidence, when research anywhere in the world would have sufficed.

Conservatives promote the benefits of marriage in general, that it increases stability in the home, which is good for children. On the whole, I would agree with them. But why should this become any less true for children raised by gay couples. It would mean so much more to such children that they could respond to any question from curious friends by simply saying, “My parents are married”. In simple terms, are children being raised by a gay couple better off, worse off, or no different, if their parents can marry?

wedding rings

There is civil partnership. But these beneficial effects have so much a firmer backing with the authority and tradition of marriage. Further, justice requires that conditions of people’s lives determined by government be provided equally for all.

Those considering the welfare of children should also give a moment’s thought too to the many gay children, for whom the normalization of gay relationships would lessen their adolescent anxiety, that they could have the same hopes for married family life as others, and reduce the likelihood of their being bullied in school.

Marriage is something conservatives should see as a desirable option for gay couples, and to be promoted and celebrated, as couples think of settling down together, rather than something to be grudgingly accepted as inevitable when it happens.

Our common view of marriage is as something that strengthens all bonds of family life. This would be reinforced if gay couples could marry. We would not have to seek refuge for acceptance in separate communities and pride organizations. The ties between generations and across families as in-laws would be defined in terms appreciated through centuries of tradition, properly integrated in our communities.

Edmund Burke

In 1790, Edmund Burke wrote that “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” This is a view of society that is not static, but one that we are willing to alter when there are clear grounds for doing so.

Gay couples desire the comfort, stability, recognition and security of marriage just as others do. It has proven successful in a growing number of countries; it will make gay childrena nd teenagers feel more included in society; it will provide Constitutional support too to children being raised by gay couples, and it will give peace of mind to the parents and wider family of gay people. With all this, those who oppose must be able to present a compelling social benefit to preventing me and others from marrying.